Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia Lee Sharpe

Some Right-leaning members of Congress take an all or nothing approach to policy and legislation. To them compromise is a violation of principle with connotations of betrayal and heresy. The martyrdom of starvation is infinitely preferable to gaining half a loaf.

Neither Bombs nor Bombast

Hard-nosed to the bitter end, such ideologues also find it difficult to embrace the art of diplomacy. Regarding Iran, they prefer bombs or missiles to what they see as time-wasting bombast, an echo of the motto here at home: don’t stoop to improving an imperfect government; starve it; destroy it.

If negotiation leading to compromise equates to moral defeat among Tea Partiers and their camp followers, how can signed-and-sealed win-win agreements or treaties be viewed as anything but a ceding of sovereignty, a kowtowing to the enemy, a clipping of the national wings, even when the equalizing consists mainly of polite words: a diplomatic victory not crowed about but delicately expressed to avoid humiliating the weaker side, which otherwise might not have signed? When articles of secular faith are at stake, evidently, no face-saving concession is too minor to oppose—and yet, without civility, how is diplomacy with Iran (or any other country) possible?

It’s not, which greatly pleases the Israel lobby in Washington.

The Manichaean Fallacy

Adding to the psycho-philosophical difficulty that impedes inter-party cooperation in Congress is the Manichaean religious sensibility that underlies much contemporary American conservatism. There are Catholic and Protestant variants, but in either case the problem presented is this: those defined as evil don’t get pardoned and asked to dinner; they have earned eternal damnation. Ronald Reagan may be long gone, but to many Republicans as well as  other conservatives Iran is still an Axis of Evil from which no good can ever be expected. Iran cannot, ever, be trusted—and Iran is certainly not to be trusted to uphold an agreement inhibiting its development of nuclear weapons.

Oddly enough, the religious right in Iran is of the same mind. The U.S. is the Great Satan with whom the new president of Iran should not be negotiating. Instead of dealing with America Rouhani should be joining in a far from uninimous chorus of “Death to America!”

So American and Iranian hard liners are utterly in accord on perpetuating eternal enmity. Neither, I suppose, would appreciate the humor of this situation.

The Israel Factor

But there’s a third obstacle to successful nuclear negotiations with Iran. Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu, whose Iranian policy consists of bombs, bombs and more bombs, is working over the U.S. Congress, which all too often behaves like a sub-committee of the Knesset. And thus, ever subserviant to Israel, U. S. conservatives are expressing shock! shock! that U.S. negotiators have made some inconsequential concessions to Iran during preliminary talks whose ultimate goal is going to be very hard for Tehran to swallow: crippling Iran’s ability to become a credible nuclear threat.

The truth is that the Obama administration and the conservatives—and even Mr. Netanyahu—all have the same goal: no nukes in Iran. Another truth is that economic sanctions have actually worked. Iran’s economy is in such poor state that its leadership is willing to talk. The complexities are many and I do not plan to discuss them here because nothing is possible if the U.S. Congress cannot give itself a crash course on how effective diplomacy is conducted. Conservatives need to learn how to interpret language that does not include an ultimatum.

So here’s the conundrum for the Obama administration. Both America and Iran need to sound relatively hawkish to satisfy their at home hard-liners, but overdoing the vitriol will cause problems for the diplomats on the other side of the table who can’t afford to look as if they are weakening under threat.

The Danger from Diplomatic Illiteracy

In order to get things going, the U.S. has dangled a modest little carrot whose significance must be magnified to convince Iranian hard-liners that Iran is already getting something, although Iran’s savvy diplomats surely know how modest the offer really is. The danger is that Congress will misconstrue the tactical magnification, which sadly is already happening. Conservatives, primed to believe that Obama will give away the store, are looking at legislation to limit the flexibility of our own very clever diplomats.  This would turn them into puppets unable to seize a terrific offer from the Iranians should it appear in a guise not foreseen by a fearful Congress.

And so, thanks to a distrust-ridden, dead-locked American political system, another round of talks would go down the drain.

Does all this sound too complicated? Welcome to the world of diplomacy. When you are negotiating, you have to be aware of countless interacting possibilities and correlative hazards. Getting through the tangle is never easy. But if you have to negotiate the briar patch with your hands tied and your mouth muzzled by cut-throat politics on your own side, it’s a lot harder.

Maybe President Rouhani will turn out of be an evil bag of hot air intent on protracting negotiations while his centrifuges turn out ever more potent fissile material. But maybe he’s not a devil.

The only way to know is to give serious negotiations and competent diplomats a chance.