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The GOP's new Iran deal plan is cynical, dishonest, and politically brilliant

Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL), one of the Republicans pushing for the new strategy on the Iran deal.
Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL), one of the Republicans pushing for the new strategy on the Iran deal.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Republican lawmakers, having lost the battle to block the Iran nuclear deal in Congress, appear to be considering a new strategy: turn the deal into a never-ending political circus.

The old and busted GOP plan was to vote on a measure formally disapproving of the Iran nuclear deal. Republicans could express their rejection of the deal, forcing President Obama to veto their resolution. That way they'd get to oppose the deal without actually taking responsibility for finding an alternative. But Obama got more supporters in the Senate than was expected — enough that he won't have to veto — and the resolution became something of an embarrassment for Republicans.

So now the new hotness among Republicans is that they shouldn't bother voting to disapprove of the Iran nuclear deal, and instead should vote for a resolution that, according to Politico's Jake Sherman, "would delay a disapproval vote because they believe Obama has not disclosed some elements of the deal." The entire caucus is not yet on board, but it looks like they're moving in this direction.

The Washington Post's Greg Sargent called this "snatching defeat from the jaws of defeat," which is a great line, but to me this looks like a much stronger political strategy for Republicans, even if it is also cynical and dishonest. So much stronger, in fact, that I'm sort of surprised they're only coming around to it now.

Why Republicans love this new Iran deal strategy: even less responsibility, more political controversy

Republicans, in this new plan, would argue that President Obama didn't live up to his promise to fully inform Congress about the Iran nuclear deal, so therefore Congress cannot vote on whether to approve the deal.

This is not really true, but that's beside the point. The point is that Republicans don't like their current strategy because it means, after they vote on their doomed resolution, they will have conceded the Iran deal as politically legitimate.

This new strategy would allow Republicans to argue in perpetuity that the Iran nuclear deal is somehow illegitimate, without ever actually proving that. It would create a definitionally irresolvable political "controversy" over the deal, allowing Republicans to raise money and hold hearings and go on conservative talk radio for many years to come, making conspiratorial claims about the Obama administration withholding some vital information.

It would look, in other words, a lot like Republicans' years-long political campaign over Benghazi. In that campaign, the focus was almost never on actual US mistakes in Libya — which are substantial but complex — but rather was on misleading conspiracy theories and nonsense political controversies.

Similarly, this new GOP anti-deal strategy would let them avoid the actual substance of the Iran deal, and instead focus on dark claims about self-inspections and the like. This not only lets Republicans direct the focus to talk-radio-friendly conspiracy theories, but also allows them to assert, for years to come, that Obama never followed correct procedure on getting congressional approval, and thus that the Iran deal is illegitimate.

The first such conspiracy theory they appear to be going with — the first of many, I am sure — is the alleged "secret side deal."

The "secret side deal" controversy, explained

Republicans' argument is basically this: President Obama promised to send Congress the full text of the Iran nuclear once it was reached (true), after which Congress has 60 days to review before voting on whether to disapprove of the deal (true), but Obama did not technically complete his end of the bargain (false) because he did not send Congress the text of the "secret side deal" with Iran (complicated; see below). Therefore the 60-day congressional review never happened (false), thus the deal is illegitimate (false).

The alleged "secret side deal" is an agreement between the International Atomic Energy Agency (the UN nuclear watchdog) and Iran over how the IAEA will conduct certain inspections and verification procedures of Iranian facilities, as well as IAEA investigations into past elements of Iran's nuclear program that may have had a military component.

The IAEA has such agreements with every country where it works, including the United States. Because the IAEA wants as much access as possible, and because countries do not necessarily want the details of their nuclear facilities broadcast to the world, the details of these agreements are typically secret. That is the case with the IAEA's agreement with Iran.

It is not a "side deal," nor is its existence secret; the nuclear deal requires the IAEA to monitor Iranian facilities, so naturally the IAEA was going to work out the logistical details of that with Tehran. As nuclear experts Mark Hibbs and Thomas Shea explained recently in the Hill, anyone with the most basic knowledge of the IAEA understands that this is how it works, and that this secrecy ultimately helps the IAEA — and thus the US — against Iran's nuclear program:

The IAEA has safeguards agreement with 180 countries. All have similar information protection provisions. Without these, governments would not open their nuclear programs for multilateral oversight. So IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano was acting by the book on August 5 when he told members of Congress that he couldn’t share with them the details of a verification protocol the IAEA had negotiated with Iran as part of a bilateral "roadmap" to address unresolved allegations about Iran’s nuclear behavior.

Like Iran, the United States has a safeguards agreement with the IAEA. Were lawmakers from Iran’s Majlis to ask the IAEA to see documents concerning its negotiations with the United States, members of Congress would presumably be pleased to hear that Amano’s answer would also be no. Of course, Iran may choose to share its information with other parties and, in this case, Iran provided details of the roadmap to negotiators from the U.S. Department of State. Congress may not be happy that it is not in the loop, but it is not up to the IAEA to decide whether to share information about where and how its personnel do their work in Iran.

Republicans are now pretending that this is all a big surprise and that they have a right to see the complete text of any IAEA agreements. In fact, there is nothing guaranteeing Congress review over IAEA agreements with Iran. The IAEA would never agree to such a thing (fortunately for the US, which has its own agreements with the IAEA), and neither would the Obama administration.

Don't take my word for it: You can read, for yourself, the law that Congress passed articulating its authority to disapprove the Iran deal. Section 135 describes the congressional review period, and specifically articulates the documents that the Obama administration is required to give Congress. There is nothing in there about the text of IAEA safeguards agreements with Iran.

The "secret side deal" controversy is designed to be impossible to resolve

It seems likely that Republicans will counter this by arguing that they didn't put that into the law because they didn't anticipate such IAEA agreements. But, to be clear, this is a lie. The IAEA has safeguards agreements with 180 countries; it is a standard practice. The Iran nuclear deal requires the IAEA to conduct extensive monitoring and verification of Iranian facilities, so by definition it would compel the IAEA to work out safeguards agreements with Iran.

The next line of Republican argumentation is going to be that, sure, IAEA safeguards agreements are routine, and sure it is standard practice that the text of such agreements is not opened up to curious third parties such as the US Congress. But someone will inevitably leak some prejudicial and selective details to make those agreements look bad — it's already happened — which Republicans will seize on to argue that there are "questions" about this particular IAEA agreement or another and thus they must be granted permission to see it.

But they know this demand would be impossible: The moment the IAEA starts opening up its safeguards agreements to satisfy domestic political controversies in one country or another, its credibility will be devastated.

Imagine you are a head of state in some country with a nuclear program: Would you let in nuclear inspectors, knowing that one day if American lawmakers decide to get up in arms, they could compel the IAEA to release all sorts of secret details about your country's facilities? Maybe you still would, but maybe you wouldn't, and that's a risk the IAEA can't take.

The controversy is thus by definition impossible to resolve. And that's precisely the point. Republicans can stir up controversy about the IAEA agreements, but the IAEA can never fully address that controversy without publishing documents and thus destroying its own credibility. Thus Republicans know they can hammer at this for years, sending out fundraising emails and going on talk radio to decry the Obama administration's nefarious dealings, with no fear that the controversy will ever go away.

The Benghazified future of Iran deal politics

The future of Republican opposition to the Iran nuclear deal will thus probably look something like the never-ending political circus over the Benghazi attacks.

There will be various conspiracy theories and outrage stories that will live on for years in right-wing media long after they have been debunked. You will hear about "Obama's secret side deal with the IAEA" from at least one family member at Thanksgiving.

Various mid- and senior-level Obama administration officials will come in for sub-controversies over the IAEA agreements. Maybe a House investigation will find some emails from one White House official to another explaining how to counter Republican arguments, and this will be spun up as another "talking points" controversy. Maybe Republicans will succeed in tarring an official or two such that they will become too politically toxic to join a future Democratic administration.

There may even be a symbolic legal challenge or two; perhaps a state-level attorney general will try to find standing to file a case against Secretary of State John Kerry over nuclear deal implementation.

The point will not merely be to score political points, although that's certainly part of it. The point will be to allow Republicans to oppose the Iran nuclear deal not based on the specific text of the deal — anti-deal groups have been losing this argument quite badly — but rather by arguing that the deal is illegitimate on a technicality. They can thus continue to oppose the nuclear deal without having to provide a realistic alternative, and because the controversy is irresolvable they can continue to mine it for years to come. It allows them to evade responsibility on a complex foreign policy issue, which they never really wanted, and settle in as pure opposition.