If Congress rejects nuclear deal, would US be the pariah?

After 9/11, George W. Bush favored isolation and military action over diplomacy – an approach that didn't win over other countries. Now, the US could again find itself on the outs with others if it rejects the Iran nuclear deal.

Andrew Harnik/AP
Chairman Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee (r.) listens as Secretary of State John Kerry (l. foreground) testifies at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, in Washington, Thursday, July 23, 2015, to review the Iran nuclear agreement.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush played down diplomacy in favor of isolation and military action – unilateral American action if necessary – for dealing with rogue states like Iraq and Iran.

The approach never won the broad support of global powers, instead leaving the United States essentially isolated and criticized, rather than supported, as it sought to address the regime of Saddam Hussein. When Mr. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq in 2003, America was left to largely go it alone.

More than a decade later, the US could once again find itself on the outs with the rest of the world if, after years of painstaking negotiations with other world powers, it ends up rejecting the Iran nuclear deal, some foreign policy experts say.

“After the invasion of Iraq, the United States became the issue in international relations,” says Robert Litwak, director of international security studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “If the US rejects this agreement – after its acceptance elsewhere as a fair deal – the US, not Iran, will become the issue again.”

The potential for America to find itself isolated again over a crucial international security issue could have a deep impact among the US public. Americans’ dislike for being the odd man out in international affairs is seen in polls consistently showing a preference for US-led diplomacy over go-it-alone military intervention. That may help explain why opponents of the Iran deal emphasize that they want “a better deal” with Iran, not no deal at all.

Obama administration officials have seized on the isolation argument, backed by signs that the other powers involved in the negotiations – three European powers, Russia, and China – are already moving forward with Iran based on an assumption that the nuclear deal is done and sanctions on Iran will start to be lifted by the fall. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was in Tehran last week, and European businesses are flooding into Iran to secure a slice of the anticipated boom as the government starts spending in big-ticket projects again.

Secretary of State John Kerry has been quick to issue warnings about the threat of America’s isolation, arguing within days of the deal’s signing in Vienna July 14 that if Congress were to vote down the deal, “Our friends in this effort will desert us.”

The rest of the international community would blame the deal’s failure on the US, Secretary Kerry says. Other powers would lift their sanctions, and Iran, freed from both sanctions and constraints on its nuclear program, would ramp up its uranium enrichment – raising again the specter of military action to halt Iran’s nuclear progress.

“We will be viewed as having killed the opportunity to stop [the Iranians] from having weapons,” Kerry said in remarks aired on CBS’s “Face the Nation” July 19. Iran, he added, “will begin to enrich again, and the greater likelihood is what [President Obama] said the other day – you will have a war.”

It is this argument – that either Congress approves the deal or it condemns the US to fighting on its own a war with Iran – that has irked some in Congress.

“You have turned Iran from being a pariah into now Congress, Congress being a pariah,” Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Kerry when he appeared before the committee last Thursday.

Senator Corker noted in particular his dissatisfaction with what he said was the administration’s portrayal of a stark choice for Congress between the deal negotiated and a go-it-alone military intervention.

“With every detail of the deal that was laid out [in classified briefings by senior administration officials to members of Congress], our witnesses successfully batted them away with the hyperbole that it’s either this deal or war,” he said.

Some Middle East experts worry that rejection of the deal would leave the US and Israel isolated, both in the region and internationally. That is especially true as Gulf Arab states appear to be coming to a consensus of support for the deal – especially in light of the reinforced US strategic support that the Obama administration has been pledging to help counter a deal-emboldened Iran.

America’s isolation in the wake of congressional rejection of the deal would be all the stronger, says Mr. Litwak of the Wilson Center, because it would appear to the rest of the world that the US was turning back to a post-9/11 faith in “regime change” as the only way to deal with rogue states.

The prevailing thinking after 9/11 “was that behavior modification wouldn’t get you there – so you had to deal with [rogue states] through regime change,” he says.

Mr. Obama shelved the “rogue state” concept for dealing with countries like Iran and instead framed it as an “outlier on international law,” Litwak says – an approach more to the liking of the international community.

But critics of the deal say it is actually Obama who is exposing his belief in “regime change” – by promoting a deal that counts on the Iranian government’s transformation over the coming decade.

“You can’t understand the nuclear deal with Iran without believing that in the decade ahead, there will be regime change in Tehran – although they [the deal’s proponents] call it regime transformation,” says Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.

The “irony” that Mr. Dubowitz sees a decade after Bush’s “axis of evil” is that once again, it is “regime change” that the US would deploy to deal with Iran – although, he says, it’s in a form more palatable to the world.

“It’s regime change, but in a sense it’s being flipped on its head,” Dubowitz says.

“In the place of the right advocating force and coercion, you have the left saying, ‘Don’t worry about the details of this deal, because in 10 years’ time when some of the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program are gone, it won’t matter,’ ” he says. “They really believe the deal will have set in motion a chain of events that will change the nature and behavior of this regime.”

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