One can and must begin to take actions on Day One against the Iran deal, and all those who have spoke out on the deal except Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) have vowed to do that. If one tries to up the ante, to distinguish oneself, by arguing one will actually end the Iran deal on Day One, reality intrudes.
A raft of foreign policy experts point to the near-impossibility of pulling the plug on day one. Max Boot writes: “We can re-impose unilateral sanctions, probably with the stroke of a president’s pen, but we cannot do the same with the multilateral sanctions that have truly put pressure on Tehran. If the next president is to have any hope of putting Iran back into the sanctions box, he or she will have to do some heroic diplomatic work to convince our allies to go along or else risk open economic warfare with our closest allies.” He also notes, “The deal that Obama has reached makes clear that Iran will exit the treaty if the U.S. even thinks about re-imposing sanctions, thus escaping any limitations on its nuclear program. It could then dash to a nuclear breakout. By that point, Iran would have pocketed well over $100 billion in benefits, so it could have its cake and eat it too: getting both a nuclear weapon and a financial windfall. And it would be able to do so with at least the tacit support of the international community, because absent pretty clear evidence of Iranian cheating, Tehran would be able to blame the new American administration for destroying the deal.” In short, it is a good campaign line to say you’ll pull the plug on day one, but taken literally, it makes no sense.
Likewise, Robert Kagan tells me, “Work will have to be done with allies to get them on board. They’re not going to turn on a dime just because we snap our fingers. Without laying the groundwork for a shift in policy, we’ll be completely isolated and ineffective.” He continues: “The next president is going to want to assess where Iran’s program stands, so we know how much time we have; what the state of U.S. military readiness is, since a major part of changing course will be making sure that the military option is viable not to mention assessing where the American people are. Nor can we predict what else may be going on when the next president takes over. Is there a confrontation in the South China Sea? Has Russia taken action in the Baltics? Is ISIS on the verge of taking over all of Syria?”
What about doing this legwork and consulting with allies during the transition? Kagan scoffs, saying that’s not how the world works. We have one president at a time and one commander in chief at a time. No president-elect can sit down with the Pentagon to scope out military options or meet with a foreign head of government to agree on a strategy while another president is in the Oval Office. Trying to do so would set off a distracting firestorm of criticism.
Sure enough, former senator Jim Talent told the Weekly Standard that we should “work to get rid of it,” which is nothing like unilaterally pulling the plug on the Iran deal on Day One. Moreover, Walker himself has talked about starting to unravel the deal as soon as he is elected. Perhaps this is a case of political operatives trying to make up an issue that does not exist. Bush’s camp, meanwhile, reiterated in a written statement: “I have repeatedly said is a terrible deal. Congress should reject it and it would be best to do so before Iran is given more than $100 billion in sanctions relief that they can use to further destabilize the region. Should it be upheld, as President I would begin immediately to responsibly get us out of this deal, with a comprehensive strategy that is responsive to the conditions at the time and confronts Iran’s continued pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, its support for terrorism and instability, its ballistic missile proliferation, and its horrific human rights record.”
So is there any real difference between the two? They both want to get out of any disastrous deal, but it is going to be an arduous task. In reality, there is virtually no difference between the top candidates on their insistence on unraveling the deal if it is in place. The differences will come in displaying command of the facts, demonstrating understanding of alliance-building and appreciating the interaction of soft and hard power. It is alluring to think if only we elect the toughest guy, we can get out of an atrocious Iran deal. But if this deal passes, the reality is that Iran will probably be able to move its money around the international banking system, its proxies will be advancing throughout the region, European businesses will be entrenched in Iran’s economy (so getting them out will be a challenge), International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors may have already found evidence of cheating that we will want to present to our allies, and Israel will have its own views as to whether military action is the only recourse. In other words, the next president will come into office facing one gigantic mess.
UPDATE: Walker seems now to be digging in on the notion he could be ready for military action on Day One. Former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams, who is not with any campaign but has been offering advice to any Republicans who request it, in a definitive piece on the topic today writes:
Bush’s argument is right in the sense that unraveling the agreement after 18 months, and against possible opposition from the British, French, and Germans (and other allies), will be complicated politically. If we intend to reimpose sanctions, we will want to let them know this and we will hope to get them on board (or at least mute their opposition). The new president will want to think about possible Iranian responses and how to blunt them as well. And Bush is right in saying that we need a comprehensive Iran strategy–something the Obama administration has lacked. Reversing the JCPOA is only part of that, and blunting Iran’s terror and aggression in the region are critical.Some of the work needed can begin during the transition, which now starts after the nominating conventions–not, as was the case until 2012, after Election Day. Certainly, the President-Elect and Vice President-Elect can get full intelligence briefings, and these can be extended to the secretary of state-designate, national security adviser-designate, chief of staff-designate, and a few other top officials.But it would be wrong to conduct an independent foreign policy during the transition. During the first part of it, in September and October, the candidate will only be a candidate–not President-Elect. And even when President-Elect, it’s wrong to act as if you’re president and start conducting your own foreign policy. Moreover, on “Day One” it is correct that the government will be manned by Obama holdovers in many key posts. The new secretary of state will just be arriving in his or her office on January 20th, and the assistant secretaries who must carry out the new policy will not usually be confirmed for weeks or months. (In 1981, I was confirmed as an assistant secretary of state in the new Reagan administration in mid-April. This was typical.) The National Security Council team can be selected during the transition and can be in place on January 21st, but will they have mastered their new responsibilities? Their own teams will consist almost entirely of Obama holdovers, likely for weeks or months. Because presidential records leave with the president, NSC file cabinets will be empty and it will be take time to figure out exactly who said what to whom when in the Obama years about Iran and the JCPOA. Moreover, won’t we want to talk with the Israelis and Arabs about all of this?
This should be an interesting race to watch.