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How Should Conservatives Think About the Iran Deal?

The crucible of American Middle East policy is again up for debate, as Biden's team quietly negotiated in Vienna. How did we get here?
trump rouhani

It’s all too familiar. 

A Democratic White House, attempting to lead the nation out of crisis at home, publicly signals its determination to wash its hands clean of the Middle East. The government pledges exit from one long theater (in 2009, it was Iraq, in 2021, it is reportedly Afghanistan) and prepares to enter into negotiations in order to keep America out of yet another. 

Deja vu: in 2021, and the order of the day is, once again, Iran.

U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic is the cornerstone of any administration’s strategy in the region. Since the 1979 revolution and the raucous overthrow of the Shah, America’s man in Tehran—and the presidency-ending, relationship-terminating kidnapping of American diplomats—the view from Washington toward the government in Persia has been understandably ice cold. Historically, this ire has been pronounced in the old guard of the country’s intelligence agencies, or “the deep state,” if one prefers. 

Following the release of the hostages, finalized on the day Ronald Reagan was inaugurated, the American foreign policy establishment made clear its regional preferences. They were declared, openly, by Washington’s eminence grise, Henry Kissinger. On the decade-spanning Iran-Iraq war that followed Iran’s revolution, Richard Nixon’s former national security advisor and secretary of State stated plainly and famously: “The ultimate American interest in the war (is) that both should lose.”

As the Cold War closed, Iran’s hardline leadership appeared to be softening. This perestroika was borne of war fatigue, as well as the 1989 death of the Islamic Republic’s hypnotic, fanatic founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to say nothing of the collapse of that cheering section of anti-Western revolution, the Soviet Union, a frenemy, but a least a major player on the scene that was not American. In 1997, the pragmatist conservative president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, was succeeded by the nakedly reformist Mohammad Khatami, the most “liberal” president the Islamic Republic has had before or since.   

But, of course, twenty years ago this fall, terror arrived on America’s shores. 

The U.S. plunged into the region, first on Iran’s eastern border, in Afghanistan. And then, Washington completed its vendetta against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, to Iran’s West. The Islamic Republic’s manifold enemies in the West are fond of pointing out that in the early 2000’s, the charlatan, Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi, who was feted by the White House of George W. Bush as “the George Washington of Iraq,” kept an office in Tehran. Teetotalism is serious business in the Iranian high command, but were it not so, champagne corks would have popped across the country as the U.S. made the greatest mistake in its history, vaingloriously invading Iraq in March 2003.  

The Iraq War strengthened Iran. The mayhem of the Middle East in the 2000s was doubtless conducive to the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a flashy, hardline successor to Khatami, in 2005. The Iraq of today is the junior partner of Iran, charitably, or its vassal state, more accurately. This reality came into view as the U.S. began to lose the war in 2004, and certainly, years later, by the epoch of one final “surge,” the political rise of anti-war politician Barack Obama and a firm crystallization of a U.S. domestic desire to get out of town, that is, out of Baghdad. 

But moving across the map, the political leadership of the U.S. began to split on how to react to an Islamic Republic again on the rise, and plausibly seeking nuclear weapons. This split was no more acute than within America’s ruling duo, that is, then-President George W. Bush and then-President Dick Cheney. This was years before Iran’s regime came to the rescue of Bashar al-Assad as his grip on power slipped in Syria. But even then, Assad and Iran were tight, and both were nasty advocates for chaos in Iraq, knowing if “Operation Iraqi Freedom” went off without a hitch, it would be their governments on the chopping block next. A lust for nukes was the second prong of this strategy, with many in Damascus and Tehran, especially, concluding the only mistake Saddam Hussein made was not actually having weapons of mass destruction. 

Even though Iraqi Freedom didn’t go off without a hitch, true believers were undeterred. In 2007, Vice President Cheney, persuaded by the imprimatur of senior Israeli officials, urged a strike on a suspicious facility in eastern Syria. Cheney met with Meir Dagan, the head of the Mossad, Israel’s fabled intelligence agency, at the White House. Cheney, as interviewed by R.J. Cutler in a biopic on the former vice president years later, thought the move, above all else, would restore “the kind of authority and influence we had back in ’03,” the year everything began to fall apart, but for Cheney, as reported by Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books, a kind of “golden age.” 

Bush refused Cheney’s recommendation, and Israel had to go it alone, the beginning of a ten-year, sort of draught for the Israelis with the Americans—or so it was viewed by hardliners in Jerusalem. Israel confirmed “Operation Outside the Box,” in spring 2008, that is, a September 2007 airstrike in Deir ez-Zor, eastern Syria, on a possible nuclear reactor. Around the same time, Japanese media reported that ten North Korean scientists may have been killed in the raid, seemingly confirming, for acolytes of Cheney anyway, grand narratives of an anti-American internationale, or an “axis of evil.”

Bush’s latter-day coldness to the hard line extended further than mere quibbles with Cheney. He put the U.S. on the path to the Iran deal. A month after “Outside the Box,” referring to Ahmadinejad, Bush said at the White House, “We got a leader in Iran who has announced that he wants to destroy Israel.” Behind the scenes, he entered into preliminary negotiations with Iranians, noting the urgency, and curiously striking a note of restraint. “If you’re interested in avoiding World War III,” he said “It seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.” It would become the very rationale for President Barack Obama’s 2015 attempt at detente with Iran, the Joint Comprehensive of Action (JCPOA), or the Iran deal. By December 2007, conservative hawks in Washington were making their anxiety plain, with a former Bush administration official called John Bolton publishing a book and giving a series of interviews all but explicitly denouncing his old boss. Sound familiar?

Indeed, Bush’s actions came amidst a larger crack-up on the right, personified by the 2008 rise of Congressman Ron Paul, during his run for president. The Texan became famous for getting in the face of terror warriors such as Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, and Sen. John McCain, the eventual party nominee. “The tired assertion that America ‘supports democracy’ in the Middle East is increasingly transparent,” Congressman Paul had stated, to the cheers of most subscribers to The American Conservative, for instance. Paul lurked on the peripheries of power even after his campaign formally ended, with a failed talk show host called Tucker Carlson lauding Paul. “Ron Paul has zero interest in telling other people what to do,” Carlson said in Minneapolis, as Paulheads rallied there, even as the official Republican National Convention was held in conjoined St. Paul. 

It would be, of course, a precursor to the open civil war in the Grand Old Party that ensued in the coming years.  

After Bush left office, the following years in Iran policy, much like Obama’s time in power, are perhaps best remembered as a farrago. Ahmadinejad was succeeded by Hassan Rouhani, known in Iran as something of a bully, but also a wily, capable regime moderate (those uber-hawkish on Iran dispute such a characterization, contending that there is no such thing as “moderate” in this regime). President Obama was, much to his political detriment, conspicuously cool on U.S. support for protests in Iran, during the “Green Moment” of 2009, part of the wider, eventually tragic “spring” in the Muslim world. But Obama was re-elected, and later his administration came to an accord with the Iranians. 

But not before unanimous opposition materialized from Congressional Republicans and all the major 2016 GOP candidates for president, not least of all Sen. Rand Paul, the inheritor of his father’s mantle (dad supported the deal). The true shiv on the right came from Kissinger and George Schultz, both conservative realist former secretaries of State, who loudly disclaimed the deal in the Wall Street Journal. “Rather than enabling American disengagement from the Middle East, the nuclear framework is more likely to necessitate deepening involvement there—on complex new terms,” the duo wrote. “History will not do our work for us; it helps only those who seek to help themselves.” 

As the deal was inked, the president of the United States was openly rebuked in an address before the U.S. Congress by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was greeted more warmly by Republicans than Obama ever had been. Finally, Obama also bled the support of New York Sen. Charles Schumer, among other key Democrats such as Rep. Eliot Engel, then the-ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Schumer would later become the most powerful Democrat left in Washington, as the party forfeited the 2016 election through sheer political malpractice. And it was not at all unthinkable that the nuclear framework would fall apart under a President Hillary Clinton, advocates of the deal quietly conceded. 

But a second President Clinton, of course, was not inaugurated. 

President Donald Trump’s opposition to the deal was principally based in his animus, to put it diplomatically, toward his predecessor, as well as a need to consolidate his party’s official establishment around him as he closed a 2016 primary campaign that had been spent slaying old shibboleths of the right, as is well documented. The Trump who in February 2016 pledged to be a “neutral guy” in the Israel-Palestine conflict, for instance, had by March of that year, backed away from that stance in an address to the American Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC). It was a speech in which the Washington Post noted at the time, “a new Donald Trump” emerged, one “flanked by teleprompters.” 

Trump’s capture of the White House was a strange affair for the Iran hawk crusade. To the end, Trump didn’t talk like an Iran hawk, saying in January 2019 that Iran “can do what they want” in Syria, for instance, a sentiment anathema to anyone seeking the overthrow of a regime that regards Syria as its “thirty-second province,” and perhaps one more politically important to the survival of the regime more than any other. To the end, Iran hawks privately fretted that if Trump ever returned to the negotiating with the Iranians, he might have given away the store, as they saw it, content to shred the Obama framework, and damn the details. 

Scott McConnell, founding editor of The American Conservative, encountered Trump at his golf course during his years in power, and the president conveyed to him a plainly transactional approach to the country, even gesticulating and mocking his then-national security advisor, Mr. Bolton. Yet, even after firing Bolton, Trump embarked on what was previously unthinkable, assassinating the famed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) general Qassem Soleimani, courting outright war, before the world was subsumed by pandemic, and Trump’s presidency collapsed.    


Now, after a first three months of surprising hawkishness in its own right, including a Syria strike, President Joe Biden is poised to entertain re-entering some sort of accord with a desperate Iran, which was, not even accounting for Soleimani, simply battered under Trump. Though other progressive personnel maneuvers fell apart as the new administration formed, the special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, is committed to a return to a deal. Discussions between American and Iranian officials occurred on the sidelines last week in Vienna, and a recent attack on an Iranian nuclear facility by the Mossad is evidence enough of a concerned Israeli establishment.

That the American Iran hawk lobby, anchored by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, is panicked is clear enough by the open telegraphing of its CEO Mark Dubowitz, who over the weekend, tweeted that “This talk of a new ‘longer, stronger, broader’ deal is a mirage designed to assuage anti-JCPOA Democrats,” while interestingly adding that it could also “split the Republican consensus,” before adding his annotation that he believes a new deal would “handcuff Israel and the Gulf Arabs” and it “looks like no one so far is buying into this as [Malley] leads a US collapse in Vienna.”     

It’s early days but it’s safe to say that Biden, who is popular, will likely—if he cares to pursue this, (“not a priority” was how one administration ally put the Iran file to me last week)—be able to rally most, if not all, the players in his party toward a new deal with Iran, something Obama failed to do. Support for Israel is more partisan than it was six years ago, as the leadership in Jerusalem has bet big on Republicans, to the revulsion of some younger American progressives, including some young Jewish Democrats. The new president is also fond of arguing that Republican leaders on the Hill are out of step with Republican voters, accounting for his polled approval rating well over fifty percent.  If he is willing to stir up the hornet’s nest that would be pursuit of a new JCPOA, there’s little doubt he would, however vainly, seek to bring some Republicans and conservatives along for the ride, to shore up his domestic political position. 

What does this mean for conservatives and Republicans?

First, there is the promise of a more substantial deal, as Dubowitz mentioned. Today, it is broadly conceded that failure to address Iran’s “regional behavior” in the original deal was a major political mistake, paring down Iran’s nuclear capabilities to be sure, but allowing the deal’s advocates to get hammered politically as Iran and its vast network of militias expanded their authority. But that failure’s history is a curious one, or as the Iran hawks’ bete noire, Trita Parsi of the Quincy Institute wrote in February in Foreign Affairs: “Today, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel argue that the 2015 Iran nuclear deal should have encompassed regional concerns. But back when the deal was being negotiated, Saudi Arabia and the UAE insisted… [the] administration refrain from bringing regional conflicts into discussions with Iran in their absence. Israel, too, opposed expanding the negotiating agenda beyond the nuclear file for fear that doing so would lead Washington to compromise on the nuclear front in exchange for regional concessions.”

American voters should also be wary of being played the fool. The Iranian regime is a theocracy, a nasty one, but is also the sworn enemy of the Islamic State group, for instance. In tandem with the U.S.-led coalition, Iran, including Soleimani, subdued the self-declared caliphate without a shred of mercy. Members of Iran’s military, or its pledged allies (most famously Hezbollah in Lebanon), are definitely bad news but are definitely not the moral equivalent of ISIS, or al-Qaeda, the apocalyptic Sunni terrorists that have killed Americans in the homeland. 

The veteran journalist Mark Perry draws out this distinction in his 2010 book, Talking to Terrorists, urging at the very least a parsing of Sunni anarchists like al-Qaeda and formal Shia special forces, such as the IRGC. Add in: Allegations that Iran works in concert with al-Qaeda are simply reed-thin. It’s, at this point, an almost tired point, but if the U.S. wants to lay blame on an official regime in the Middle East, it could start with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A supermajority of the 9/11 hijackers were native Saudis, as was Osama bin Laden, and swaths of information related to the American relationship with Riyadh remains conspicuously redacted. Politely, it becomes less clear by the day if those such as Dubowitz seek to greatly improve any deal with Iran, as he has long maintained, of if anything less than regime change, that is the Iraq model, is simply unacceptable, as those such as Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, have openly made clear (to me) and those such as Bolton have long favored

Next, conservative critics of the Iran hawks would do well to concede where they got it wrong. Trump’s Iran hawkishness clearly had its uses. Trump brought a weakened Iran back to the negotiating table, for one, for Biden now to deal with. And the Trump administration’s tact fostered the climate that gave rise to the landmark Abraham Accords, that is, some degree of normalization between the Sunni regimes and Israel, powers that were at each other’s throats only a generation ago. The American recognition of the Israeli capital in Jerusalem, a change in decades-old policy, was tellingly not reversed by the Biden administration. Soleimani’s assassination was not, it turned out, a “Franz Ferdidinand” moment, as this writer worried and veteran reporters fretted. Israel itself is a flourishing civilization, as McConnell pointed out in his “Two Cheers for Israel,” That it is a tribute to the tenacity of the Jewish people, and the rare Western, or even industrialized country, not in a demographic spiral is simply not in doubt. Most Americans would, as would this writer, elect to live in Israel if they had to live anywhere in the Middle East, and this cannot merely be ignored. 

But finally, it would seem a reckoning, if not realpolitik is in order. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator Lindsey Graham, paragons of the old guard, panned President Biden’s tentative withdrawal from Afghanistan on Tuesday. “It is a retreat in the face of an enemy that has not yet been vanquished and abdication of American leadership,” McConnell said. One guess where he will be on any accord with Iran, even a truly tough, future one brokered by a Trump-style Republican, even one that kept America out of yet one more war in the Middle East. 

The only Republican to win the White House since the failure in the war in Iraq was, of course, a committed critic of the whole enterprise. As a politician himself, he was a sweeping castigator of “endless wars” in the Middle East, which he saw as a distraction from China. So, it would seem Republicans have little choice but to pick up on the fact that whatever Donald Trump failed to do as president, at least he became president. Perhaps the lesson is he didn’t do enough; the Republicans narrowly forfeited power last fall.

But it’s still up to them if they want to forfeit all future claims on power.