More Thoughts on The Iran Nuclear Deal

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July 16, 2015 10:56 a.m.

As the reactions come in and the arguments get rolling, we are now getting a clearer look at the debate over the Iran nuclear deal – now in a real and definitive document rather than agreed parameters or leaked details. Here are a few points I think it is worth pointing out.

The first is that while there’s criticism of the tightness of the inspections regime, most arguments actually don’t question that the deal agreed in Vienna will prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon for 10 or 15 years. Some questions this. Sure. But look at the key arguments … We’re hearing that 10 or 15 years isn’t that long. We’re hearing that Iran will get a massive financial windfall and new international legitimacy which it can use to amp up its aggressive behavior in the region even if it doesn’t build a nuclear weapon. They can intervene more aggressively in Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip, Yemen, Iraq and other countries. They can use the extra money to finance terrorism or speed its development of ballistic missiles.

Some of these claims are true, others are false; some are over-stated or just silly. But they all share one thing in common: they’re not the Iranian nuclear program.

When the argument does turn to the nuclear program it is some version of Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer’s claim that “this deal does not block Iran’s path to a nuclear bomb. It paves it.” But this is just silly and rhetoric. Iran could quickly assemble a nuclear weapon now. If this deal blocks it for 10 to 15 years but does not explicitly say how the US would stop the Iranians from building a weapon after that 10 or 15 years that is not, in English at least, “paving”. That is “delaying”. The Iranians don’t need a road, paved or otherwise. They’re already there.

Certainly some people are complaining out of simple partisanship. Obama is for it. So they’re against it. But I think the real story is the one picked up by Slate’s Fred Kaplan. As he explains, the opposition to the deal isn’t really about the deal. Or, more precisely, it’s not about the terms of the deal. The problem is the existence of a deal itself because it will allow Iran to re-enter the community of nations and create at least a detente between Iran and the US. To put it another way, it will take the US out of the confrontation with Iran business. For Israel and especially for Saudi Arabia that’s really not a good thing. But that doesn’t mean it’s not the best option on offer for the US.

Now, there are good reasons, as Kaplan’s notes, to be worried about bringing Iran in the from the diplomatic cold. This is a country that has a deep rejectionist stance toward one of our closest allies, Israel. The regime is deeply illiberal at home. It is keeping Bashar al Assad in power in Syria. Its intelligence agencies blew up a Jewish cultural center in Argentina 21 years ago. The list goes on and on. And with its neighbor/counterweight Iraq effectively enfeebled for the foreseeable future, its relative power has already grown substantially. There’s little question that some part of the cash windfall Iran will get won’t go to its proxy wars in Syria, Yeme and on Israel’s borders. The question is how much and how we will react to more aggressive behavior.

Israel really does have reasons to fear or at least really not want an empowered Iran. It funds anti-Israel proxy armies to the north and south. If Iran has a nuclear weapon, even if it wouldn’t use it in some eschatological blaze of glory, it would still erase Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly. No country would welcome that from a hostile regional neighbor. What Britain’s Tory Foreign Minister, Philip Hammond, said is true. It’s not about the terms of the deal. The current Israeli government prefers a “permanent standoff” with Iran.

Saudi Arabia’s position is deeper and darker. There’s a good argument that Saudi Arabia’s whole hold on power or sense of security is being the United States’ ace in the hole for keeping the oil flowing and the revisionist Arabs and Muslims at bay in the region – whether that’s Iran or Iraq or Syria or whoever. Yes, the US has had a strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia for over 70 years. But it only got really deep (and arguably toxic) after the US lost its other strategic ally in the region against whom it once played off the Saudis. That is to say, Iran.

It’s certainly possible that Iran will moderate with greater engagement with the West, a restive younger population and new prosperity driven by engagement. But we shouldn’t count on it. Indeed, even if you think medium to long term liberalization is likely or likelier with this deal, there are good reasons to think that in the short term hardliners will try to assert themselves even more strongly. But simple truth is that this deal doesn’t count on that happening or trust Iran at all. The entirety of it is built on verification and mistrust. The simple truth is that the regional players who feel most threatened by the deal feel so threatened not so much because it would fail but because it would work and effectively get the US out of the endless wars in the Middle East business. As I said yesterday, I really do not think it’s a question of this deal or war. I think it’s this deal or continued confrontation but no war. Meanwhile, we remain in the confrontation business while Iran builds a nuclear weapon. Kaplan puts the point baldly …

What Netanyahu and King Salman want Obama to do is to wage war against Iran—or, more to the point, to fight their wars against Iran for them. That is why they so virulently oppose U.S. diplomacy with Iran—because the more we talk with Iran’s leaders, the less likely we are to go to war with them. Their view is the opposite of Winston Churchill’s: They believe to war-war is better than to jaw-jaw.

The Return of “Romney Strength”

Now here is a distinct but related point – one that Peter Beinart hits on in this article in The Atlantic and Brendan Gilfillian touches on here at TPM. As Peter puts it, what Republicans and neocons can’t stand about the agreement is that its merits are based on the premise (assumption, realization?) that the US cannot simply dictate its will to other countries. There are limits to US power. We’re frequently faced with deciding how to best secure our vital interests from a mix of far from ideal options. Or, as Gilfillian puts it here …

The uncomfortable (and unpopular) subtext of many opponents’ public statements is clear: Despite the immense amount of blood and treasure spent in Iraq, some have still not learned the lesson that wars in the Middle East fought in the name of nuclear non-proliferation are best avoided if there is a better option.

Most of the critiques of the President’s diplomacy come down to a reemergence of “Romney Strength” from the 2012 election. Why won’t jihadists attack our consulates and diplomatic compounds under Mitt Romney? Because of Romney Strength. He’s just a strong guy and they’ll see his strength and so they’ll fall in line. In part this is just wishful thinking, the privilege of not being in the White House: you can paint your alternative canvas on a totally blank canvas. The sky is the limit. But it’s also a worldview: with enough certainty, force and perseverance, America can always get what it wants. It can dictate outcomes.

That really is the mindset that got us the Iraq War. It’s the mindset that wanted us to “roll back” communism in Eastern Europe rather than opt for containment. It’s the mindset that dictates endless future wars in the Middle East, what President Obama was elected to end and is trying to pull the country back from.

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