What the Iran Nuclear Deal Says about Making Foreign Policy Today

Doing foreign policy has rarely been easy, but several new realities contribute to making it especially difficult today.


In July 2015, the United States and five other countries concluded an agreement with Iran concerning that country’s nuclear program. The negotiations stretched over 20 months and the resulting accord ran to more than 30,000 words, but it was based on a simple tradeoff: Iran would get relief from economic sanctions and in return would dismantle parts of its nuclear infrastructure and place limitations on the rest. The goal was to assure the world that the program would not be used to develop nuclear weapons.

While some hailed the successful conclusion of the talks as one of the greatest achievements of the Obama administration, others could not condemn the result strongly enough. It became one of the most contentious foreign policy debates in years, and Congress came very close to overturning what the diplomats had accomplished.

The debate over the agreement revealed not just a sharp difference of opinion, but also how difficult making foreign policy is today. That is because the process is affected by five factors: globalization, partisan politics, money, technology and truth. None of them is new, but all have more impact than in the past.


Simply put, globalization is people, things and ideas crossing national boundaries with greater speed, frequency, impact and reach. Anything constrained by those boundaries, like national governments, becomes weaker, while anything that can ignore them grows stronger. Globalization means that even the world’s only superpower is not all-powerful. And globalization is the reason the United States cannot confront Iran alone unless it wants to wage another war in the Middle East—this time without any significant allies.

Some have suggested that harsher sanctions will bring Tehran to its knees and cause the Iranians to give up their entire nuclear program. But in the absence of Iran testing a nuclear weapon or committing some other undeniable violation of the agreement, harsher sanctions are not going to happen. The proof would have to be crystal clear, but would come from an intelligence community that President Donald J. Trump has repeatedly denigrated. Given the growing distrust abroad of the American government and its intentions, an assertion by Washington of a violation based on an intelligence assessment would convince no one other than Iran’s Sunni enemies.

Acting unilaterally to impose harsher sanctions will not work either; unless broadly adopted by other nations, sanctions would have little impact and would hurt the American economy more than Iran’s. Our negotiating partners are not going to tear up the existing agreement simply because a new president thinks it is a bad deal; and they have no desire to return to the negotiating table to seek a better one. To the contrary, our partners recognize Iran must receive some benefit from the agreement for it to succeed, and they are moving ahead with expanded commercial ties. Airbus and the French oil company Total have signed multibillion-dollar deals with Iran, and our other partners are doing business with Tehran, as well. Washington's options are limited by the increasing international trade that is part of globalization.

Partisan Politics

Globalization isn’t the only thing constraining the formulation of foreign policy. Toxic partisan politics has become as much a part of the Washington environment as heat and humidity in August. Not a single Republican in Congress supported the agreement, and the contenders for the party’s presidential nomination acted as if they were in a contest to claim who would tear it up fastest upon taking office.

Globalization comes into play because it demonstrates that even the world’s only superpower is not all-powerful.

John Isaacs, a senior fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, pointed out in an article in The Hill that the opposition did not stem from careful consideration: “Most GOP members did not even wait for the ink to dry on the agreement to vigorously oppose the deal presented to Congress on Sept. 14. They did not bother to read the 120- page document, study the details, wait for hearings or consult with experts.”

The opposition went so far that 47 of the 54 Republican Senators wrote an “open letter” to “the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” pointing out that the next American president could reverse any agreement with the stroke of a pen. It was drafted by Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who at that point had been in the Senate for all of 10 weeks. He admitted in a speech at the right-wing Heritage Foundation that “the end of these negotiations isn’t an unintended consequence of congressional action, it is very much an intended consequence.”


Senator Cotton’s attempts to put partisan politics ahead of national security in his effort to derail the Iran nuclear deal can be linked to another factor affecting foreign policy: the corrupting influence of money on politics. His election campaign received millions of dollars from fervently pro-Israel billionaires and groups. The Emergency Committee for Israel spent $960,000 to support Sen. Cotton. Paul Singer and Seth Klarman, both billionaire hedge fund managers, gave $250,000 and $100,000, respectively. The political action committee run by John Bolton, George W. Bush’s recess-appointee ambassador to the United Nations whom a Republican-majority Senate refused to confirm, chipped in at least $825,000.

Thanks to Citizens United and other decisions by the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, the floodgates have been opened wider than ever before, and there is no longer any real limit on what the wealthy can spend on elections in the hope of influencing policy. As Trevor Potter, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, described it in a New Yorker article: “A single billionaire can write an eightfigure check and put not just their thumb but their whole hand on the scale—and we often have no idea who they are. Suddenly, a random billionaire can change politics and public policy—to sweep everything else off the table—even if they don’t speak publicly, and even if there’s almost no public awareness of his or her views.”

One such billionaire, who makes no secret of his policy preferences, is casino owner Sheldon Adelson. He once suggested detonating a nuclear weapon in the desert in Iran, just to show them America means business. He is a major funder of a number of groups like United Against Nuclear Iran, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies that dedicated themselves to defeating the Iran deal. AIPAC spent between $20 million and $40 million in the effort, and a good bit of that was Adelson’s money.

Whether driven by ideology, money or both, the debate over the Iran nuclear issue marked a new low in relations between the Republican majorities in Congress and the Obama administration. It also prompted a remarkable, perhaps unprecedented, level of involvement by groups outside of government. Think-tanks, political advocacy organizations, pro-Israel and religious groups, nonprofit associations, veterans’ groups, media outlets, arms control organizations and others weighed in on both sides of the debate. It was a foreign affairs food fight, with positions both for and against the agreement argued with great passion and intensity.

In an open letter to Congress in April 2015, more than 70 national organizations implored representatives and senators to support the Iran nuclear deal. Three months later, just after the deal was signed, a large rally was held by dozens of other organizations in New York City, to argue the opposite. Estimated at between 10,000 and 15,000, the crowd urged Congress to vote the deal down. The turnout at the rally was large because the organizers used social media and other means to support the effort. In addition to the rally and the open letter, tens of thousands of people contacted their members of Congress and hundreds of thousands signed petitions to express their support or opposition to the agreement.

Technology and Truth

The involvement of so many organizations and individuals demonstrates that foreign policy is not limited to diplomats holding quiet discussions behind closed doors. Apparently the Founding Fathers did not anticipate the creation of the internet and the spread of social media. They didn’t plan for the tens of thousands of lobbyists engaged in that multibillion-dollar industry and the thousands of nongovernmental, nonprofit and religious organizations, think-tanks and business associations that have also set up shop in Washington to have an impact on government policy.

When a policy attains a high profile, it attracts the attention of a broad range of actors, assuring the debate about what direction to take will be vigorous. These kinds of debates are usually orchestrated by the Washington establishment—those who live in and around the nation’s capital and who are in government or the business of influencing it. But occasionally, as the general public becomes aware of and concerned about a particular foreign policy, any number of individuals can join in. That is easier to do today, with email, the internet, social media and other technologies enabling those who want to broaden participation in the debate to do so. Thanks to technology, connecting with like-minded people takes just a few keystrokes. And all those means of connecting came into play in the making of the Iran nuclear agreement, as those who favored it and those who opposed it attempted to influence the outcome.

As the general public becomes aware of and concerned about a particular foreign policy, any number of individuals can join in.

The range of information sources made possible by technology also means that, in effect, everyone can have his or her own version of the truth. Whatever one wants to believe, a justification for it can be found online. Back when people got their television news from NBC, CBS and ABC, there was not much difference in the world that was presented to them, all from a limited number of media outlets. Now liberals watch MSNBC, conservatives tune in to Fox and independents can catch CNN. But beyond that there are unlimited sources, many of them possibilities for news, much of it unreliable and even untrue.

Because of these divergent realities that Americans live in, there is often no agreement on even the most basic facts. That makes it difficult if not impossible to have a serious discussion of the national interest, what threats there are to those interests or how to deal with them. People can believe Iran will never hold up its end of the bargain, or they can think that diplomacy is the only way to avoid another war. And both camps can buttress their arguments with “proof” found online.

Looking Ahead

The successful conclusion of the Iran nuclear agreement and its first two years in existence did not end the debate. Congress required the president to certify every 90 days that Iran is abiding by the agreement, thus ensuring the debate will be renewed every three months. And since the agreement did not solve all of America’s problems with Iran, there is always the opportunity to argue against extending it because Iran is not living up to its “spirit,” even if it continues to comply with the limits placed on the nuclear program.

Secretary of State George Shultz once said, “Nothing ever gets settled in this town. It’s a seething debating society in which the debate never stops, in which people never give up.” Shultz made those remarks in 1986, as he tried to explain to the House Foreign Affairs Committee why he was so ignorant about the Iran-Contra scandal, which included selling Iran 1,500 anti-tank missiles and spare parts for anti-aircraft missiles. But he could have been talking about Iran policy today.

Opponents of the Iran nuclear agreement have not given up. And with an unpredictable president, the eventual outcome is impossible to foresee. The one certainty is that the Iran issue will not go away.

Dennis Jett is a professor at Penn State’s School of International Affairs and served 28 years in the State Department, including assignments as ambassador to Peru and Mozambique. His fourth book, published by Palgrave Macmillan and titled The Iran Nuclear Deal: Bombs, Billionaires, and Bureaucrats, will be out in October.