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Beyond the Beltway

Obama, the Iran deal and Rawls’ Theory of Justice

Deal or no deal with Iran? John Kerry says yes; others say no. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

The American debate over Iran rumbles on as the summer draws to a close. We are all preparing for a congressional vote by September 17 at the latest. This means that a final decision will likely be made, with no small degree of irony, just after the conclusion of Rosh Hashanah, the festival marking the beginning of the Jewish New Year. The Lord clearly moves in mysterious ways.

Despite the daily intrigue surrounding how individual representatives and senators will vote, the proponents and opposition are consolidating with few surprises. Certainly, an occasional northeastern Jewish politician may surprise us, like Jerrold Nadler did when he announced his support for the deal. Then again, Nadler has a paradoxical track record – being one of the few who also voted against the Iraq War.

Consolidating positions

For the most part, the deal’s opponents are taking predictable positions, both in the United States and abroad. Republicans unilaterally oppose the deal, whether because of their love of Israel or hatred of all things President Obama proposes. Europeans love the deal because it holds the limited promise of more stability in the Middle East and the enormous promise of trade with Iran. The same is true of Russia.

The Gulf states may not like the deal, but they lack the political power or economic leverage to oppose it – especially with oil prices at around US$40 a barrel. So they have kept relatively quiet, will take any American arms on offer, and will buy a bomb from Pakistan or anyone else who will sell it to them if they feel sufficiently threatened.

Only the Israeli public, like their government, overwhelmingly and vocally oppose the deal, with one recent poll putting the number at 69%.

Arguably, all sides are driven to their positions by their conception of their own self-interest – which in each case is pretty transparent. If the deal with Iran goes ahead, Obama will consolidate a legacy in foreign policy to match his accomplishment regarding Cuba. Republicans want to deny Obama that major foreign policy victory. Many Europeans will make money. The Gulf states will buy arms and pray that Iranian ambitions will wither under the pressure of supporting so many insurgencies.

Indeed, the only group that appears indecisive about the Iran deal is America’s Jews. Jewish politicians, Jewish clergy, representative Jewish organizations and the community more generally are deeply divided on the proposed agreement.

But while President Obama seeks to reassure the Israeli government and Jewish leaders about Israel’s security and persists in claiming that the agreement is enforceable despite recent suggestions of “oversell” on that issue, the current situation does generate some interesting questions: what would the agreement look like if nobody was as confident about whether they stood to gain or lose if it was implemented? Would President Obama and the Europeans, for example, be so assured if they might in fact be the country on which Iran had “threatened to unleash a firestorm of 80,000 missiles” as recently as last May?

Or to put it another way, would all the parties negotiate the same agreement if they did so blindly, not actually knowing if they would end up being Israel, Iran, the US or the rest of the P5+1?

John Rawls and the power of a ‘veil of ignorance.’ Harvard Gazette, CC BY

Rawls’ theory of justice

The question isn’t as strange as it might seem. Over four decades ago, John Rawls published a landmark book entitled A Theory of Justice in which he asked a comparable question.

His primary concern was in addressing the abiding issue of fairness in society. His central question concerned what kind of organizational structure would rational people choose if they were setting up a new one from scratch. But the special kink that Rawls introduced was that the designers wouldn’t know what position they would eventually occupy in the country they were creating. They might be a president or a voter, a CEO or unemployed, able-bodied or physically challenged, old or young, male or female.

Rawls called this “the veil of ignorance.” For him, it was key because “if a man knew that he was wealthy, he might find it rational to advance the principle that various taxes for welfare measures be counted unjust; if he knew that he were poor, he would most likely propose the contrary principle. To represent the desired restrictions, one imagines a situation in which everyone is deprived of this sort of information.”

Rawls’ conclusions are complex and deliberative, and any brief summary I offer will be inadequate. But key to the implications of his argument was that the participants would have to balance liberties and things he called “social goods,” much of which we would characterize as basic protections and entitlements.

He concluded in the book that we’d end up with a very different social structure if we operated based on that “veil of ignorance” from our current 1%, “winner takes all” society. Costs – like benefits – would be far more equitably shared. In effect, we’d have a far greater sense of empathy, if only because of fear about our own future welfare.

In principle, Rawls’ general framework can be applied to many situations we encounter in life. What would we do in any situation if we operated under a “veil of ignorance”?

The proposed Iran agreement provides one good example.

Where you stand

For most of those involved, it is relatively easy to take a resolute position in the absence of such a veil. As Graham Allison, an avowed and robust proponent of the agreement, wrote, “where you stand depends on where you sit.” And it is clear where everyone who supports the deal sits in this case.

With only just over a year to go in office, the Obama administration has much to gain and little to lose if the deal goes ahead, despite all the protestations to the contrary. If signed, it is unlikely to fall apart that quickly. It is true that President Obama’s historical legacy might be dented if Iran cheats on the agreement and races ahead in developing a bomb. It might also be damaging to his reputation if they keep to the agreement and still foment widespread regional instability.

But, then again, the North Koreans did both after signing an agreement in 1994 with President Bill Clinton, and it hasn’t done his legacy too much harm. Likewise, there is remarkably little downside for the Europeans and Russians if things don’t work out. The Middle East can hardly become more unstable. And meanwhile, their companies will make money when the UN sanctions are lifted. The French and Germans have already visited Tehran, and others are scheduled to follow, anticipating that gold rush.

Yitzhak Rabin. Reuters

You only negotiate with your enemies

Yitzhak Rabin famously said, “You don’t make peace with friends. You make it with very unsavory enemies.” That is a sentiment that has been repeated by various people lately, including President Obama himself.

But the Israelis didn’t negotiate with their enemies, the Iranians, over a nuclear deal. And the Iranians refused to countenance a rapprochement with Israel. That idea was very quickly and explicitly dismissed by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei soon after the agreement was reached. In doing so, he removed the only real incentive Israel might have had to support the deal.

Faced with the prospect of a huge downside, the administration’s offer of military support looks more like a small Band-Aid than a meaningful palliative in the face of what many Israeli’s regard as a realistic existential threat.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: No rapprochement with Israel. REUTERS/Stringer (IRAN)

So Israelis bear by far the greatest risk and appear to enjoy the least benefit from the deal. It is hardly what Rawls’ recipe would prescribe.

Indeed, as I discussed in a recent column, if John Kerry’s suggestion that the Israelis might become politically and diplomatically isolated if the agreement does not go ahead is the best reason he can offer for why Israel should support the deal, then that is testimony to the tremendous maldistribution between the costs and the benefits of the agreement.

In the absence of a veil

When all is said and done, President Obama may well be correct in asserting that the deal is enforceable. But he won’t have to live with the consequences if things don’t work out that way, beyond a dented reputation. His family doesn’t live in Israel and has no historical link to the place, unlike many of the Jewish politicians in the Democratic Party, who are caught agonizingly between their support for the president and the interests of the United States, and their realization that Israel is assuming the overwhelming proportion of the risks.

I am not advocating that Congress reject the deal. But I am certainly glad that I don’t have to vote on it and assume the responsibilities such a decision entails. If I did have to, I might even support it based on the president’s promises and calculations about the inspectors’ ability to enforce the agreement. No bomb for a decade or more is better than an alternative, if the inspections work.

Yet one thing is for sure: I am confident that we would not have ended up with the same deal if the representatives of the P5+1 didn’t know if they and their children would be living in their own country or in Israel: if they would be the people enjoying the benefits from trade with Iran or, alternatively, those lacking John Rawls’ protections.

Rawls’ work was intended to inspire empathy among the parties involved, albeit based on rational self-interest. Bashing the opposition because opponents don’t want Israel to bear most of the costs is not part of that formula. Harshly attacking well-motivated domestic opponents of the deal only creates enmity where America needs unanimity. And abroad, its allies need steadfast consideration, not condemnation.

Instead, the Obama administration might have resolutely demanded linking negotiation of the agreement with the Iranians to some key symbolic Israeli demands – like a recognition of Israel or of Jerusalem’s status, something that unites Jews in America and Israel. It would at least increase Israel’s benefits, if not reduce its risks. The American negotiators, however, capitulated on those questions.

But that is probably the subject of another column.

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