Avoiding the “Nuclear Option”

The two major headlines from the past weekend—Democrats use the “nuclear option” by changing the Senate’s filibuster rules, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry secures a deal temporarily halting the Iranian nuclear program—appear to be unrelated despite an obvious word. One is a partisan issue of mostly domestic, including constitutional, relevance; the other a first-order, global issue of international politics having pitted six world powers plus the European Union against one recalcitrant country for nearly a decade.

Yet, the sheer coincidence of these two events bears a surprising lesson that some Republicans might want to consider drawing from the Iranians about how to annoy a more powerful adversary without triggering the “nuclear option.”

Despite many uncertainties about the Iranian regime’s overall intentions, including the sincerity of its current opening, one thing is clear: It has always “only” toed the red lines that were established, explicitly or implicitly, both with regard to the country’s nuclear program and its regional power projection. While regularly boasting of Iranian capabilities—evicting the U.S. Fifth Fleet from the Persian Gulf, erasing Israel from the map of the Middle East—successive governments have done only so little as to keep the conflict going without provoking a major American or international reaction.

This holds true in particular for the nuclear program, where Iran had started to convert enriched uranium into fuel rods, which can no longer be used for a nuclear bomb but only for energy production, without direct international pressure—so as to avoid increasing its stockpiles to levels deemed critical by Israel. And it could be said even of the harsh sanctions regime currently in place if one assumes a miscalculation on the Iranian side. They didn’t expect the West to impose measures, such as an oil embargo that, for example, also did harm to European countries hitherto dependent on Iranian crude. Realizing that they went one step too far, the new government signaled openness to negotiations in order to extract some concessions for accepting limitations on their nuclear program—so far, understandable.

Republicans, however, have not been so cautious. Rather, they behaved like the bull in the china shop, as the last battle over the federal budget and the debt ceiling evidenced. More than that, they used their powers deriving from the Senate rules of procedures to delay the nominations of 242 executive and judicial nominations, including extremely important positions, such as the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, and another 85 nominees for Cabinet-level agencies. According to statistics from the Congressional Research Service, Barack Obama’s nominees on average had to wait 100 days longer for their confirmation than those of his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Like provoking the partial shutdown of the government in October, it is irresponsible and unwise to unreasonably delay those nominations simply because the rules empower the minority to do so instead of using this lever for a constructive bargaining—irresponsible, because it harms the country by refusing the government and judiciary the sheer (wo)manpower to function; and unwise, because it has ultimately led the Democrats to take the “nuclear option.”

Why did Republicans apparently not care about treading more carefully? For one, they appear to be steeped in ideology, as the budget controversy—to be repeated early next year—has shown. Compared to this, the Islamist elite ruling in Tehran looks pretty rational in its approach. For another, Republicans have the very concrete prospect of ruling the Senate and possibly also winning the White House in one of the upcoming elections. Then they surely would like themselves to exercise the “tyranny of the majority” they now deplore. Iranians don’t have the prospect of overpowering the United States any time soon, and in their sober, non-messianic moments, they know this. That is why they agreed to a face-saving compromise now.

And, while running the danger of stretching the comparison, there is even a German angle to this. Not because Germany is part of the P5+1 negotiators and caretaker-foreign minister Guido Westerwelle travelled to Geneva alongside Secretary Kerry. But rather, because the two major parties of the Bundestag, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) / Christian Social Union (CSU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), are finalizing their long awaited coalition agreement these days. It would be the second Grand Coalition after Angela Merkel’s first term from 2005 to 2009, which is generally commended for having steered the country through the onset of the global financial crisis.

True, the coming together of these two parties is no coalition by choice, but rather by a lack of other partners. Yet, it shows a degree of political rationality that is currently absent from American politics. It is also only possible because, during their tenure in government and the opposition respectively for the past four years and despite an election campaign geared firmly against “the other,” the two major parties can agree on what the rules of the game are. They have not demonized each other—let alone made it impossible at every turn for the other to govern when they were in power.

But hey—there is still the SPD’s party referendum on the coalition agreement to be held two weeks after the negotiations’ conclusion. The rank-and-file are not so convinced by “the deal” that their bosses have made—if that sounds like Congress torpedoing the nuclear agreement with Iran, but at a very different level, that’s just as well. After all, it is such similarities that bring Germans and Americans closer again.

Cornelius Adebahr is a Visiting Fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (AICGS) at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC and Associate Fellow of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in Berlin.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

Cornelius Adebahr

Dr. Cornelius Adebahr was a Visiting Fellow at AICGS from October to December 2013. During his fellowship, Dr. Adebahr analyzed the transatlantic partners‘ current approach toward Iran and the country’s disputed nuclear program. Following a two-year stay in Tehran, he assessed the latest openings made by Iran’s newly elected president, Ayatollah Rouhani. In addition, he looked at ways how the United States—particularly Congress—could support a potential agreement that would see a gradual phase out of the current international sanctions. Ultimately, a compromise would have to see both sides giving up some of their more extreme demands in order to settle for the common ground around their respective core interests.

Dr. Adebahr is a political scientist and entrepreneur; he lives in Washington, DC, and Berlin, Germany. Since the end of 2000, he has been the owner of Wirtschaft am Wasserturm, a political consultancy firm. Among his clients are major company-affiliated foundations as well as not-for-profit associations and European institutions. In addition, Cornelius Adebahr has been affiliated with the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) since January 2006, and is currently an Associate Fellow. He is also a columnist with the Global Policy Journal published by the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

As a fellow of the Stiftung Neue Verantwortung from 2009 to 2011, Dr. Adebahr headed two research teams on “geopolitics and the financial crisis” and “raw materials strategy.” He has taught at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy at Erfurt University and the Faculty for World Studies of Tehran University. Furthermore, from 2003 to 2011, he was a member of Team Europe, an experts’ network of the European Commission.

Cornelius Adebahr was a scholar of the European Foreign and Security Policy Studies Program of the Volkswagen Foundation, Compagnia di San Paolo, and Riksbankens Jubileumsfond as well as of the Postgraduate Program in International Affairs by the Robert Bosch Foundation and the German National Merit Foundation. He studied International Relations, Philosophy, Public Law, and International Economics in Tübingen and Paris and earned his PhD at the Free University Berlin.