Post #83: Saving the Iran Nuclear Deal

A US-Iran agreement on Iran’s nuclear program and US sanctions appears to be slowly nearing completion.  President Obama wants to add to his legacy of engaging adversaries with an agreement that would at least significantly delay Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons.  The Ayatollah Khomeini wants to end all US sanctions immediately in return for foregoing the nuclear option.  The fine print on issues such as centrifuges, international inspections, and sanctions relief is all-important. Both leaders want a final agreement that will look like a victory, since both must deal with powerful domestic resistance—people who are deeply mistrustful of the other side and, in some cases, have personal stakes in seeing that a deal never sees the light of day.

In the US, Obama faces criticism of his Iran policy not only from the usual conservative quarters but also from an ad hoc group of nineteen former officials and outside experts. Meeting under the auspices of the conservative Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the group wrote an open letter to the president on June 24 ( that argued for tougher terms of a nuclear agreement with Iran—more intrusive inspections of and data gathering from Iran’s military and civilian facilities, stronger controls on Iran’s enrichment capacity, and sanctions that should remain in place until Iran’s compliance is assured. And if Iran does not comply? “Precisely because Iran will be left as a nuclear threshold state (and has clearly preserved the option of becoming a nuclear weapon state), the United States must go on record now that it is committed to using all means necessary, including military force, to prevent this.”

(A pause to identify these nineteen people, all men: seven belong to the Washington Institute itself, and five served under George W. Bush.  Among the familiar names are David Petraeus, former general and CIA director; former Senator Joe Lieberman; former Bush national security adviser Stephen Hadley; and Harvard professor Graham Allison. I could not identify a single person who is a recognized advocate of US-Iran engagement.)

The authors of this “bipartisan” letter purport to be opposed to hardliners who want no nuclear deal whatever.  This is misleading: in fact, the writers subscribe to the bad-faith model of international politics. They assume Iran will not accept the terms they specify or, if they do, will cheat.  So their advice is really no different from the hardliners’, just packaged differently, and the result of following it will, I believe, be the same: a deal breaker and renewed US-Iran confrontation with the prospect of war.

I say this for two reasons. First, the intrusive inspections and withholding of any immediate sanctions relief for Iran are conditions that the ayatollah has publicly and firmly rejected.  Second, the letter writers urge additional steps (which most major news sources failed to mention) to check Iran’s activities in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria in coordination with Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.  These steps will surely weaken Iran’s incentive to comply with the nuclear agreement, accelerate still deeper US military involvement throughout the Middle East, embolden the Israeli right wing’s policies in the Occupied Territories, and support Turkey’s efforts to contain the Kurds, one of the few effective forces fighting ISIS.

Two questions are uppermost: Are we better off with a nuclear deal that has shortcomings or no deal at all?  And, should worst-case thinking apply to presuming that Iran will cheat while the agreement is in force and will pursue nuclear weapons once it lapses?

As to the first question, the history of arms control strongly suggests that perfection is out of reach.  Agreements to reduce or eliminate arms, whether nuclear or conventional, are not the same as legal contracts enforceable in court.  The devil is in the details, and the wiggle room is invariably substantial. That said, the opportunity for both the US and Iran to significantly delay, if not end, Iran’s nuclear-weapon potential in exchange for an end to American (and perhaps later, UN) sanctions, immediately or in stages, is far more attractive than a confrontation that might lead to war.  Right-wing hawks provide the best reason for reaching an imperfect deal: They are ready to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites, with Israel’s help, and bring on a Middle East catastrophe.  This must not happen.

On the second question, the letter writers argue that the agreement as currently composed does not prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons once the 10-15 year period lapses.  Omitted from this otherwise correct statement is the salience of what happens in US-Iran relations during those 10-15 years.  If relations move toward normalization in that time—economic ties are restored, cooperation on common regional issues such as ISIS is achieved, quiet diplomacy leads to the two countries’ embassies reopening—Iran would have no incentive to go nuclear and every incentive for deeper engagement.  Of course if relations do not improve because of cheating or continued friction on one or another Middle East issue, we will be back to square one and a tense situation similar to that between the US and North Korea. That’s the challenge, and the proper context for evaluation.

Why presume the worst, as critics of the nuclear agreement constantly do?  The nuclear agreement should be thought of as an opening wedge to improved relations, not a warning to Iran to “comply or die.” Why not consider the agreement the foundation of trust building?  Why not create a positive road map for normalizing US-Iran relations?  US diplomacy should operate on a good-faith model, at least until there is reason to conclude otherwise.

For further reading: Post #73, The Iran Framework

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