The Republican opposition to striking a nuclear deal with Iran puzzled me, until my friend Truman explained that it’s exactly like the famous tractor scene from Kevin Bacon’s 1984 class movie, “Footloose.”
“There’s that expression, ‘I’d rather be lucky than good,’” said Truman as he sipped on a frozen margarita. “Not so with the politics of nuclear weapons.”
This is the kind of analysis you get when you meet your D.C. insider friend over drinks at Tortilla Coast, a popular Capitol Hill Tex-Mex joint. Truman—not his real name—can’t talk on the record about what he knows, which is a shame because when he explains things, you realize how smart folks in Washington are behind their talking points.
In his telling, Kevin Bacon is Secretary of State John Kerry, and on the other tractor is Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani.
If you’re a God-forsaken millennial whose education did not include the classics of the western canon, let me catch you up. City kid Bacon moved to a tiny rural town. The local preacher said dancing was sinful, and since he sat on the city council he was able to ban dancing. Bacon started dating the preacher’s wild daughter, and they threw a dance outside city limits where everybody went footloose.
OK, maybe “Footloose” was no Shakespeare, but for children of the 1980s it was a big deal. In the tractor scene, Bacon’s character is goaded into a game of chicken against the local tough guy who used to date the preacher’s daughter. Bacon wanted to bail early, but he was wearing sneakers and his shoelaces got caught in the pedals. He was forced to take the hard line, and the local tough guy chickened out.
According to Truman, that’s what congressional Republicans and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu are after. “They think Iran will swerve into the ditch just like the smarmy guy in the movie, if only we pass additional sanctions and hold out for a unicorn of a deal. Just stay tough like Kevin Bacon and his tied shoelaces. You’ll get the girl,” he said.
A “unicorn of a deal” in this case would be Iran getting rid of its entire nuclear power program. And under the prevailing Republican theory, if we couldn’t bully them into this politically impossible capitulation, we could just bomb ‘em. Problem solved! Unicorns!
The problem with unicorns is that they don’t exist. If we turned up the sanction heat against Iran, we’d lose the support of Russia and France. Iran’s President would strengthen his political situation by standing up to us. The Republican position ignores reality, but what else is new?
Take the politics out of the Iran nuclear talks, and we’re left with a simple choice: If we can make a deal with Iran, they won’t have a nuclear bomb. If talks fall apart, Iran will get a nuclear bomb as quickly as possible, and we’ll be drawn into yet another war in the Middle East.
Which brings us back to the tractor scene.
“People might remember that scene differently, at least for its foreign policy lessons,” said Truman. “Namely that brinkmanship is a dangerous gamble, that one should fight for a peaceful resolution first when it’s possible. Otherwise you might find yourself tied to a tractor on a collision course. That once you get on the tractor, survival isn’t guaranteed. And ultimately, that Kevin Bacon got lucky.”
There’s a fair trade to be made here. Iran needs the sanctions lifted. We need them to not make nuclear bombs. If we do that, we will move measurably away from a man-made apocalypse. If we screw this up, the world will become a more dangerous place.
To those like my friend who do this work everyday, it’s that simple.
“It’s better to be good than lucky. Keep negotiating while it’s still possible,” said Truman. “And stay off the tractor.”
Jason Stanford is a regular contributor to the Austin American-Statesman, a Democratic consultant and a Truman National Security Project partner. You can email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @JasStanford