In this picture taken on May 2, 2013, Iranian President Hasan Rouhani delivers a speech during his campaign for the presidential election in Tehran, Iran.

Bring the Iran Deal Into the Light

Secret diplomacy is fraught with peril.

In this picture taken on May 2, 2013, Iranian President Hasan Rouhani delivers a speech during his campaign for the presidential election in Tehran, Iran.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani


In his State of the Union address last week, President Obama threatened to veto any bill imposing new sanctions on Iran. “For the sake of our national security,” he said, “we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed.” But there is no way to know if diplomacy is succeeding if the terms of the deal with Iran are kept secret, and the mystery shrouding the agreement only encourages those seeking definitive action through sanctions.

The Geneva interim agreement, or Joint Plan of Action, trades a short-term freeze of portions of Iran’s nuclear program for billions of dollars in relief from economic sanctions. The six-month deal is intended as a bridge to a more comprehensive nuclear agreement to be negotiated later. The White House claims that the agreement rolls back Iran’s nuclear program, reduces stockpiles of highly-enriched uranium and provides for unprecedented levels of inspection and verification. But, as with any such agreement, the devil is in the details, and in this case the specifics are strangely murky.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Iran.]

The full texts of the agreement and its implementation protocols have not been released. The administration says that it is up to the European Union and International Atomic Energy Administration to make the deal public, since they are the lead agencies in its negotiation and enforcement. But it is strange that the United States could be party to a multinational agreement being kept from public view at the whim of foreign governments. House Foreign Affairs Committee member Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said even members of Congress must go to extraordinary lengths to see what the U.S. government has agreed to do. “Why is it that members of Congress have to go to a super secret location,” she asked a panel of nuclear experts, and enter “a cone of silence … to look at the deal?” She said that if it is “such a great deal and so good for peace and diplomacy in our time” then the administration should not keep it a secret.

Recent statements from Tehran have compounded the problem. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in January that Iran “did not agree to dismantle anything” and that an administration fact sheet summarizing the agreement “both underplays the concessions and overplays Iranian commitments." He said that, contrary to White House claims, there is not “a single word that even closely resembles dismantling or could be defined as dismantling in the entire text.”

Bellicose statements last weekend from Gen. Hossein Salami of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have called Tehran’s intentions into question. Salami said Iran has identified targets to attack inside the United States — hardly the posture of a country negotiating in good faith.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

Uncertainties regarding the status of the agreement and its implementation have energized the push for new sanctions. Obama’s veto threat was presumably aimed at the Menendez-Kirk Iran sanctions bill currently being considered in Congress. The bill would expand penalties against Iran’s energy and industrial sectors and require certification that Tehran has not tested new ballistic missiles or sponsored terrorist acts against the United States anywhere in the world. The bill has broad bipartisan support, a rarity on Capitol Hill, and is close to having enough cosponsors to override a potential veto.

The White House sees the Menendez-Kirk bill as an impediment to diplomacy. But Congressional action can go hand in hand with a tough negotiating posture. Potentially facing new, more rigorous sanctions keeps pressure on Iran to abide by the terms of the nuclear deal — whatever they are. But drawing a veto line in the sand signals to Tehran that these negotiations are all carrot and no stick.

A century ago, the world learned an important lesson about the perils of secret diplomacy. One reason the crisis of the summer of 1914 escalated into a world war was because of secret or poorly-understood agreements concluded behind the scenes. This was why the first of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points after the war ended was that there should be “open covenants of peace, openly arrived at,” and that “diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.” The American people should know what commitments its representatives are making with foreign powers in their name.