Opinion

Republicans have few good options left on the Iran nuclear deal

"Give War a Chance" is a lousy motto for 2016

Republican presidential candidates and members of Congress have been warning about the hard-fought Iran nuclear deal for more than a year, using just about all the tools in their arsenal (up to and including hosting a controversial speech to Congress by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and writing Iran's leaders) to sink the landmark agreement.

But the GOP's best bet was always that the deal would fall apart under its own weight or get scuttled by outside forces before it could be finalized. That hope — not an irrational one — was dashed early Tuesday.

Iran, the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany are signing the landmark Iran nuclear agreement on Tuesday, committing Tehran to mothballing much of its nuclear infrastructure and ridding itself of almost all its potential weapons-grade uranium and plutonium. In return, sanctions on Iran's oil and arms trading will be lifted and some $100 billion in assets locked up by the U.S. will be unfrozen.

The deal was at least 20 months in the making, and it nearly did fall apart numerous times. It still faces some final hurdles, mostly the political task of selling the accord to skeptics in Iran, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Israel. But once Russia, China, the U.S., France, Britain, and Iran sign on to a 100-page agreement, the die is pretty much cast.

Republicans are talking big about sinking the deal in Congress, which now has 60 days to approve or reject the agreement. And President Obama "clearly does not want the biggest diplomatic achievement of his presidency to turn into yet another political melodrama," says David E. Sanger at The New York Times. But when push comes to shove, "the numbers suggest Mr. Obama will prevail; if Congress rejects the Iran accord, he could veto their legislation, and he has enough Democrats to win that contest."

That leaves Republicans trying to win the public-relations game. Their main arguments so far are that you can't trust Iran, that the agreement only delays Tehran's alleged nuclear weapons ambitions for a decade rather than destroying them, and that in the meantime Iran will use its financial windfall to ramp up its conventional weaponry and increase its support of anti-Israel and anti-Sunni militant groups in the region.

Those aren't terrible arguments. But if given the choice between a decade to 15 years of a verifiably rolled-back Iranian nuclear program plus an accounting of Iran's nuclear history, or no real checks on Iran's nuclear program and an increasingly bellicose relationship between Tehran and Washington, a war-weary U.S. public could be forgiven for wanting to give peace a chance.

"The reality is that it is a painful agreement to make, but also necessary and wise," says R. Nicholas Burns, the George W. Bush–era State Department official who helped push through the first Iran sanctions at the U.N. Security Council in 2006 and 2007, in The New York Times. "And we might think of it as just the end of the beginning of a long struggle to contain Iran. There will be other dramas ahead."

Still, Republicans do have one decent shot left at causing Obama's historic diplomatic achievement to come unglued: Carefully calibrated political spitballs aimed not at Washington but Tehran.

"The technical obstacles can be surpassed with goodwill and diligence, but political hurdles can turn into poison pills," Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst at Crisis International, tells The Wall Street Journal. "Neither Iran nor the U.S. has ever implemented such a complex quid pro quo. In an atmosphere of mistrust, misunderstandings are inevitable — thus the need for preserving the positive diplomatic momentum even after the deal is sealed."

"Give War a Chance" is a pretty lousy 2016 campaign slogan. But if Republicans play their cards right, they won't have to win over the American public at all in this fight.

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