During my decade working in Washington, those who survived and thrived in the shark tank – regardless of ideology – tended to have one thing in common: an eerie sixth sense for which power-brokers were in it for themselves, and for that treasured minority who were involved in politics for the greater good of the country.
By all accounts, senator Bob Corker, the eminently sane Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, falls into the precious latter camp. He is a grown-up, in the thick of it for all the right reasons. He is also an articulate sceptic of the historic Iran nuclear deal just struck between the West and the Islamic Republic, after a torturous dozen years. Saying all this, his arguments for rejecting the accord over the pivotal issue of Iran remain as wrong as they can be.
Corker worries that the White House has crossed red line after red line through the negotiation process, as the US has shifted its ultimate strategic goal from dismantling Iran’s nuclear capability to merely managing its proliferation. And indeed, most of the accord’s rather tough strictures on Iran run their course in 10 years, with all of them dropping away in 15.
He is sceptical that, with such a finite time frame, Iran can be stopped over the long term from developing nuclear weapons. All this is entirely, utterly, correct. Iran can now, in return for significant sanctions relief along the way, merely wait out its western interlocutors, and in 15 years at the latest proceed on its merry way to becoming a nuclear state. That is indeed the long-term strategic risk the West is taking in signing on to this accord, and the senator is entirely correct to forthrightly acknowledge it.
But here Corker wades into deeper waters. He wonders if it is worth dismantling painstakingly constructed global sanctions that have taken more than a decade to build, all on account of this limited, flawed deal. The senator and I both come from what are known in America as “fly-over” states, the middle of the country the two coasts dismissively think are only a geographical impediment to commuting between New York and LA. As someone proud of Middle America, let me use an idiom from there the senator will understand: the sanctions horse left the stable long ago.
For does anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the foreign policies of the Europeans, British, Chinese, and Russians (the other parties to the negotiations) think it remotely possible the sanctions regime could now remain in place if the US walked away from this flawed, but best-case deal? The real choice isn’t between surrender and the globally-backed sanctions regime against Iran of today. Instead, it lies between accepting this best-we-could-do-in-the-real-world deal and walking away and leaving a sanctions regime in utter disarray, with the international coalition having fallen apart. Without a deal, the new strategic options would be either war with Iran to take out its nuclear programme, or helpless acquiescence to Tehran joining the nuclear club.
Things will not stay as they are; we must move forward and hope over the intervening 15 years that an Iran involved in the international community will fundamentally change. It is a high risk bet, but a far better one than assuming the present will somehow rigidly stay the same in the future.