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Thursday, December 8, 2016

The stakes in Vienna right now couldn’t be much higher.

Sunday marks the end of the six-month agreement between Iran and the world’s leading economic powers to freeze the country’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for easing the economic sanctions that have brought Iran’s leaders their knees.

Success in Vienna would be the crowning foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration. In addition to disarming one of the world’s most dangerous regimes, an agreement seen domestically as a victory for reformists and moderates following President Hassan Rouhani could dramatically advance the cause of human rights for Iran’s 77 million citizens. Even more consequentially, a resolution to the Iranian nuclear question would mark a giant step toward advancing a unified effort to reduce loose nuclear materials around the globe and eliminate all nuclear warheads.

The risks are, however, are as large as the rewards. American abandonment of the talks could produce a series of developments that could endanger the homeland, or at least threaten our global leadership. Our European partners might feel the need to protect their own economic interests by breaking ranks with the U.S. and pursuing their own negotiated settlement with the Iranians. In the worst-case scenario, the Iranian regime could resume enriching uranium, fast-tracking its pursuit of a nuclear weapon. A nuclear Iran could be a reality within one year, in turn motivating Saudi Arabia and other regional powers to go nuclear as well.

A third, and perhaps most likely option appears to be a six-month extension of the agreement reached in January. This outcome would present its own, singularly unique threat.

I speak of the threat of a six-month extension that would provoke snarling diatribes on ‘American weakness’ from Dick Cheney.

The threat that Ron Fournier might pen another op-ed piece on “why Obama isn’t leading.”

The threat that some commentators might read a few Wall Street Journal editorials that sound informed, only to suddenly insist that they know more than American diplomats who have spent 30 years dealing with Iran.

The threat that a daytime panel forum, hosted by the Heritage Foundation and wailing on the Obama Administration’s impotence, might actually reach an audience on C-SPAN beyond the panel members’ immediate families.

And most pointedly, the threat that the few rational Republicans left in Washington may be forced, once again, to feed the monster of an electoral base they have created — passing a foolish increase in sanctions and torpedoing any possible deal, all for the glory of a one-week news cycle.

In short, the threat wouldn’t come from Washington; it would be Washington itself. It would be that this isolated town on the Potomac chooses to listen only to itself rather than to the clear majority of Americans —including 62 percent of Republicans and 65 percent of Democrats — that supports the ongoing negotiations.

Scoring cheap points and even cheaper dollars from special interest groups matters more than protecting America’s homeland. That’s how Washington operates these days.

We should all be thankful that the talks are ongoing in Vienna, and we should pray that Secretary of State John Kerry and the American delegation meet with the Iranians in airtight rooms, without even a decibel leaking in from the Washington din.

But enough with the doom and gloom. There is a silver lining here: When it comes time to vote, none of what happens in Vienna will even matter. Whatever Dick Cheney says, it won’t matter. There’s no need to fret about November when it comes to the Vienna talks. Let’s hope that members of Congress are mindful of this.

Americans are a simple people. We want our pocketbooks taken care of. We don’t vote with anything else in mind — it’s an unfortunate trait of democratic governance, but it works in our collective best interest here.

George H.W. Bush, basking in the glory of the Gulf War, had every reason to expect the American people to reelect him; his trouncing was, as the saying goes, due to the economy, stupid. Not even Winston Churchill, in an election held weeks after victory in Europe, could survive a wave of economic angst.

Gallup regularly asks Americans, what is the “most important problem facing this country today?” Last March, 19 percent named unemployment and jobs, and another 17 picked the economy in general. Only 4 percent of respondents chose foreign aid and our focus overseas as the most important. Not a single specific foreign policy question was chosen as most critical by any respondents.

Normally, I would lament this fact. There should be a line connecting our economy and events overseas. If we manufacture and export goods, we need consumers overseas to buy them. We provide aid to foreign markets to help consumers buy our goods. Opening the doors into Iran could provide 77 million more consumers for American manufacturers.

But in the current environment, isolating foreign affairs from domestic politics seems salutary.

This is a real opportunity for the Obama administration to accomplish something without having to swim in the Washington cesspool. It is tolerable and understandable that Tehran and Washington, after more than 30 years of total diplomatic silence, might distrust one another. What is nauseating is the extent to which political leaders, recognizing the obvious importance of such a diplomatic accord with Iran, might act to subvert the talks for such negligible and short-term political gain. My fingers are crossed that Congress can do what it does best in order to help the Iran talks continue: absolutely nothing.

Thomas L. Day is an Iraq War veteran and a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council. Follow him on Twitter at @ThomasLDay

AFP Photo/Joe Klamar

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