Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sunday Reading

Big Deal — Uri Friedman in The Atlantic on the deal with Iran over nuclear weapons and what it means for the United States.

We have a deal.

After several setbacks, negotiators in Geneva have reached a historic agreement that will place restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program in exchange for easing some of the sanctions arrayed against the country. In the early hours of Sunday morning in Switzerland, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif broke the news in a tweet:

The details are still coming into focus, but here are the basics: Iran will stop enriching uranium beyond the 5-percent level (nuclear power plants typically run on 3.5 percent-enriched uranium), refrain from installing new centrifuges for uranium enrichment, and dilute or convert to oxide its stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium (a level that allows Iran to quickly enrich uranium to the weapons-grade threshold of 90 percent). It will also refrain from producing fuel for or operating its heavy-water reactor near the city of Arak, which experts believe could produce weapons-grade plutonium. International monitors will be granted expanded access to Iran’s nuclear facilities.

In response, world powers will offer Iran billions of dollars in sanctions relief. Critically, judging from what’s been released to the press so far, the accord does not explicitly recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium—a key sticking point in the talks.

It’s a big deal, though best seen as a temporary, brittle one designed to buy the parties six months to hammer out a longer-term—and far trickier—agreement.

But what’s arguably a bigger deal, and what’s been overshadowed in all the coverage of the haggling over this interim pact, is just how momentous these last several months have been for U.S.-Iranian relations. Since Iranian President Hassan Rouhani took office this summer, the two countries have engaged in the highest-level talks since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, first through a meeting between Zarif and Secretary of State John Kerry, and then through a phone call between Rouhani and President Obama (the two had previously exchanged letters). Zarif has also pioneered a new approach to speaking directly to the American people, turning to social-media outlets like Twitter and YouTube to defend, in English, Iran’s positions at the Geneva negotiations.

The way the news cycle works these days, we take it for granted that Kerry is now in Geneva celebrating a diplomatic breakthrough with Zarif. But the frenzied diplomacy this fall has truly been exceptional. As the Ploughshares Fund’s Joe Cirincione remarked after nuclear talks collapsed earlier this month, Kerry and Zarif “spent more time [together] in the last 24 hours than they have in 34 years.”

Nothing drives this point home more than David Crist’s The Twilight War, which chronicles America’s failures, over three decades, to communicate with Iran—and the grave risks this state of affairs has posed for war by miscalculation. “With no diplomatic ties and only occasional meetings in dark corners of hotel bars and through shadowy intermediaries, neither side has an accurate view of the other,” Crist, a Pentagon historian, wrote. In other words, we’ve been living through another cold war—but one without a proverbial “red phone.”

The Senate’s Nuclear Option — Hendrik Hertzberg on changing the rules in Washington.

“In the history of the republic, there have been a hundred and sixty-eight filibusters of executive and judicial nominations,” Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, said after the vote. “Half of them have occurred during the Obama Administration.” Reid added, “Further, only twenty-three district-court nominees have been filibustered in the entire history of this country. Twenty of them were nominated by President Obama.”

Of course, the most outrageous abuses have been against legislation. Obama, in his post-nuke pressroom remarks, complained of these, too. Absent the filibuster, we would now be enjoying the economic fruits of a bigger, better-designed stimulus. Cap-and-trade would be in place. The Affordable Care Act would not have been weighted down with so many Rube Goldberg contrivances, and it might well have included a “public option” to keep the insurance companies honest.

But abuse is inherent in the very existence of the filibuster. The supposed Golden Age, when filibusters were rare, was pure lead. As someone around here wrote back in 2005, when it was Republicans who were threatening to go nuclear and Democrats who were urging everyone to watch “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”:

Absent Senate filibusters, the anti-lynching bills of 1922, 1935, and 1938 would have become law, bringing federal force to bear against racist violence and possibly allowing the civil-rights movement to achieve its victories decades earlier; direct election of the President would have replaced the electoral college in time for the 1972 election; and nearly all Americans would now be covered by a program of national health insurance.

(Whether we will still stumble our way to that last item, of course, remains to be seen.)

Today’s vote was a historic advance. It was a leap in the dark, too, and it’s no wonder that Democrats took so long to take it: when Republicans again control the Senate, as one day—maybe one day soon—they will, the likelihood is that they will busily populate the federal bench with dozens of little Scalias and Thomases. But that’s what they did the last time they had a Senate majority, thanks to the reluctance of Democrats to use the filibuster so often and so ferociously.

Doonesbury — More catching up.

2 barks and woofs on “Sunday Reading

  1. One problem with the Times only delivery (for now) is that we don’t see the comics . . . I really miss Zits and Doonesbury. I’d be grateful if you’d pass along these and Baby Blues until we decide how to rectify our bleak mornings funny-papers-wise.


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