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A New Iran Nuclear Deal Would Help Prove America Is Truly Back

Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty

For decades, the greatest threat to world peace was that we lived in a bipolar world. Today it may be that the world is dominated by a bipolar superpower.

The latest example of America’s split personality is the progress that is currently being made towards reviving the deal to freeze Iran’s nuclear program.

Don’t get me wrong; getting this deal restarted is a good thing by any measure. (You can tell because the Israelis are against it and they have been wrong about this deal since Day One.) But the still-prospective agreement illustrates a phenomenon that is very troubling to both our allies and our enemies—and which also came up in the discussions with the Iranians.

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The US was a driving force behind the multi-national effort to freeze Iran’s nuclear program (during the Obama years) before it unilaterally pulled out of it (under Trump). In renegotiating the agreement, a common Iranian question—and one heard behind the scenes from our allies—was: “How long will the Biden administration’s support for striking a deal last?” And will Donald Trump (or a Trump-like president) get elected who will again seek to scuttle the pact?

Administration officials who have been working to resuscitate the accords are worried cavernous divide between Democratic and Republican views on such a deal might actually manifest itself sooner—with GOP efforts to torpedo approval for any final agreement in the US Senate.

It is immensely difficult for the US to lead when no one knows for sure which direction we will be heading following the next presidential election. Of course, there have always been political differences between presidents and opposition parties. But there was an understanding that the US should try to present a unified front when dealing with foreign entities, and that the commitments made by previous administrations would, by and large, be respected. The full faith and credit of the US government meant something in financial markets—and our word meant something as a foundation of our diplomacy.

But that was before the polarization and scorched-earth politics of the past few years.

Despite articles you may have read which suggested that Biden and Trump policies had something in common (as is inevitable), the yawning gaps between the two factions in American politics remain shocking and bewildering to the rest of the international community. For decades America led the formation of the international system and support for (most) of its institutions. We saw alliances as our special source of strength. We promoted the rule of law and sought to cultivate, at least on the face of our behavior, a “club of democracies.”

But Trump sought to undo all of that.

His “America First” brand of geopolitics took strong stances against bedrock international institutions like the UN and NATO. He withdrew not only from the Iran deal but from the Paris Climate Accords (in the middle of the climate crisis) and from the World Health Organization (in the middle of a pandemic)—and also from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). He bad-mouthed our allies, sought to withdraw US troops from international bases in Europe and Asia, and essentially sent the message that all bets were off when it came to American foreign policy. Who we were is not who we were going to be if he was president.

The Biden administration has spent much of its first two years reversing many of these steps, underscoring how much we valued our allies, NATO, the UN, diplomacy, and the rule of law (never an area in which Trump had much interest). Resultantly, US standing in the world has rebounded.

From early on, Biden’s message was “America is back“—and nothing has underscored that quite as much as the leadership the US has shown (and which our allies have welcomed) with regard to the war in Ukraine, now entering its seventh month. This week’s additional commitment of $3 billion in aid to Ukraine, coinciding with Ukrainian Independence Day, drives this point home—particularly when the $54 billion now allocated for Ukraine support is contrasted with Trump’s illegal withholding of aid to Ukraine during his effort to blackmail that country’s leaders into helping him find dirt on Joe Biden.

Iran even warned in 2017 that if the US pulled out of the Iran deal, no one would ever trust the US again. It was not empty rhetoric, even if it was self-interested and came from a power that was itself trusted by few.

The worry about what might happen under a future GOP administration has been so great that some US political experts argue now is the time to make deals with Biden’s more responsible, internationally engaged US administration. Iran itself has used this point in the current negotiations.

But let’s be honest with ourselves. The reason for that is that the current GOP is so reckless and shows so much disregard for US national security interests that it is perfectly reasonable to question whether a Republican will honor Biden deals should the party return to power—especially if Trump or one of his acolytes is the next president.

Restoring the Iran deal would be a step towards reestablishing trust in the US It would also help undo one of the great blunders of Trump’s foreign policy. (Even key Israeli leaders who once advocated for pulling out of the deal now agree on this.) Approving it in Congress would be another big step in that direction. Conversely, failure to approve it—or seeking to water it down—would raise further questions about US credibility on this and other crucial issues of national security.

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Similarly, from revitalizing NATO to re-entering the WHO, from once again supporting the Paris climate accords (and actually doing something thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act to fight the climate crisis) to restoring values ​​to the center of US foreign policy, the Biden administration’s actions could help send the message to the world that the Trump era was an aberration. It lets the international community know that the US is not retreating from its commitments, and that we can be trusted again.

This, of course, is predicated on the assumption that the next Congress or the next president does not spin the wheel of the US ship of state in a completely different direction. Were that to happen, as bad as the damage done by Trump was, the setback to American international standing would be compounded many times over. America’s 21st century identity would then be confirmed for many as a fair-weather friend, an unreliable partner, and as an erratic adversary.

For these reasons, it is important to see a possible new agreement with Iran as something more, as a commitment from the US to the world that we understand the great risks posed by having the world’s most powerful nation be one that suffers from devastating and dangerous political mood swings. We must recognize that we are being watched closely, and that the way the world and history will evaluate our handling of this deal extends far beyond its technical terms.

If we value the concept of American leadership, if we recognize how important that leadership is to global stability and prosperity, then all Americans regardless of party must recognize the stakes, the damage that has already been done and we must correct it by working to restore not only deals we once made but believe that when we give our word as a nation, we keep it.

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