Reviewing the Iran Nuclear Agreement

The Iran nuclear deal continues to be misunderstood, and that misunderstanding could get increasingly perilous in the Trump administration. A mix of news items have prompted me to revisit the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran:

  1. Netanyahu embraced Trump a week ago, and the Republican Jewish Coalition, led by Sheldon Adelson, is considering purging the never-Trumpers because of Israel. Pence told the RJC this weekend: “We told the ayatollahs of Iran they should check the calendar, there’s a new president in the Oval Office. President Trump will never allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, this is my solemn promise to you.”
  2. The Trump administration is reviewing the Iran nuclear agreement, which Trump repeatedly attacked during the campaign. Meanwhile, Putin supports the Iran deal for economic reasons. So it is worth watching whether Trump’s anti-Iran politics will trump his pro-Putin politics. It is worth noting that RT, the media extension of the Putin regime, is promoting news right now that Iran is complying with the deal.

The Russians are a reminder of why the nuclear deal was necessary, even if not perfect.  The bottom line is that an international agreement put sanctions in place not because of terrorism, but because of Iran’s military nuclear program. Russia and China were the most reluctant. Once Iran announced to the world that it was willing to abandon the military enrichment program and to accept frequent inspections, the sanctions were doomed. Behind closed doors but speaking clearly, the Russians and Chinese told the Obama administration that they were going to end their participation in sanctions, which would end the effect of those sanctions and open the door to many other countries to drop sanctions, too. Russia and China wanted Iranian oil, and Iran’s willingness to end its military nuclear program was enough of an excuse for Russia and China to get that oil.  Moreover, Germany was also backing off sanctions. The Obama administration chose to be diplomatic in negotiating a new inspection regime, rather than publicly blaming Russia, China, and Germany. It would have been easy to score political points against these countries, but the result would have weakened or killed the deal.

The choice for the Obama administration was not the status quo sanctions regime vs. a deal. The choice was the China/Russia ending of sanctions with weak safeguards vs. an American-led deal with strong safeguards.  The Obama administration took a weak position and made it stronger.

Here are some additional sources on these points:

From an interview with Israeli security experts in 2015, from The Jewish Week: “[Was] there a realistic and better alternative to this agreement[?]

“We’ll simply never know for sure. Perhaps had a credible use of force been put on the table sooner and the Obama administration really challenged Iran’s regional policies in Syria and Lebanon, the Iranians would have been more pliant. But that would have required a much more risk-ready president when it came to the use of force and coalition partners who were also on board. At best both the Russians and the Chinese never saw the Iranian nuclear program in as dire terms as the U.S. did. And the Germans were eager to resume their trade ties with Iran as well. Israel was reluctant to use force on its own. And the Iranian regime would have continued on its resistance economy — pain notwithstanding — unless it could justify a good deal for itself. In a galaxy far away, a better deal might have been possible, but not here on planet Earth and not under these circumstances.”

This piece, “6 Biggest Myths about the Iran Nuclear Deal,” by a former Israeli brigadier general, answered one of my concerns about the Iran deal. Myth: “Allowing inspections within twenty-four days gives Iran enough time to hide/dispose of nuclear material.” Iran’s entire nuclear supply chain will be under 24/7 surveillance and monitoring. IAEA inspectors will have the right to visit any part of that supply chain immediately. If suspicious activity is detected elsewhere in Iran, Tehran must allow international inspections within twenty-four days. Disposing of nuclear material is different from disposing of illicit drugs or murder weapons: Nuclear materials leave traces that endure for thousands of years. The U.S. intelligence community and IAEA nuclear inspectors are fully confident they can detect nuclear activities well beyond twenty-four days.

Leading Israeli security veterans endorse the Iran deal. “Ben-Yisrael, who has twice won the Israel Prize for contributions to Israel’s weapons technology, told Walla! News that the Vienna agreement is “not bad at all, perhaps even good for Israel.” True, Iran still calls for Israel’s destruction. But, he said, from the nuclear perspective — which is what the negotiations were about — “it prevents a nuclear bomb for 15 years, which is not bad at all.” Halevy, the former Mossad director, elaborated on Ben-Yisrael’s point in a scathing Ynet op-ed . From the start, Israel “maintained that the Iranian threat is a unique, existential threat.” It wanted the international community to address the threat, and it did. “That was the only goal of the biting sanctions against Iran,” he wrote. Now, he stated, the government tries “to change the rules of the game and include additional demands from Iran in the agreement, like recognizing Israel and halting support for terror.” By threatening to block an agreement that addresses Israel’s “existential-cardinal” goal because it doesn’t address other, nonexistential issues, Halevy wrote, Netanyahu raises the suspicion that he doesn’t want a deal at all.

Why Iran’s Hardliners Fear a Deal

From a moderate Iranian academic recently: “So this is another revolution for Iran—and if the talks succeed in a deal it could be an enduring revolution. It will undercut the hardliners who have been using anti-Americanism as a powerful fuel to justify a wide range of policies both domestically and internationally and exploit Anti-Americanism to justify their mismanagement and wrongdoings. At the same time it will create a more appropriate climate for moderates and reformists inside the country who won’t fear engaging in serious conversations with hardliners on both domestic and international concerns, as they will no longer have to labor under the fear of being accused of being pro-American.”





Young Kissinger in Love and War and Tragic-Comical Nerd Pettiness

SCOTUS nominee Neil Gorsuch — and his right-wing-nerd-provocateur adoration of disturbing Kissinger quotes — reminded me of this story: “In 1940 the young Henry Kissinger, caught in a love quadrangle, drafted a letter to the object of his affections. Her name was Edith. He and his friends Oppus and Kurt admired her attractiveness and had feelings for her, the letter said. But a “solicitude for your welfare” is what prompted him to write—“to caution you against a too rash involvement into a friendship with any one of us.”
“I want to caution you against Kurt because of his wickedness, his utter disregard of any moral standards, while he is pursuing his ambitions, and against a friendship with Oppus, because of his desire to dominate you ideologically and monopolize you physically. This does not mean that a friendship with Oppus is impossible, I would only advise you not to become too fascinated by him.”
Kissinger disclaimed any selfish motive for writing, loftily quoted from Washington’s farewell address, and regretted with some bitterness Edith’s failure to read or comment on the two school book reports he had sent her. Would she please return them for his files?

The real reason the Patriots beat the Falcons?

The Patriots had a 0.4% chance of winning after being down 28-3 in the 3d quarter. Many improbable events had to transpire for the Pats to win, but one big question was why the Falcons stopped running the ball to run down the clock, especially when they only needed only a yard or two. I have not seen anyone else offer this explanation: The NFL’s best center Alex Mack, the third most important player on the Falcons, was playing on a broken leg. He was shot up with enough pain-killers to make it through the first half, but the Super Bowl is almost double the length of a regular game, and apparently you can’t use those pain killers twice in one day. The Falcons rely on Mack to call the blocking schemes, letting QB Ryan focus on calling the plays and routes. The Falcons’ mistake was being overly reliant on Mack and not having a quarterback or a backup center who could take over Mack’s blocking calls. Their other mistakes cascaded from this basic weakness in their offensive line. To the Falcons’ credit, I have not seen anyone blame Mack or his injury.

Throughout the game, the Falcons avoided running the ball up the middle (near Mack). Many of their runs for negative yards or short yards were near the center/guard. In the 2d half, the Falcons ran the ball only 9 times for 15 yards, and almost entirely off-tackle (away from Mack).

 The Pats moved their best linebacker, Dante Hightower, away from the “Mike” (middle) to the edge because, I think, they knew the Falcons could run up the middle. That move enabled the key play on defense: Hightower’s blitz from the edge that produced a strip sack and five plays later, a TD. That pass was remarkably on 3d and 1 with 8 minutes left. And yet the Falcons didn’t run. Hightower was playing the run from the edge, but when Ryan dropped back, he blitzed. It seems crazy to pass at that point in the game, unless you cannot run the ball for short yardage.

Then, needing only a field goal to seal the game with 4 minutes left from the Pats’ 23 yard line, the Falcons tried to run on 1st down. Freeman has to run to the left side (again avoiding the middle) and gets dropped for a loss. On 2d and 11, the Falcons are still in FG range, but Ryan drops back and gets sacked for a 12 yard loss. That’s mostly Ryan’s fault for taking a deep drop and a sack, but it was also Trey Flowers plowing through Mack up the middle for the sack. Then there was a critical offensive holding, as the offensive line was breaking down in the 4th quarter. 

It is amazing that Mack played at all on a broken leg. But I wonder if the blame needs to focus on an NFL culture of demanding players to play when hurt — a macho badge of courage for Mack? A fear of being considered soft? A coaching staff too stubborn to see a problem and too dismissive of player safety? 

One final point: the legend of Patriots’ comebacks has intimidated teams into playing too aggressively at the end of games and making odd play calls. The Falcons passed at the end of the game. Did they decide not to play for a field goal and an 11 point lead with 3 minutes left because they thought Brady could score twice?  The Seahawks made a similar mistake two years ago. They ran the clock down while at the 5 yard line to prevent Brady from getting the ball back with a minute left. The clock meant that the Seahawks needed to pass once in order to run four plays. They passed on 2d down from the 1, instead of running Lynch… and thus, the fateful Butler interception.

One last thought: is anyone organizing a rally or parade for the true patriots, the Pats boycotting Trump?  Marty Bennett, McCourty, Chris Long, Blount, Branch, maybe James White (the Super Bowl co-MVP)?

Is Trump Receiving “Office-Related” Emoluments?

In an earlier post, I linked to various sources on the precise meaning of the word “emolument.” The CREW lawsuit argues that it is any payment of any kind, by accepting the primary and secondary definitions of the word from that era. This approach makes sense textually. Recall the wording of the clause:

“[N]o person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.” Article I, Section 9, Cl. 8.  (emphasis added).

Some critics of the Emoluments litigation against Trump rely on the primary definitions for emoluments as “office-related” payments. However, the choice of the phrase “any kind whatever” points to the inclusion of secondary definitions, which are broader and apply to any kind of payment. The word “emolument” originally came from the payments to a miller for grinding grains. The Old French emolument meant “advantage, gain, benefit; income, revenue,” derived from the Latin emolumentum, which meant “profit, gain, advantage, benefit.”

A broad definition of emolument makes sense in terms of the text, the etymology, and the contemporaneous use in dictionaries and legal sources, as others have shown. It also makes sense purposively, functionally, and in terms of judicial economy. The purpose of these clauses was to avoid foreign entanglements and domestic entanglements through financial or status manipulation, to avoid corruption. A broad definition serves those purposes. When one becomes president, one is gaining great powers and prestige, which carries tremendous responsibilities. The trade off is reasonable: the gain of power requires the sacrifice of additional profits. A generous salary should be enough. Moreover, in order to avoid unnecessary litigation against a president, a bright line rule is preferable for judicial economy and political economy: no payments from any government entity of any kind.


These questions have never been addressed by the courts. In a thorough and thoughtful paper on SSRN, titled “The Foreign Emoluments Clause and the Chief Executive,” Andy Grewal points to Office of Legal Counsel rulings that establish a body of non-judicial legal prcedents. He argues that “emoluments” are not any kind of payment, but only an office-related payment. Even if a court were to adopt this narrower definition, would foreign payments (or state or federal payments) to Trump hotels be a violation of the Emoluments clause?

Grewal emphasizes two recent cases: Ronald Reagan received a pension from California from his service in state government, and Obama received Treasury bond interest yields. The Office of Legal Counsel concluded that neither payment violated the Domestic Emolument clause.

First, it is crucial to acknowledge the different language between the Domestic and Foreign Emoluments clauses. The Domestic clause does not contain the phrase “any kind whatever,” so perhaps a narrower definition may have been appropriate for federal or state government payments.

Second, there is a clear difference between pensions and bond yields on the one hand, and distinct market transactions for goods and services on the other. Reagan was being treated no differently than any similarly situated private citizen who had worked for California. Obama was being treated no differently than any similarly situated private citizen who had bought bonds. Reagan’s service and Obama’s bond purchase long preceded their offices in the White House. However, the payments to Trump entities, whether hotel rooms, ballroom rentals, or loans, are impossible to separate from Trump’s status as an office-holder and its powers. The exchange of goods or services and payments occurs after he takes office, so the exchange is inextricably linked to the power of the office. Perhaps a court would examine if the foreign official paid over market value to identify if there were any extra payment for the office itself.

Moreover, a purposive analysis of the clause is important. The Framers were attempting to limit both corruption and foreign entanglements. The Bank of China may have been a tenant in Trump Tower before his election, but their tenancy becomes a foreign entanglement with improper influence. The same is true for the cash flow in the holdings overseas in Turkey, etc. These are office-related emoluments in the sense that they can influence the office (or appear to influence the office), unlike treasury bond yields or pension payments.

This analysis seems unnecessarily complicated when broader bright line rules would be warranted from the constitutional text, context, purposes, and practical enforcement: all foreign payments are unconstitutional emoluments.

Polling update

The polls are moving in important ways:

1. The ACA is more popular than ever. Recent polling shows between 48% and 54% approval. Pence sounds increasingly ridiculous when he says, “America’s Obamacare nightmare is about to end.” The repeal mess has become the GOP’s nightmare.

2. A plurality (47%) of Americans say Trump has violated the Constitution, and and a majority believe he has acted unethically or illegally as president.

3. Trump’s approval ratings have sunk to 38-39%. Nate Silver and Josh Marshall offer some important caveats, but no matter what, these numbers are disastrous.

Good luck with that math, GOP. The next important numbers are 25 (as in the 25th Amendment for removing an “unable” president), 41 and 51 (the votes to filibuster — and defeat the nuclear option– of any SCOTUS nomination during a criminal investigation of the 2016 election), and 218, the number of House seats to take back a majority and control the committees that investigate this administration’s corruption.

Klass moved the ball forward: NY Atty General, tax returns, and whistleblowers 

See the new idea for Georgetown’s Greg Klass here. This path is even more direct at getting transparency than my quo warranto idea, if the state or city government has these records. If revealed, those records would open the door to more emoluments investigation and corporate dissolution/divestment.