Late last week, a group of senior scholars convened by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, published a “Public Statement on U.S. Policy Toward the Iran Nuclear Negotiations.” The statement was signed by a bipartisan group of experts and policy makers (including some key former White House advisers) and was covered widely in the press. There are, in my mind, at least three possible readings of this statement, each of which conveys at least part of the truth. Disentangling these diverging interpretations is instructive, and not just for understanding the statement. Together, they highlight the the complexities of bipartisan consensus building, and the overwhelming advantage the White House now enjoys over opponents of a nuclear deal.
The first reading holds that the statement represents a coup for critics of the looming Iran deal. Advanced by David Sanger at the New York Times, this interpretation is based largely on the signatures of some of President Obama’s closest advisors on the Iran nuclear issues, including Robert Einhorn and Gary Samore. Key figures, this narrative holds, are concerned over a mounting record of American concessions, and are gently threatening to break with the President. The statement is thus meant to sound the alarm and to signal that influential allies are prepared to lobby against a bad deal. If a deal fails to meet the conditions laid out by Einhorn and Samore, critics hope, centrist Democrats would abandon the President and vote against a deal when it goes to Congress.
This was likely the reading many of the group's more hawkish members intended. They fear that the negotiations’ are headed toward a wholly unacceptable conclusion, and are looking for ammunition with which to fight it. Public lines drawn by influential Democrats would provide just this.
However, some signatories are already publicly resisting this narrative, insisting on a different story. This second story is about leverage. For weeks now, Iran’s Supreme Leader has been staking out “red lines” that ought to be unacceptable to any American administration, and that are completely out of sync with the “principles” agreed to at Lausanne (at least as Lausanne was presented by the American State Department). Khamenei’s declarations—demanding immediate sanctions relief, limitations on IAEA inspections of military sites, and banning interviews with scientists—all seem like a sudden attempt to establish last-minute leverage over an American interlocutor too keen for a deal to walk away now. Iranian negotiators have spent months building respect, trust and rapport with their American counterparts, and now they can come to the table at the eleventh hour and (apologetically, of course) explain that matters are out of their hands. The Supreme Leader’s public declarations must, at least in some way, be accommodated.
On this second reading, the Washington Institute group seeks to counter the role played by the Supreme Leader. If the Iranian negotiators can (regretfully) point over their shoulders to a list of demands issued by a figure with the power to destroy a deal, then so must the American negotiators. Together, a combination of former White House officials and Congress can credibly play this role. Here is a group whose professional word carries weight and whose history with Obama can reassure Democrats wary of bolstering partisan efforts to undermine him. By drawing a line in the sand and threatening to oppose a deal if terms deteriorated any further, the statement is intended as a boon to the president, and another tool in the hands of his negotiators.
But this too is not the whole story. There is a third interpretation, even more favorable for the President. On this reading, the participation of the close former administration advisers serves neither as a shot across the White House’s bow nor primarily as a signal to the Iranians, but as political cover for the President against his critics.
Many of the statement’s terms, after all, are very much in the eye of the beholder. The statement insists that the IAEA “must have timely and effective access” to all sites in Iran, that Iran’s deployment of advanced centrifuges should be pushed back “as long as possible,” and that consequences for a violation ought to be “timely and effective.” In fairness, many of the statement's signatories undoubtedly have robust personal interpretations of what those terms mean. But the document itself presents no specific, public consensus. So no matter the precise content of a final deal, the Administration will be able to insist that these conditions have been met. The White House communications staff will argue accordingly, and the flexibility of the statement’s terms will ensure that they have a plausible argument. Few documents are self-interpreting, and this one is less than most. Unless the former Obama officials choose to announce that a deal fails their requirements, the document will not stand as a benchmark against which the administration has failed.
Conversely, the signatures from prominent Republicans and Iran hawks offer a key argument to the Administration. After all, if these figures can still envision a feasible deal that they support, then surely the current state of negotiations can’t be as catastrophic as some critics insist. Some of the signatories are, in fact, already making this argument. As Ross said on Charlie Rose, "By putting out a bipartisan statement, we were actually helping the administration, because the signal we were sending is that there is a bipartisan consensus that will support an agreement that has these principles." Or Einhorn at Markaz: “What is especially noteworthy about the statement is… that it demonstrates that, if an eventual deal meets certain reasonable and achievable requirements, it can command substantial bipartisan support.” The actual statement might not precisely promise bipartisan support for such a deal, but this is how it will be read. And once a deal is signed, Ross's and Einhorn’s argument will carry even greater force. Supporters will insist that “even conditions set by Republicans” have been met. On this reading, then, the statement is a political gift to the White House.
These three readings are not mutually exclusive. The statement has multiple authors, and even an individual’s motivations may be mixed and complicated. But together, they demonstrate two things. First, the extent to which even an impressively bipartisan, broad policy consensus may obscure divergent motivations and significant differences in nuance. And second, the strength of the White House position vis-a-vis opponents of a looming deal. Able to sustain a deal with the help of the slimmest of Congressional minorities, and backed by a powerful messaging machine in the midst of highly technical negotiations, critics have few opportunities to rally opposition. And even when they try, they may end up simply strengthening the President’s hand.