By Eric Fusfield the B’nai B’rith International director of legislative affairs and the deputy director of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy
“Let’s not mince words,” President Obama told an audience at American University on August 5, in defense of the Iran nuclear agreement. “The choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy or some form of war. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not three months from now, but soon.”
The following day, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) took issue with the dichotomy offered by the president. “Some say the only answer to this is war. I don’t believe so,” Schumer said. “I believe we should go back and try to get a better deal…The nations of the world should join us in that.”
This disagreement between two senior officials of the same party raises two crucial questions for both Democratic and Republican members of Congress to ponder as they decide how to vote on the Joint Plan of Action (JCPOA) when Congress passes judgment next month. Is there really no alternative to the deal other than war? And do opponents of the agreement actually advocate war?
The answer to the second question is almost universally no. Many of the deal’s fiercest critics, such as Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) have called not for war, but for a better agreement. So why would the JCPOA’s supporters imply that their opponents prefer war as a policy option?
Framing the issue as a diplomacy-vs.-war dilemma helps the deal’s backers channel unhappy memories of the debate that preceded the U.S. operation in Iraq 12 years ago. We chose to enter a costly war once before, the reasoning goes; let’s not repeat that mistake. Invoking the specter of war also minimizes the arguments of those who oppose the JCPOA on the merits; it is easier to quell serious debate if critics can simply be dismissed as warmongers.
But regardless of how one felt about the prospect of military conflict in 2003 or 2015, it seems clear that other options remain available with respect to Iran today. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey acknowledged as much in his recent testimony before the Senate. “I can tell you that we have a range of options and I always present them” to the president, he told the Senate panel.
Increased sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and the credible threat of military force could go a long way toward securing a better agreement than the one currently being deliberated over. With sanctions still in place – or tightened – Iran would have a strong incentive to slow its march toward nuclear weapons if the contracts with multinational energy firms Iran hopes to negotiate are suddenly put at risk. Also in peril would be Iran’s access to the more than $100 billion in frozen assets it hopes to retrieve.
DIME, the military and government acronym for soft power tools, accounts for the diplomatic, informational, military and economic aspects of American power. All of these instruments could be applied to maintain pressure on Iran to curb its nuclear program while the U.S. and its partners seek a better agreement.
The U.S. has significant leverage against Iran, a fact that was reflected during the negotiations by Iran’s continued insistence on the immediate lifting of sanctions to ease the country’s troubled economic plight. If, as National Security Advisor Susan Rice said earlier this year, “A bad deal is worse than no deal,” how did we arrive at a stark choice between this flawed agreement and war?
Certainly the debate over the JCPOA needs to be informed by a clear understanding of America’s options and how best to maximize them in order to prevent a nuclear Iran. In that light, false dichotomies such as diplomacy vs. war are unhelpful distractions.