The negotiations, currently in hiatus, to restore compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — known familiarly as the Iran nuclear deal — have elicited opposition arguments that are stale and dated. Many of those arguments not only suffer from a deficiency of logic but also ignore what is now a substantial empirical record of what happens with and without the JCPOA. That record constitutes what social scientists would call a natural experiment.
The consequences of not having the JCPOA have been demonstrated both by what was happening in the years leading up to the negotiation and implementation of the JCPOA, and what has happened since the Trump administration renounced the agreement in 2018. Before the agreement, Iran’s enrichment of uranium had proceeded to a point where most estimates of the “breakout time” required for Iran to build a nuclear weapon if it chose to do so were down to only a couple of months.
The JCPOA changed all that, with Iran giving up 97 percent of its enriched uranium, gutting a nuclear reactor, and taking other steps required under the agreement to close all possible paths to a nuclear weapon. Iran complied with these requirements, as certified by the International Atomic Energy Agency, during the three years the agreement was fully in effect and even for another year after the Trump administration reneged on U.S. obligations.
Since then, with the United States still in noncompliance, Iran has resumed much of its nuclear activity from before the agreement. It has now amassed a stockpile of low-enriched uranium more than a dozen times larger than what it had under the JCPOA, as well as enriching to higher concentrations of fissile material. A chart depicting how the size of Iran’s supply of enriched uranium has changed over the past decade and a half says it all.
In the face of this evidence — hard evidence from actual experience, not speculation or fanciful scenarios — those determined to kill the JCPOA have thrown various types of mud on the wall to see if any of it sticks. Some of their arguments merely repeat what they said years ago, when the JCPOA and an earlier preliminary agreement were first being negotiated, while ignoring the compelling record of the intervening years.
Many of their arguments misrepresent that record or the JCPOA itself, such as in accusing Iran of noncompliance. This accusation usually involves reference to issues that Iran and the IAEA have had about declarations of activity that took place years ago. It is no secret that a couple decades ago Iran was working on the design of a nuclear weapon, which makes all the more important an agreement such as the JCPOA that closes all avenues to building such a weapon. The opponents of the agreement would have us believe that what is said about activity 20 years ago is more important than what Iran is actually doing today. They also would have us forget that it was the United States, not Iran, that reneged wholesale on its obligations under the JCPOA.
Misrepresentation of the JCPOA includes accusations by opponents that the agreement “expires,” which it does not. Several of its most important provisions are permanent, including especially the highly intrusive monitoring by international inspectors.
Some limitations under the agreement do have sunset provisions, but this is where the opponents’ position becomes most illogical. In complaining about how certain limits on Iran’s nuclear activity end in eight, ten, or more years, the opponents are arguing for an alternative — junking the JCPOA — that would mean ending those same limits right now.
Clearly these arguments by opponents of the JCPOA make no sense. Their position becomes comprehensible only when understanding that nuclear nonproliferation is not their goal.
Nor does their principal goal concern certain other topics that can legitimately be raised in connection with the JCPOA negotiations, but on which the opponents show just as much disregard for the empirical record. One such topic concerns Iran’s regional activity. Never mind that much, and probably most, of what Iran does in the region is a reaction to what other states are doing. Set aside as well the fact that Iran is no more aggressive and interventionist in the Middle East than are several other states.
The natural experiment of the past few years simply does not lend any support to the opponents’ contention that the JCPOA and associated sanctions relief somehow encouraged or facilitated aggressive Iranian behavior. The more time that goes by since the Trump administration’s reneging on the agreement, the more baseless becomes any blame on the JCPOA for events that have taken place when sanctions have been fully in effect and the JCPOA has not. A signal example is the attack on Saudi oil facilities in September 2019 — after the Trump administration initiated unlimited economic warfare against Iran.
The same is true of internal politics and the human rights situation in Iran. Iranian politics have swerved more firmly toward a hard line since the Trump policies have been in effect. Sanctions, isolation, and a rejection of diplomacy with Tehran have only made the human rights situation in Iran worse, not better.
One of the true goals of opponents of the JCPOA, dating from the agreement’s earliest days, was to oppose any significant accomplishment by the Democratic president Barack Obama. This brand of hyperpartisanship lives on, as openly acknowledged by the Republican leadership in opposing accomplishments by the Democratic president Joe Biden.
Another of the goals also has little to do with what Iran actually does — the goal of treating Iran forever as a bête noire on which almost everything bad in the Middle East can be blamed. This objective exemplifies how hardliners in different countries play off each other to their mutual political benefit. It is why American hardliners welcomed, usually tacitly but sometimes even explicitly, the election of Ebrahim Raisi to the Iranian presidency.
This second goal has been exhibited especially clearly by the hard-line, right-wing governments of Israel, which also have preferred hard-line Iranian presidents whom it is easy to get Americans and others to hate. The first objective also has been a factor with Israel insofar as former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu openly threw in his lot with U.S. Republicans and sabotaged the policies of Democratic administrations. None of this should be confused with advancing the security interests of Israel, which, as many former Israeli security officials have agreed, are better served by the JCPOA’s limits on Iranian nuclear activity than by junking the JCPOA and with it the limits.
In addition to whatever domestic political interests are served by the kind of rhetoric about Iran that Netanyahu has practiced, the keeping of Iran as a perpetually loathed and isolated bête noire has other purposes for the Israeli government. It weakens a potential regional rival, diverts international attention from Israeli policies and actions, and diverts any blame away from Israel for conflict and instability in the Middle East.
Unsurprisingly, policy advocates in the United States whose positions are most in line with preferences of the Israeli government have also been among the most active opponents of the JCPOA.
It might seem appropriate to limit criticism of those opponents to the merits, or lack thereof, of their assertions and not delve deeply into their objectives, which could acquire an ad hominem flavor. But the opponents’ hammering away for years at their favorite themes have fostered public misunderstanding, not only of the JCPOA but more broadly of the causes of conflict and insecurity in the Middle East. In the post-truth era in which Americans unfortunately find themselves, sheer repetition of even illogical assertions that are contrary to the recent empirical record can win believers. Exposing the phoniness of the opponents’ campaign and pointing out their actual objectives might help to limit the damage to public understanding.
Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He is also an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy.
German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L-R) arrive for a family picture after the last plenary session at the United Nations building in Vienna, Austria July 14, 2015. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger
Handout photo shows US President Joe Biden (C-R) and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting, on the final day of a three-day G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. The final day of the three-day of the Group of Seven leaders' summit is under way in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, with focus on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his talks with international leaders. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Roughly 70% of Americans want the Biden administration to push Ukraine toward a negotiated peace with Russia as soon as possible, according to a new survey from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
Support for negotiations remained high when respondents were told such a move would include compromises by all parties, with two out of three respondents saying the U.S. should still pursue talks despite potential downsides. The survey shows a nine-point jump from a poll in late 2022 that surveyed likely voters. In that poll, 57% of respondents said they backed talks that would involve compromises.
The new data suggests that U.S. government policy toward the Ukraine war is increasingly out of step with public opinion on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Americans’ strong support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Washington’s reluctance to use its considerable leverage to get Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table and end this war,” said George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute.
The Biden administration has publicly rejected the idea of negotiating an end to the war with Russia, with U.S. officials saying that they are prepared to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve the country’s goal of ejecting Russian troops from all of its territory, including Crimea.
Just this week, Russian sources told Reuters that the U.S. declined a Kremlin offer to pursue a ceasefire along the current frontlines in conversations held in late 2023 and early 2024, including a round of unofficial talks in Turkey.
U.S. officials denied the claim, saying there was no “official contact” between Moscow and Washington on the issue and that the U.S. would only agree to negotiations involving Ukraine. Reuters’ Russian sources claimed that American officials said they did not want to pressure Kyiv into talks.
The Harris/Quincy Institute poll involved an online survey of 2,090 American adults from Feb. 8 to 12. The results are weighted to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population. The margin of error is 2.5% using a 95% confidence level.
As the House weighs whether to approve new aid for Ukraine, 48% of respondents said they support new funding as long as it is conditioned on progress toward a diplomatic solution to the war. Others disagreed over whether the U.S. should halt all aid (30%) or continue funding without specific conditions (22%).
This question revealed a sharp partisan divide on whether to continue Ukraine funding in any form. Fully 46% of Republicans favor an immediate shutoff of the aid spigot, as compared to 17% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans favored conditioning aid on diplomatic talks. “The American people seem more clear-eyed than Washington in recognizing the urgent need to pair aid for Ukraine’s defense with a diplomatic offensive,” Beebe argued.
The poll also showed that most Americans expect the war to drag into at least 2025. Only 16% of respondents thought the war would end this year. Others were evenly split on how long the war might last, with 46% expecting it to be resolved before the end of 2026 and 38% saying there is no end in sight.
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Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 1952; President Barack Obama, at NATO Headquarters, Brussels, 2014.
President Trump's latest comments criticizing NATO and the ensuing media reaction obscure the fact that Americans have long held dissenting opinions on the U.S. relationship to European security.
As has happened all too often throughout the Trump era, the heat of escalating rhetoric on the part of the 45th President and his committed adversaries has distracted from the more substantive foreign policy debate.
Today, the U.S-European security relationship has never been more sacrosanct, at least in the mind's eye of the national security establishment and their allies in the mainstream press. Yet historically, the range of debate and criticism of this ostensibly sacred pact has been far more open than nostalgia or the modern commentariat may suggest.
Throughout American involvement in NATO, the nation's national security elites, members of Congress, commentators, and, yes, presidents, too, have all challenged the contours of commitment to the organization and its members at one time or another. Furthermore, they did so when Western countries faced a significantly larger Soviet military deployed deep into the heart of Central Europe.
During the early Cold War, the nature of American involvement in the alliance and its commitment to staff Europe with a permanent garrison were not seen as beyond question, even by American officials in positions of authority. In fact, American Cold War architects sold an American garrison in Europe as a temporary measure meant to shore up allies still licking their wounds from the Second World War. In congressional testimony concerning the ratification of the NATO treaty, Sen. Bourke B. Hickenlooper (R-Iowa) pressed Secretary of State Dean Acheson on if he thought the treaty meant that the U.S. would leave "substantial numbers of troops over there." An indignant Acheson responded, "[t]he answer to that question, Senator, is a clear and absolute 'No.'"
Even as Acheson's assurances to Congress proved hollow, NATO's first commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, while supportive of NATO's legal mechanisms of collective security, believed that America's garrison and material aid were temporary. Eisenhower warned that if "in 10 years, all American troops stationed in Europe for national defense purposes have not been returned to the United States, then this whole project will have failed."
In Congress, the extent of American military involvement remained a persistent issue for the Republican Right. Be they principled noninterventionists or Asia First unilateralists, the extent of American troop presence in Europe remained a contested issue. Retired Army officer Bonner Fellers, writing in a July 1949 issue of Human Events, a conservative magazine, summed up the widely agreed-upon position of these dissenters. While Fellers believed that the NATO treaty had "enormous psychological value," as it served as a "symbol of unity" and deterrence, he did not think that that should translate into a massive and permanent military garrison in Western Europe.
Fellers revisited the issue two years later in an article for Human Events, which was read into the Congressional Record. Rather than see the American European garrison as a deterrent, Fellers asserted that it could be viewed as a provocation and argued that the "presence of our forces on the Rhine gives Stalin a visible symbol, a unifying agent which tends to enlist the support of all Russians behind the Kremlin."
It is important to note that Fellers was hardly a dove. Instead, he was a committed anti-communist who loathed the Soviet Union and supported a nuclear deterrence on the cheap, a Fortress America 2.0. Yet, he, like many within the Republican Right, did not allow their ideological priors to automatically dictate a desire for endless security commitments to Western Europe.
On Capitol Hill, Fellers's views were common and supported by conservative Republicans who saw an American military garrison as an expensive handout to allies whose rebuilt economies could shoulder their defense, all while providing little deterrent effect. In 1953, speaking on the issue of America's military mission in Europe, Rep. Lawrence H. Smith (R-Wis.) asked rhetorically, "[w]here is the threat of military aggression?"
According to Smith, after returning from a fact-finding mission in Europe, his subcommittee on Europe reported that "there was no fear of communism in the hearts and the minds of the people there." The sentiments espoused by Fellers and Smith persisted in pockets of the Republican Right throughout the early Cold War despite the ideological demands of the era.
During the final decades of the Cold War, opposition to the presence of an American military garrison in Western Europe and the continuation of military aid emanated primarily from the left wing of the Democratic Party as a new generation of Democrats took office and sought to rein military spending and commitments. On Capitol Hill, Democrats attempted to force American troop level cuts in Europe in the House in 1988, and the Senate in 1990.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the horseshoe of opposition to maintaining the status quo thickened as a body of conservative Republicans joined progressive Democrats in opposing NATO expansion, first in 1994 and then in 1999. While both votes failed, and the United States maintained a sizeable garrison in Europe, the opposition to outdated Cold War paradigms remained and flowed freely, untainted by the scurrilous charge of echoing "Putin talking points."
Indeed, even as late as November 2016, President Obama mirrored the sentiments of then President-elect Donald Trump in stating that “[i]f Greece can meet this NATO commitment, all our NATO allies should be able to do so."
This latest fervor has, as all too often now, completely ignored these historical debates around American foreign policy commitments, creating in their passions an ahistorical sense of policy inevitability. If Americans past and present, from presidents on down, could question the contours of American security commitments and did so in far more perilous times, then so should we.
Last month, Foreign Policy published a report that stirred the debate on U.S. Middle East policy. It claimed “the Biden administration is reconsidering its priorities” in Syria and may conduct “a full withdrawal of U.S. troops.” Now, legacy media is debating the future of American involvement in Syria.
Missing from this discussion is the suffering that involvement has caused.
Writing for the New York Times, retired general Kenneth McKenzie warns “it’s not time for our troops to leave” Syria. Mere talk of a withdrawal (let alone actually withdrawing), he argues, is “seriously damaging to U.S. interests.” It “gives hope to Tehran” that Iran might rival American influence in the Middle East — which is bad, supposedly. Why Iran has less of a right to influence its own region than people thousands of miles away is unclear.
McKenzie also argues that American troops must remain to “secure the prisons holding ISIS fighters.” Without boots on the ground, militants might escape and the Islamist group could “rejuvenate itself.” McKenzie doesn’t believe the Syrian government could prevent prison breaks on its own, or even with Russian and Iranian support.
This argument is highly speculative. If the Americans leave, imprisoned ISIS fighters might escape. And, if enough do, they might rebuild their organization into a force too formidable for Syrian forces to handle. Multiple unlikely contingencies must materialize to even warrant taking this reasoning seriously.
But McKenzie’s claim suffers a more fundamental problem. It confuses the cause for the antidote. Everyone from Noam Chomsky to Rand Paul knows American intervention created the conditions that allowed ISIS to grow. Bombing Arab nations to smithereens, toppling their leaders, and starving governments through sanctions and outright theft generated a power vacuum. As did deploying troops indefinitely, which prevented states like Syria from maintaining territorial integrity and establishing the mechanisms for self-governance.
McKenzie believes the Syrian government is simply too weak to quell the increasingly small threat an ISIS in retreat poses. Assuming he’s correct, it’s worth asking why that’s the case. The facts again point to American intervention.
Nearly 13 years into its ongoing civil war, Syria is in tatters. Once a middle-income nation with respectable living standards, it’s now the poorest country on Earth. More than 90% of Syrians live below the international poverty line of $1.90 per day. Their paychecks are worthless, with the Syrian pound losing virtually all of its relative value since the war began.
It’s not all America’s fault. The Syrian government undoubtedly bears significant blame for the humanitarian crisis. But American sanctions hamstring it from improving matters. The infamous Caesar Act targets anyone who "engages in a significant transaction" with the Syrian government. Signed into law by Donald Trump, this heinous policy effectively precludes the international community from helping Syria rebuild.
A bipartisan but overwhelmingly Democratic coalition of lawmakers recently voted against slapping new sanctions on Syria. Unfortunately, for every one of them, there were 12 supporters of the legislation. Dubbed the Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act, it would extend the sunset of the Caesar sanctions by eight years. The bill would also expand the list of proscribed transactions.
But there’s more. Years ago, with America’s blessing, Turkish-backed militias stole capital from over 1,000 factories in the city of Aleppo alone. This assault on the productive forces of Syria’s industrial hub left its economy in tatters. But that’s not all the United States and its allies stole. America’s occupying troops routinely commandeer Syrian wheat and petroleum. Trump admitted as much, saying that soldiers “were staying in Syria to secure oil resources.”
The Syrian state is starving. More American intervention isn’t what Syria needs. It needs the United States’ boot off of its neck.
In these discussions of states and militants, we mustn’t lose sight of what matters most: the people. American militarism in Syria has wrought dire human costs. It has helped to plunge Syrians into the depths of unimaginable despair. Over 80% of them are food-insecure and a similar proportion lack sustained access to electricity. Many enjoy just one hour of it per day. Without electricity, you can’t refrigerate food and it rots. That causes shortages. People have taken to eating out of the garbage.
McKenzie seems to care little about this immense suffering. And why would he? His job as a general was to project American military might, whatever the costs, a position he apparently continues as a guest writer for The New York Times.