Editor’s note: Today we’re debuting a new feature at TPM, the Exchange. These are email exchanges, usually three rounds of back and forth via email. These are not meant to be debates, though sometimes, as in this first case they will feature two people contending over very different perspectives. Often they will simply be trading of ideas. The goal is to air an issue, hopefully with two people who have given the matter some real thought or in other cases bring specific technical expertise. Though the participants know the emails with be published (edited only to prune out missing words or particularly strained grammar) we hope that these will have an unstructured, more casual air, which preserves pointed thinking while allowing writers the space to think out aloud and explore ideas more than they might in more formal settings. We hope you enjoy it and we welcome your feedback.
JOSH MARSHALL: We’ve been on same sides, then opposite sides and then more recently again on the same side of various issues. I suspect we’re going to be on opposite sides of the Iranian nuclear diplomacy issue. But I’m eager to dig into the details and see if maybe there are some areas in which we agree. So let me start by saying where I stand and then as well as I’m able explain why I stand where I do.
I support the President’s nuclear deal. And as a general matter I support reaching a diplomatic settlement if possible. Let me list my basic reasons in no particular order.
One: I do not believe that Iran is a revolutionary or suicidal regime. Violent, illiberal, revisionist, definitely. But I do not believe recent decades suggest a regime that is not fundamentally concerned with its survival and responsive to the kinds of threats and inducements which operate with most state actors. Because of this, I believe Iran acquiring nuclear weapons would be an extremely bad development – but not one that was tantamount to a nuclear exchange occurring or the Iranians launching an attack on Israel or something so cataclysmic that it puts our very existence as a country into doubt. None of those things make sense to me.
Two: Our military options seem poor at best. The US is the only global power with the reach and scale of weaponry that would allow us to significantly degrade the Iranian nuclear infrastructure. But they could rebuild it and I have to imagine they would. And if we mounted such an attack in the face of an apparent willingness to restrict their program, I think we would have very little international support (without which sanctions are not possible) to stop them when they rebuilt. So we have the option to delay them but probably not to stop them from building a nuclear weapon.
Three: The US is wrapping up what can only be called a disastrous dozen plus years of warfare in the greater Middle East. Really, the last thing the US needs is another major war in the same region, with all the disastrous effects it is likely to bring. Economically, militarily, with all the knock-on effects of these engagements we should not do this if there is any way we can avoid it. And I do not believe for a moment what Sen. Cotton says that this would be the equivalent of our raids in Serbia in the 90s or the similar ones in Iraq in the late 90s. This wouldn’t be a bombing raid. It would be a major war which we would not necessarily have the ability to conclude on our own terms. We need to avoid another major war in the Middle East if we can at all help it.
Four: If an agreement can verifiably prevent the Iranians from producing a nuclear weapon for ten or fifteen or twenty years, we should take that deal. The devil is in the details. I’m assuming for the sake of discussion that the inspections regime is tight, and also assuming that the regional governments see it as tight enough that they do not themselves move to build nuclear capacities. That in some ways seems like the ultimate test of success of such a deal.
I’ve seen it argued that this just delays an inevitable confrontation, or Iran eventually becoming a nuclear power. But I don’t buy this. If the most stringent parts of the deal last for fifteen years, there is nothing stopping us from coming back in 15 years and saying we require more assurances. Nothing.
And here is what I take from my own experience thinking about, observing and reconsidering everything that happened in the lead up to the Iraq War. Not every problem needs to be or should be “solved.” Given the costs, often it is better manage them and wait for better options to arise. This is particularly true when you are far and away the more powerful country. I think back to those days in 2002 when it seem all of Washington and perhaps the whole country got into an argument about time not being on our side, needing to address the problem now. It all devolved into logical reasoning exercises and word games and the results were catastrophic.
Finally, all the arguments I hear for how this President or a future Republican President could get a better deal don’t make sense to me. If we pull out of this effort (and maybe the Iranians will and then it’s moot) we will not get the other world powers to agree again to these joint sanctions. Which will mean we have virtually no leverage, or dramatically less leverage. And everyone seems to agree that right now the Iranians could build a crude weapon in a matter of months. So short of resigning ourselves to the military option, I’ve seen not real argument for how a better deal is going to be on offer.
I would vastly prefer it if the Iranians would get out of the nuclear business entirely. But we’re thinking here of our credible options, ones with costs we’re willing to bear, the health of our country after more than a decade of war and what concrete risks we face. By all those measures I think this is the best option.
What am I missing?
DAVID FRUM: Well, let’s see if we can renew our meeting of minds once again on these Iran negotiations. I use the word “negotiations” rather than “deal,” because it’s increasingly hard to sustain the claim that such a deal exists or ever existed. The Obama administration has one understanding of the framework. Their Iranian opposite numbers have denounced that understanding as wrong, wrong, wrong. Meanwhile, important side issues that US negotiators assumed had been resolved – the delivery to Iran of Russian anti-aircraft missiles – are coming unresolved again.
Will Iran surrender its stockpile of high-enriched uranium? Will the Arak reactor cease producing plutonium? Will sanctions be lifted immediately, or in stages as Iran proves its compliance? Can nuclear inspectors go anywhere in Iran? The White House summary of the framework provides reassuring answers to these questions. The Iranians reject those answers.
So what we have here is a process, not an outcome. Maybe things will be clear by June 30, the next milestone in the process. Probably not.
You acknowledge these facts in your point 4, which concedes that we don’t yet know how tight the inspection regime will be. “The devil is in the details,” you say – and it’s precisely those necessary details that are lacking. So what exactly are we evaluating? The answer has to be that we’re evaluating the process itself.
The administration makes two big claims about the Iran nuclear framework:
1) The only alternative to their approach is war; and
2) They have extracted as much from the Iranians as it was possible to extract without war.
Claim 1 is the claim that gets everybody excited – it’s the basis for three of your four points below – but Claim 2 is really the essential threshold question. Did they extract maximum concessions from the Iranians? The answer to that question takes us back to the process itself.
- Most observers, including President Obama by the way, credit the stringent sanctions imposed in January 2012 for at last impelling Iran to negotiate seriously. Yet the Obama administration opposed those sanctions at the time. The administration yielded only after an amendment containing the sanctions passed the Senate 100-0.
- As Henry Kissinger and George Shultz warned in their important oped, “While Iran treated the mere fact of its willingness to negotiate as a concession, the West has felt compelled to break every deadlock with a new proposal.” Through the process, President Obama acted the part of suitor: sending letters to Ayatollah Khamenei, looking for confidence-building measures, and so on. The Iranians acted the part of the besought. It’s a matter of record that many things that the Obama administration itself had pronounced unacceptable – including a large-scale enrichment capacity – have been accepted.
- The administration has switched positions on many non-nuclear issues of importance to Iran. Where once President Obama decreed that Syria’s Bashir al-Assad had to go, the United States is now waging war against the enemies of Iran’s most important regional client. Supporters and allies of the Obama administration offer enthusiastic comments about the benefits to be gained from a larger partnership with Iran.
- The Iranian weapons program was significantly slowed by a campaign of cyber warfare and other forms of sabotage. Insofar as people without a high security clearance can judge, that campaign seems to have been suspended about the time of President Obama’s re-election.
None of this is consistent with a single-minded determination to squeeze the very toughest possible deal out of Iran. It looks much more like the administration sees the nuclear issue as a necessary preliminary to an exciting new chapter in US foreign relations. President Obama expressed just this thought in an interview earlier this month with Thomas Friedman: “What we’ve seen over the last several years, I think, is the opportunity for those forces within Iran that want to break out of the rigid framework that they have been in for a long time to move in a different direction. It’s not a radical break, but it’s one that I think offers us the chance for a different type of relationship, and this nuclear deal, I think, is a potential expression of that.”
You may say: well, this is all so much water under the bridge. Perhaps there was a better deal that might have been reached by more hard-nosed US negotiators, but here’s the deal we have, and from where we are now, it’s take the deal or go to war. That argument however brings us right back to the starting point: We don’t have a deal. What we have is a deal concept, from which the most important details are missing. We’re on a path to more rounds of US concession to Iran in pursuit of crucial terms that the administration was telling us just two weeks ago that it had already secured. We’re gripped by a deal hunger that a more clear-eyed opponent is exploiting to his advantage and US detriment. If you accept the administration’s contention that the US choices are restricted to “deal or war,” then you should be even more alarmed than me that this boldly advertised “ deal” is proving day after day to be no deal at all.
MARSHALL: Okay, now I have a sense of where we both stand let me try to advance the ball a bit or find our real points of disagreement.
It’s certainly true that a final deal is not in place yet. We have a framework agreement. I don’t put a tremendous amount of weight in the comments coming out of Iran that dispute this or that part of it. I’m inclined to believe our own government, our own President, more than what the Iranians say either for public consumption or as a bargaining ploy. Certainly, if the Iranians actually refuse to agree to any of these points and the administration accedes to that refusal … well, then you’ve got a pretty different situation. But as the philosophers of Saturday Night Live once put it, What If Spartacus Had a Plane?
We have a whole stack of hypotheticals you’re stacking up. But they seem like a distraction. June isn’t far off. If the deal isn’t as the administration says, then it will be a different conversation. But let’s keep it to, if this is the deal, is it worth it? I think the answer is yes, for the reasons I said. If you (the actual you or the notional you) don’t think this deal as outlined is a good one, then let’s discuss why.
Whatever atmospherics critiques sketch out about suitors or caving or whatever else, let’s talk about the actual deal. If it reliably blocks off any route to a bomb for 15 or 20 years, that’s a deal worth making, in my mind.
I read the Schultz/Kissinger op-ed too and I had a somewhat different reaction. The administration has engineered crippling sanctions and has waged, in concert with the Israelis, a brutal war of sabotage against the Iranian nuclear infrastructure. Really, none of what we’ve seen merits this imagery of an Obama begging and pleading and playing the suitor to the Supreme Leader or the Iranian regime generally. This all strikes me as a sort of high-minded foreign policy trash talk.
And it seems that those atmospherics, if I’m understanding your argument, are what you’re using to infer that we must not have gotten the best deal possible because you don’t get the best deal possible when you’re playing the suitor rather than having your counterpart come to you.
I guess all this comes down to this: the deal as set forth in outline by the administration looks like a good one to me, or a good one compared to the alternatives. If it turns out they didn’t get that deal, then we have a different discussion. Let’s see what they come up with in June.
But let’s go to the other point: your claim that the administration is saying it’s either this or war. I don’t think that’s quite what they’re saying. But it’s close to it. And in the shorthand of sloganeering, I think it’s fairly accurate. But let’s unpack what the alternatives are.
I see the alternatives actually a bit differently. If we assume that administration does get a deal something basically like that explained in the framework agreement, and we walk away from it, the alternative to me is more likely standing tough and actually doing nothing and letting the Iranians build a bomb if they want to. We knew the North Koreans were edging closer to building a bomb under the Bush administration and there was no preemptive attack. In practice, given the poor military options, I think the more likely alternative is that we say we won’t settle for such a bad deal on the Iranians’ terms, pack up and go home, maybe leave the Iranians under the sanctions, feel good about ourselves and let them do whatever they want. That seems to me to be a much worse outcome.
Or we have war.
Of course, there is another element to this you’re not mentioning. We can go hog-wild with sanctions. But if they’re not backed up by Europe, Russia and China, they won’t have much effect. Here you discount or don’t mention what is actually a pretty big accomplishment on the part of the administration – something that put teeth behind the whole effort.
If the Iranians’ don’t agree to what the White House says is the framework, then we’ve got a different story. But if we walk away from it, do you really think these other powers will say, okay, fine and continue with these sanctions in place? I think that’s very questionable. And if I’m right, it’s again quite unlikely you can even sustain the pressure that has gotten things to this point.
So yes, if the deal we heard about a couple weeks ago isn’t real, then that’s different. But this is unbounded speculation. If this is the deal, we should take it. Yes, we can speculate that there was a better deal out there and that we can go get it. But as we learned a decade ago, hope is not a plan.
FRUM: I’m not raising hypotheticals. On the contrary, it’s your argument in favor of the framework that consists entirely of an “if … then” statement. ” If it reliably blocks off any route to a bomb for 15 or 20 years, then that’s a deal worth making ….” Sounds appealing. Does it do that? That’s the case you need to make, and that case is absent here.
To reliably block Iran’s route to a bomb, the agreement would have to remove Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium. The White House fact sheet notes an agreement to remove most of Iran’s low-enriched uranium. What about its medium-enriched uranium, the most dangerous part of the stockpile?
[I]t appears from the Fact Sheets and briefings that Iran’s stock of near 20 percent LEU is not included in the 300 kilogram limit on LEU mentioned above. This limit appears to be applied only to the 3.67 percent LEU. Given the size of Iran’s stock of near 20 percent LEU, the lack of discussion about the fate of the near 20 percent LEU is problematic in determining breakout estimates.
Are we shutting down the most dangerous of the Iranian nuclear sites? Nope. They will remain open, although supposedly in a new role.
Will Iran’s nuclear capacity be reduced? Again, nope. The industrial-scale nuclear program remains in place.
Go-anywhere, anytime inspections? Nope. There’s no mention of timing even in the White House fact sheet. The Iranian statements insist that they’ll be setting large elements of their military infrastructure off-limits altogether.
Restrictions on the non-nuclear components of a nuclear weapons program, such as missile development? Nope. In fact, Iran’s missile program will soon be enhanced by Russian ground-to-air missiles.
Oh well, at least the sanctions will snap back if the Iranians revert to their long-established pattern of cheating? Here’s the most troubling “nope” of all. Sanctions relief will apparently be codified in the form of a UN Security Council Resolution. It will be up to the Security Council then to decide whether, when, and how sanctions will be reimposed – assuming, that is, that China and Russia agree that Iran cheated in the first place.
As for your hope that we’ll know more by June, that too seems optimistic, if not starry-eyed. Given how long it took to reach an agreement as blurry as the framework, it seems unrealistic to imagine that the truly crucial issues shoved to the next phase of discussion will be settled within 75 days.
Nor is it wise, it seems to me, to disregard what the Iranians are saying about what they’ve agreed to … if high officials in Tehran deny agreeing to something, it doesn’t matter that the envoys in Lausanne may suggested otherwise. It’s the Tehran leaders, not the Lausanne envoys, who will determine compliance.
Proponents of this treaty elide all these difficulties. They frame the question as you have done, “If we had a good treaty, wouldn’t that be a good thing?” Yes, I suppose it would. But we don’t.
So the fallback here is, “Isn’t even this flawed treaty preferable to the alternatives?”
But here’s why a flawed treaty is so very dangerous – and why the alternatives, imperfect as they are, are to be preferred:
A flawed treaty creates a sense of security where none exists. A flawed treaty will put enormous amounts of money into the hands of the Iranian state – without changing that state’s aggressive ambitions. A flawed treaty will put the US and Iran onto a course of perpetual conflict over Iran’s testing of the agreement boundaries – but the US alone, since the international enforcement regime will have been scrapped.
The alternatives are to maintain and tighten sanctions at a time when, thanks to tumbling oil prices, the Iranian economy is more vulnerable to those sanctions than ever. The alternative is to negotiate with a keener awareness of who needs this deal more. The alternative is to intensify rather than suspend the clandestine campaign against the Iranian nuclear capacity.
Those aren’t beautiful alternatives, I agree. But they have one great merit: they involve accepting difficulties that exist rather than -as the Obama administration is now attempting – wishing away difficulties by presenting a pretend agreement as a grand diplomatic triumph.
MARSHALL: We’ve agreed to three rounds. So I guess this is my last bite at the apple. But it seems like we are at least gravitating toward a few points of clarity. Not agreements, but focused and clarifying expressions of the disagreement, which ain’t nuthin’.
Clearly, we can’t know what the final deal is until there is a final deal. Until I hear otherwise, I’m going to assume that it is roughly what the President and Secretary of State say it is. This is hardly starry-eyed. You’ve taken public Iranian quibbling on a few points (hardly shocking) and escalated from this to there actually not even being a framework at all. This is kitchen-sink rhetorical reasoning, which is to say, not reasoning but rhetoric. I think what we’ve heard since the initial announcement is basically noise. But who knows. Until there’s an actual deal, we’re largely shadow boxing. So on this front I’m happy to punt until June.
There’s another point you made though that I think is a good one but also one which experience makes me disagree with. You say that agreeing to a deal on these broad terms is bad because it provides a false sense of security – peace peace but there is no peace. You also point to the possible cat and mouse games we could get into if and when a deal is finalized – small violations, threats of new sanctions, stand offs, back downs and so forth. I think we can look to the interim agreement that we’re now operating under. No one seems to disagree that the Iranians have honored it. And I would note what I believe are reliable reports that Netanyahu says his big worry is precisely that the Iranians *would* honor a deal, get re-koshered as a member of the international community in good standing and be able to go nuclear in 15 or 20 years.
But let’s assume for the sake of discussion that it does happen since I grant it’s a possibility.
One of the things I learned from thinking about and writing about our relations with Iraq both before and after the 2003 invasion is that it can be very dangerous in most cases to think we can or should try to ‘solve’ problems as opposed to manage or improve them. What you’re really saying here is that time is not on our side but on the side of the Iranians and that we need to deal with this now, not later.
I disagree. On both the premise and the conclusion.
This kind of thinking telescopes the indefinite future into a one dimensional present, hiding the dangers inherent in “solving” things and ignoring how things might actually get better on their own, how changes might make seemingly untangle-able knots easier to untangle in the future than they are now. Equally, it keeps out of the equation the risks and unknowables inherent in these sorts of ‘solutions’. Once we reduce complex and dangerous realities to logic puzzles, we are apt to make big and fateful errors.
This was after all the argument about Iraq in 2002. Iraq wanted WMDs; it wanted to dominate the region. Sure we had sanctions in place. But it was a constant game of cat and mouse. There were no inspectors in place to monitor activity. The sanctions were fraying; the international community was losing its will to keep them in place, etc. Time wasn’t on our side. We needed to take the opportunity to solve the Iraq problem once and for all.
And yet, invading Iraq turned out to be a monumental catastrophe, the results of which we continue to see today in the chronic state breakdown across the Middle East.
I originally vociferously opposed the Iraq Hawk program. But I eventually became persuaded by this ‘time is not on our side’ reasoning. I didn’t support regime change per se. I always thought the more extravagant WMD claims were bogus. But I did think that we really needed to end the standoff and get inspectors back into country. So what I argued in a couple articles was that we needed to credibly threaten war to force inspectors back in. I didn’t know whether Iraq would comply or not but thought we needed to be ready to solve the issue one way or another, which meant invading if we didn’t get inspectors back in the country. I eventually changed my mind. Before the invasion got underway, I said we shouldn’t do it because it was clear to me that the actual plan was to invade regardless of anything to do with inspectors or sanctions.
I learned a number of lessons from that experience, most of which are beside the point in this case. The relevant one in this case is not to engage in this kind of telescopic thinking which is often misleading and dangerous. This is especially the case when we are the greater power in the equation – which we will remain under almost any conceivable future developments for decades into the future. Set aside the fact that even our most minimal intelligence on Iraqi WMD programs were wrong. Also set aside that Iraq was a considerably more aggressive regional actor than Iran. We might still be playing cat and mouse with Iraq. But with inspectors back in the country that would have been vastly preferable to the situation we created. You may not agree with that conclusion. But polls show that the vast majority of Americans do. And I think that is what is behind polls showing overwhelming support for an Iran deal, even as many believe it won’t be fully successful or that the Iranians will cheat.
Once we have defined a problem and decided that it must be solved, we are already most of the way to guaranteeing a maximal solution. In fact, most problems don’t need to be ‘solved’. It’s a dangerous conceit.
War really is and should be the option of last resort. If this were a matter of a few airstrikes it would be one thing. But it’s not. The military option is war, not a bombing run. I do not think you want war. But you are framing the question in a way that almost necessarily leads to a confrontation of some sort or a nationally self-satisfied bellicosity which feels good but leaves them free to proceed to building a nuclear arsenal. That is after all what happened under the Bush administration in North Korea.
If we can keep the Iranians penned up a significant distance from being able to build a bomb, we should take that opportunity and – the dread phrase – kick the can down the road. Time actually is on our side. We’re the great power. We can consider any military option at whatever point we choose. Yes, the Chinese or the Russians or the Europeans could stand in the way of a full re-imposition of sanctions. But that is more likely to happen now if we try to scuttle this deal we made in concert with them than if we try to enforce a deal to which they are parties. With genuine challenges with Russia and China, not to mention non-state challenges, can we meet our minimum needs short of war or confrontation? I think we can. Nothing you’ve said has persuaded me that we cannot. Better to jaw-jaw than war war. That’s Churchill. He’s good. Look him up.
FRUM: This may not be visible to readers, but our exchange has extended over two weeks, from the middle of April to the end. Over those days, we’ve learned both more about has been offered – and what remains unsettled.
The administration has told members of Congress that Iran may receive an immediate cash infusion of between $30 billion and $50 billion for signing the deal. That’s equivalent to something between one-seventh and one-tenth of Iran’s GDP!
President Obama confirmed to the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman that the inspections agreed under the deal will not be go anywhere/anytime inspections.
We’ve gained more information on how bedazzled the administration is by the prospect that a nuclear deal can shift the politics of Iran and the larger region. In the president’s words again:
“If we’re able to get this done, then what may happen — and I’m not counting on it — but what may happen is that those forces inside of Iran that say, ‘We don’t need to view ourselves entirely through the lens of our war machine. Let’s excel in science and technology and job creation and developing our people,’ that those folks get stronger. … “
I’ve argued through these exchanges that the framework is something of a fake, that the real deal is still being negotiated, and that it will likely offer even more concessions to Iran than are acknowledged by the White House fact sheet of April 2. In one sense then, our exchange here is premature. We are debating a deal whose most important elements remain unknown and perhaps even undecided. What is to happen to Iran’s stockpile of 20% enriched uranium that went unmentioned in the fact sheet?
Yet we have a good idea of the drift of events. Your very candid explication of your own thinking also helpfully clarifies why we’re drifting. We’re not really talking about Iran at all in this debate. We’re talking about Iraq. Proponents and supporters of this agreement are reliving the Iraq experience, applying lessons they believed they learned then – and (above all!) vowing to themselves never again to repeat what they see as the mistakes of 2002-2003. The “lessons of Iraq” have gripped a generation with as peremptory a grip as the “lessons of Munich” gripped the generation that came of age in the 1940s.
The trouble is, that the Iranians noticed this grip too, and they have used it to effect. They have broken their economic isolation, put themselves on a glide path to a bomb with US blessing, gained a financial windfall, and won international approval as a nuclear threshold state. Given that the US, as you say, is the vastly stronger power, that’s a shocking outcome to this negotiation process. And as we’ll soon see, we still don’t know the worst of it.
David Frum is a senior editor at The Atlantic and the chairman of Policy Exchange.