Lee Keeling: Americans need truth on negotiations with Iran

Dec. 9, 2013 at 6:09 a.m.

W. Lee Keeling

W. Lee Keeling

The harping of Fox News and the cheerleading of MSNBC obscures real issues at stake in the current nuclear negotiations with Iran. Rouhani's appearance at the negotiating table suggests economic sanctions are working. And while this is a good thing, where we go from here is, as usual, not nearly as simple as the tidy sound bites offered by opposing domestic political voices.

Keep squeezing, say the right's Iran hawks. In their narrative, the dark regime (which responds only to force) will eventually capitulate, and in its place will sprout a form of democracy that knows its place and keeps its ambitions in check. Birthed by a populace grateful for deliverance from the religious tyranny of the mullahs and thus eager to forgive years of misery and deprivation, this new and compliant regime will see the folly of continued investment in nuclear capability when Wal-Mart, Gap and McDonalds come knocking on its door.

The Democrats, on the other hand, are ecstatic to have something to deflect the spotlight from the implosion of the Affordable Care Act, which (in its present incarnation, at least) is exclusively their albatross. How would you feel, giddy at being handed the gift of Ted Cruz's filibuster to - mere weeks later - witness Sebelius and the website lay a giant egg and the insurance companies decide to act like, well, insurance companies? Now, when their phones ring, congressional Democrats pray it's an invitation to go on Hannity instead of another discontent constituent with a canceled policy.

The danger here is that, by uncritically buying into either side's fairy tale, we either miss an opportunity to advance the ball, or we settle for too little.

We've pretty well learned that, in the modern world, we can't kill enough people to make them like us. Do we really think we can do it by merely imposing economic hardship? Of course not; we don't (or shouldn't) impose sanctions expecting they will bring a people to its knees; we impose them with the expectation of granting incremental relief in exchange for equivalent incremental movement by the other side toward acceptable compromise. The value of sanctions lies not in putting us into a position to dominate but into a position to cultivate an effective counter to the policies of the existing regime that trouble us.

To do that, we have to understand more than just the time-to-enrichment clock. We have to try to understand how society in the targeted nation will react to the stimuli we set in motion; we need to assess the extent and nature of its regime's grip on power. In Iran, we have to answer whether the mullahs, parliament and the populace have a shared perception of that power, and if not, where they part company; whether those in power yet perceive that a tipping point exists, and if so, where they think their vulnerabilities might lie; what groups can drive change, how would they do it, and what would motivate them; what is Rouhani's constituency; what is his ability to influence opposing groups?

And so, instead of swagger from the right or uncritical accolades from the left, what we need from Washington is a serious examination of whether Rouhani is the right guy, whether this is the right time and whether the negotiated plan is the right deal. Is what Rouhani offers indeed an effective counter, and is what we are giving up of equivalent value to it?

This is a much more nuanced (and uncertain) undertaking, requiring both the left and right to explain their reasoning with something more than snappy sound-bites. To play this game effectively, we can't view the Iranian regime in simple terms, as a sort of evil monolith you might find in a comic book. This seems to be anathema to the right, whose constituency marches best when we blow our own horn. To know what exchanges are equivalent, we have to know our counterpart better and understand, at a given moment, to what extent is real and lasting change actually possible. This depends much more on Iranian perceptions than on our own.

The Democrats cannot oversimplify, either. The mere appearance of an opportunity doesn't mean it is the right one. Democrats in both the congress and the administration will be sorely tempted to put politics ahead of good foreign policy and conclude that any deal with Iran is a win. The temptation must be tremendous, but the consequences of getting this wrong are too important.

The administration owes us a comprehensive and critical explanation of why this is the right deal, why it's the right time and what the path from here forward looks like. Both parties owe us the courtesy of being quiet long enough to let us hear that analysis; then they can feel free to chime in, and hopefully, we will insist that they confine their protestations and persuasions to the merits. What's at stake here is a question of when a particularly nasty genie will get out of the bottle; putting her back in will not be possible.

Lee Keeling is with the law firm of Walker Keeling LLP and has practiced law in Victoria since 1993. In addition, he's an adjunct instructor teaching business law at UHV, and he regularly contributes to Victoria in Motion magazine. Readers can contact him by emailing lkeeling@walkerkeeling.com. His wife, Tami, is currently president of the VISD Board of Trustees.



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