WASHINGTON – In the 1980s, Ollie North and Fawn Hall gave us the Iran-contra affair. Now we’re experiencing the Iran-contradiction affair.
A week ago, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., went on television and proposed abandoning the nuclear deal just reached with Iran and returning to the 2013 interim agreement that started the talks. “What I would suggest is, if you can’t get there with this deal, is to keep the interim deal in place,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” He repeated his idea of “keeping the interim deal in place that’s been fairly successful and have a new crack at it with a new president that doesn’t have the baggage of Obama.”
It’s a reasonable argument, but it was roundly refuted by … Lindsey Graham. In November 2013, he panned the interim deal he now praises as successful. “This still allows 18,000 centrifuges to stay in place, and it basically just suspends construction of the plutonium reactor,” he told CNN, adding: “I’m very worried. … This interim deal gives the Iranians $7 billion in cash, and it leaves in place one of the most sophisticated enrichment programs around.”
At that time, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., was even more alarmed. “I think people are very concerned that the interim deal becomes the norm,” something that would make Iran “a threat to the world,” he said then. He called that temporary agreement “a total victory” for Iran.
But just three weeks ago, Corker, now chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CBS’ Bob Schieffer that if Iran talks fail, he’d rely on … the very same “Joint Plan of Action” he panned 16 months ago. “We do have JPOA in place, the interim deal, and it could continue for some time,” he said. “It keeps the existing sanctions in place, although there is some sanctions relief for Iran, OK, but it stays in place for a while.”
There are plenty of good reasons to be suspicious about the tentative deal the Obama administration and international partners negotiated with Tehran. But as Secretary of State John Kerry gives classified briefings on the agreement to lawmakers on Capitol Hill this week, the criticism coming from Republicans and from Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Israel is tangled by inconsistencies and logic discrepancies. The one constant: They are opposed to what Obama is doing – whatever it is.
Moshe Yaalon, Israel’s defense minister, wrote in The Washington Post last week: “The choice is not between this bad deal and war. The alternative is a better deal.” This is the same Yaalon who said in February that “every deal that will be signed between the West and this messianic and apocalyptic regime will strike a severe blow to Western and Israeli interests and will allow Iran to become a nuclear threshold state and continue its terror activities.”
Back in 2012, Netanyahu said the international sanctions regime had been “ineffective” and “hasn’t worked” and had failed to deter Iran’s nuclear progress. Even after the United States and Europe toughened sanctions early in 2012, Netanyahu said that year that there hadn’t been “any impact on Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”
But in criticizing Obama’s agreement last week, Netanyahu said sanctions – sanctions he had said weren’t working – had “proven effective” against Iran.
Sometimes, lawmakers here at home have found themselves contradicted by the facts. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., the author of a letter to Iran’s leaders signed by 47 Republican senators seeking to scuttle nuclear negotiations, asserted that “if Congress does not approve a deal, Congress will not accept a deal.” But that’s not true, historically: The Congressional Research Service found that at least 18,500 international executive agreements had been reached since 1789 (17,300 since 1939) and that only 1,100 treaties have been ratified by Congress.
More often, lawmakers are at odds with themselves. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who on Monday formally announced his presidential candidacy, complained at an earlier time that “too many of our allies and strategic partners see our foreign policy as a riddle and our actions as inconsistent with our rhetoric. They only see movements toward disengagement and feel that we’re overly eager to negotiate a deal with Iran.”
But as U.S. negotiators completed the Iran framework, with the support of Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, Rubio told the Associated Press that he would “absolutely” rescind the Iran deal – even if it meant defying the very allies he had recently accused Obama of alienating.
One thing didn’t change: Rubio opposed Obama then, and he opposes him now.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.