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Dear groups that oppose the Iran deal: Here's why you're losing, and how to fix it

Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty

If one of the interest groups that opposes the Iran nuclear deal were to ask my advice for how to more effectively fight the deal — and I very much doubt that would happen, but bear with me for a moment — then here is what I would tell them:

You are losing the debate right now. Even with last week's lucky break — a misleading AP article that had Washington debating for several days whether Iran will "inspect itself" (it won't) — the net result was that two Democratic senators who were on the fence came out in support of the deal. Your ultimate goal, that enough Democrats oppose the deal that you can kill it in Congress, is drifting farther away.

The reason you're losing is that you're focusing almost exclusively on the aspect of the Iran deal where your argument is weakest: arms control and nuclear nonproliferation.

Instead, you should be focusing on the aspect of the deal where your argument is stronger, the experts are more sympathetic, and our allies are more divided: Middle Eastern security issues.

I think this argument would be so much stronger, in fact, that I'm baffled as to why you haven't taken it up — but I have a theory as to what may be holding you back.

Stop trying to win on arms control and nuclear nonproliferation

IAEA nuclear inspectors at Iran's nuclear facility at Natanz in 2014 (KAZEM GHANE/AFP/Getty)

IAEA nuclear inspectors at Iran's nuclear facility at Natanz in 2014. (KAZEM GHANE/AFP/Getty)

The arms control/nuclear nonproliferation argument is a loser for you. And yet it is the argument you have focused on almost exclusively, trying — and failing — to persuade fence-sitting Democrats and their constituents that the nuclear deal will not effectively limit Iran's nuclear program.

The expert community is almost unanimously lined up against you. (Although, whichever of you persuaded the New York Times to only ever quote the last two arms control experts who oppose the deal, and to ignore the many dozens who support it, kudos. My hat is off.)

In 2002 and 2003, when the debate was about whether to invade Iraq, it was easy enough for you to write off the nerds in the white lab coats who insisted Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. Today the internet has changed things, and those nerds have access to social media and publishing platforms that allow them to argue in support of the deal. Worse, they're using those platforms to push back against you directly.

You had hoped the narrative would be this: the White House desperately defending against scary-sounding details from the nuclear deal. That way, Democrats would feel more comfortable breaking with the president and killing the deal.

Instead, the narrative you've gotten is this: experts versus lobbyists. When observers see you going 10 rounds with a bunch of nuclear nerds over some fine-grained technical detail, the lesson they walk away with is, "The experts support the deal, and the experts say these lobby groups are lying."

Iran deal opponents: You have a polarization problem

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) recently unloaded on Sen Orinn Hatch (R-UT) for failing to hold hearings on the Republican health-care bill. Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call / Getty

Sen. Claire McCaskill, who was considered on the fence over whether to support the Iran deal but came out in support this weekend. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

This is a losing media message and a losing political strategy. It polarizes the debate. Any polarization is bad for you, because it makes Democrats want to side more with their president, and makes it harder for them to join Republicans in opposing the deal.

But this is a kind of polarization that's even worse for you, because the more time you spend fighting with the arms control experts, the more you end up polarizing them against you — and thus pushing them onto the same side as the White House.

This makes it much easier for Democrats to support Obama and the nuclear deal. It's always easy to side with "the experts," and the narrative you're helping entrench is that the experts support this deal.

Credit where it's due, you've done a great job spinning up your preexisting support base. People who were always going to oppose the nuclear deal, and were always going to oppose any major foreign policy initiative from the Obama administration, are more convinced than ever. Peek into conservative media or the right-wing corners of Twitter, and it's all they're talking about: a 24-day wait for inspections, Iranian "self-inspections" — every talking point is there.

This polarization is going to be really helpful as the Republican presidential primary continues. The candidates and maybe even the party itself are being pushed to accept, as 100 percent orthodoxy, that this deal should be killed no matter the cost. If Congress fails to kill the deal, having a Republican president crazy enough to spike a major diplomatic agreement on day one may be your best bet.

Maybe you've already given up on Congress and this is your real goal now — it would certainly help explain things. But there is another approach you could take, and that frankly I'm baffled as to why you don't take, that would go much better for you.

Middle East security issues are a much stronger argument against the Iran nuclear deal

khamenei sentences

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (Leader.ir - Pool/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

If you run a group that opposes the nuclear deal and you hired me, and I really wanted to kill the deal, then the very first thing I would tell you to do would be to immediately cede the nuclear issue.

Here is what you could say, and I'm going to block-quote this section just to make it extra clear that I am not asserting these arguments as my own but rather illustrating what I believe is a more potentially effective argument against the nuclear deal:

Sure, the nuclear nerds are right that this deal almost certainly prevents Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and that's nice, but it's not as big of a deal as Obama thinks it is, and it comes at a cost that vastly outweighs the benefits.

Iran has been working on its nuclear program for decades. Let the Iranians fiddle with their rinky-dink centrifuges, and maybe in a few years they'll have a ramshackle weapons program like Pakistan's. Israel's nuclear weapons program will remain superior, and we can make it more superior, once that Israel-hating Obama is out of office. We can help the Saudis build a bomb. A nuclear Iran can be counterbalanced. The deal's benefits, even in a best-case outcome, aren't that beneficial.

What we should really be worried about is Iran's growing influence in the Middle East, which is a much bigger threat than its nuclear program and is much harder to counterbalance. Iran is actively and violently opposed to America's allies and interests in the region. That influence has been growing despite their economy cratering under sanctions, and despite them putting their nuclear program on pause to negotiate this deal.

This deal won't solve the problem of Iran meddling, sponsoring (or committing) violence, and undercutting American allies across the Middle East. Everyone agrees on that. And in fact a number of Mideast security experts say this deal could make that problem worse.

It could accelerate the Iran-Saudi arms race, for example. Iran will refocus energy and money away from its loser of a nuclear program to sponsoring terrorist groups, which it's very good at. And even if Iran only puts 1 percent of its sanctions relief toward its foreign policy agenda, that is unacceptable because we and our allies are already losing ground to their influence. But maybe more to the point: The US has only really threatened to bomb Iran over its nuclear program, not over, say, its support for anti-Israel terrorist groups. If the Iranian nuke problem goes away, then so does the threat of American bombing, and Iran now has less holding it back from terrorizing other countries in the region — that are also our allies.

Four major reasons this sort of argument, more meritorious or no, would be much more effective:

1) Your biggest mistake all along has been accepting Obama's premise that preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon is of paramount importance. If you were to instead challenge that premise, you would be in a much stronger position to move the conversation away from arms control (on which you're losing) to broader security issues (where the terrain is more favorable), and you could raise questions and debate about the very premise of Obama's deal.

2) This line of argument fixes the problem of deal opponents being "against" the experts. Unlike the arms control community, Mideast security experts are legitimately divided over the Iran nuclear deal. A lot of honest-to-god experts in the field oppose the deal. If you focus the debate on Mideast security issues, then you can legitimately say there is real uncertainty among experts.

3) This sort of argument is also more politically attractive, because it makes the argument about Iran rather than about Obama.

Arguing that the nuclear deal doesn't effectively limit Iran's nuclear program, as you've done, is really an argument that Obama did a bad job. This invites people to project their preexisting opinions about Barack Obama. So for someone who believes Obama is a weak and feckless naif, this idea that he bumbled and appeased his way into a bad deal might ring true. But for anyone who thinks Obama is smart, it likely rings false. It's little wonder that people's opinions about the Iran deal line up with their opinions about Obama.

Instead, you should focus on Iran. You've tried to do this a little by arguing that the deal requires "trusting" Iran, but this has not been effective because imposing stringent inspections and monitoring is the 180-degree opposite of "trusting" and people can see you're lying. Rather, you might have more success by arguing that Iran should only ever be treated with hostility; that it is so dangerous to our interests and allies that we should be focused entirely on containing them, even if it requires the constant threat of force. Better to let them be nuclear than be tolerated.

Sure, there are a whole bunch of flaws with that argument, but who cares? It's an argument that invites people to ask not what they think of Obama, but what they think of Iran. It positions you as not anti-Obama, but as anti-Iran, and it might even make nuclear deal proponents look pro-Iran.

Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer reportedly suggested, in a recent meeting with GOP members of Congress, a strategy a lot like this. According to one of the congressmen present, he said to "pay less attention to all the details" and to "pay more attention to who's on the other side of the ethical debate, and that's Iran." For all the widely derided cynicism of Dermer's advice, it probably would've made your case more effective if you'd listened to him.

4) Lastly, this approach more effectively enlists America's allies in the Middle East. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not been terribly effective at convincing people that the deal will "pave Iran's way to a nuclear bomb," because anyone who is sincerely interested in understanding this issue can see that's nonsense. But he, as well as America's Arab allies in the Gulf, can more convincingly argue that even the slightest easing of tension between the US and Iran — even if it forestalls or prevents an Iranian nuclear bomb — gives Iran greater breathing room to undercut and threaten its regional rivals.

Indeed, as Robert Farley has written, this may be what Israel and Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia see as the bigger threat: not an Iranian nuclear weapon, but rather that the US will become less hostile toward Iran, and thus less likely to attack it on behalf of our allies.

What the hawks want is indefinite militarized confrontation between the United States and Iran. From the perspective of Israel and Saudi Arabia, this is hardly irrational. Iran supports terrorist groups and other non-state actors that like to mess with the Saudis and the Israelis, and both the Saudis and Israelis would like to have the military capabilities of the United States at their disposal.

So why haven't you done this already?

kerry zarif iran talk (RONALD ZAK/AFP/Getty)

Secretary of State John Kerry with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif during negotiations. (RONALD ZAK/AFP/Getty)

Even if you were to drop my suggestion of ceding the nuclear issue entirely — I admit, it would be a big step — you could still make this argument by just suggesting that the nuclear issue is overstated. Or by ignoring the nuclear issue entirely, and merely arguing that the regional security issues are what's really concerning here, are what we should really be discussing, and outweigh any nuclear-specific benefits.

I don't personally find this argument to be persuasive enough to outweigh the benefits of the deal, but I do find it much more persuasive, and I think a lot of other people would as well. It is a real argument that is based in truth and facts, rather than in sleight-of-hand distortions about the text of the nuclear deal. It is also an argument to which at least a moderate number of Mideast security experts are sympathetic, so you would have a lot more experts on your side. And it also helps to explain — quite persuasively — why Israel and Saudi Arabia would oppose a deal that virtually the entire rest of the world seems to support.

It's a line of argument, in other words, that accords with reality instead of asking people to ignore it. That may actually precisely be why anti-deal groups can't make it: They've been using the nuclear issue for years to urge that the US bomb Iran or seek regime change in Iran. Maybe this was cynical all along, that the nuclear issue wasn't really that important to them and these other issues are. But now they've forever wedded themselves to the idea that preventing an Iranian nuclear bomb is the most important thing in the world, and that paradoxically means opposing the deal that is most likely to get them exactly what they've been asking for.

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