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The real test of the Iran deal

A week ago I volunteered my way into an Atlantic debate on the merits of the Iran nuclear agreement. The long version of the post is here; the summary is that the administration has both specific facts and longer-term historic patterns on its side in recommending the deal.

On the factual front, I argued that opponents had not then (and have not now) met President Obama’s challenge to propose a better real-world alternative to the negotiated terms. Better means one that would make it less attractive for Iran to pursue a bomb, over a longer period of time. Real world means not the standard “Obama should have been tougher” carping but a specific demand that the other countries on “our” side, notably including Russia and China, would have joined in insisting on, and that the Iranians would have accepted.


“What’s your better idea?” is a challenge any honest opponent must accept. If this deal fails — which means, if the US Congress rejects an agreement that the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, China, and Iran have accepted — then something else will happen, and all known “somethings” involve faster Iranian progress toward a bomb.

On historical judgment, I said that for two reasons the supporters of the deal should get the benefit of the doubt. The short-term reason is that nearly everyone who in 2015 is alarmist about Iran was in 2002 alarmist about Iraq. You can find exceptions, but only a few. That doesn’t prove that today’s alarmists are wrong, but in any other realm it would count. The longer-term reason is that the history of controversial diplomatic agreements through the past century shows that those recommending “risks for peace” have more often proven right than their opponents. (Don’t believe me? Go back and consider the past examples.)

Three topics for today’s updates, with a connecting historical theme.


Correlation of Forces

In the two weeks since the deal was announced, the forces pro and con have lined up. The clear opponents include:

    • The congressional GOP, which invited Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to speak against the deal long before it was struck, and virtually all of whose members oppose it.
    • Candidates for the GOP presidential nomination, including Scott Walker with his promise to revoke the deal on day one in office (which would be difficult, unless he could convince Russia, China, etc. to reinstate sanctions), Mike Huckabee with his odious “oven” line, and the rest who oppose the deal as uniformly as they opposed Obamacare.
    • Many Israelis in and out of government, from Benjamin Netanyahu to Natan Sharansky. And, using arguments like Netanyahu’s, American organisations like AIPAC, Bill Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel, the Zionist Organization of America (which went out of its way to endorse Huckabee’s statement), possibly the Anti-Defamation League, and of course Sheldon Adelson.

The question for Congress to ask is whether the deal (a) does more than any alternative to (b) minimise Iran’s incentives to develop weapons for (c) as long a period as possible.

So who do we have on the other side?

    • Most of the American public, by a 54–38 margin, according to a new poll by the Democratic-affiliated Public Policy Polling. “Voters within every gender, race, and age group are in support of it, reflecting the broad-based mandate for the deal,” the PPP analysis said.
    • Most Jewish Americans, by a larger margin than the public in general, according to a Los Angeles Jewish Journal poll reported in the The Jerusalem Post. In this poll, American Jews supported the deal by a 49–31 margin; among the rest of the public in this study, the support was only 28–24, with a very large group undecided. According to the poll, 53 per cent of Jewish Americans wanted Congress to approve the deal, versus 35 per cent who wanted Congress to stop it.
    • Numerous Israeli analysts and former military and intelligence-service officials. For instance, various members of the IDF’s general staff; a former head of Mossad; a former head of Shin Bet; a scientist from Israel’s nuclear program; a former head of the IDF’s intelligence branch; a former deputy national-security advisor; another former IDF official; the think-tank Molad; Marc Schulman of HistoryCentral.com; and many more. Every American has seen and read the literally cartoonish fulminations of Netanyahu against the deal. How about more coverage of the Israeli defense professionals making the opposite case?
    • Five former US ambassadors to Israel from administrations of both parties, and three former US Under Secretaries of State (including Thomas Pickering, who held both jobs), who issued a public letter on Monday supporting the deal. Sample passage: “Those who advocate rejection of the JCPOA [the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s Nuclear Program, a.k.a. the deal] should assess carefully the value and feasibility of any alternative strategy … The consequences of rejection are grave: US responsibility for the collapse of the agreement; the inability to hold the P5+1 together for the essential international sanctions regime and such other action that may be required against Iran; and the real possibility that Iran will decide to build a nuclear weapon under significantly reduced or no inspections.”
    • More than 100 former US ambassadors, career and political alike, and from both parties, who signed a similar public letter endorsing the deal. It begins, “The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran stands as a landmark agreement in deterring the proliferation of nuclear weapons.”
    • More than 60 American “national-security leaders” — politicians, military officers, strategists, Republicans and Democrats — who issued their own public letter urging Congress to approve the deal. E.g., “We congratulate President Obama and all the negotiators for a landmark agreement unprecedented in its importance for preventing the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran.” Here are a few Republicans who signed this letter: former Special Trade Representative Carla Hills; former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill; former Senator Nancy Landon Kassebaum. Here are a few Democrats: former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell; former Defense Secretary William Perry. I’m resisting saying: But what do any of them know, compared with Mike Huckabee?
    • Hans Blix, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who a dozen years ago tried to avert the disaster in Iraq. He says of the deal, “I think it is a remarkably far-reaching and detailed agreement. And I think it has a potential for stabilizing and improving the situation in the region as it gradually gets implemented.”
    • A number of Iranian dissidents, who say that the deal could shift the internal balance in their country.
    • An increasingly solid bloc of Democrats in Congress, being marshalled by Representatives David Price of North Carolina and Lloyd Doggett of Texas, who have been working since last year to reinforce support for the deal. “While demanding thorough scrutiny, this agreement appears to mark genuine progress for all who believe that peace will make us more secure than war with Iran,” Doggett (a longtime friend from our days in Texas) said when the deal was announced. “The bomb-Iran naysayers for whom the only good deal is a dead deal will unceasingly raise obstacles, but ultimately reason will prevail and the President’s leadership will be sustained.” It is interesting (to put it neutrally) to contrast the Price–Doggett effort, which has the support of Nancy Pelosi, with the equivocation of their Senate counterpart, leader-aspirant Chuck Schumer.
    • An increasing number of journalists asking: if not this deal, exactly what? A notable example is Fareed Zakaria, who wrote: “Let’s imagine that the opponents of the nuclear agreement with Iran get their way: The US Congress kills it. What is the most likely consequence? Within one year, Iran would have more than 25,000 centrifuges, its breakout time would shrink to mere weeks and the sanctions against it would crumble. How is this in the United States’ national interest? Or Israel’s? Or Saudi Arabia’s?” See also Uriel Heilman’s “The Iran deal and the hubris of certainty” for the Jewish Telegraph Agency.

I could go on, but you get the point. Judge for yourself. You can be persuaded by Netanyahu, Huckabee, Cruz, Kristol, Adelson, et al., all of whom were wrong on the last high-stakes judgment call about US interests in the Middle East. Or by an overwhelming majority of the people from both parties with operating experience in America’s war-fighting and peace-making enterprises in this part of the world.


The Rut of History

One of the journalists who is not part of the trend I mention is of course Leon Wieseltier, for many decades the literary editor of The New Republic and now an Atlantic contributing editor. In our pages on Monday he made his case against the deal in particular and what he considers the defective larger conception of history that lies behind it.

By all means read it and judge for yourself. I’ll say collegially that I see the larger point entirely differently, and also disagree on specifics about this deal.

On the bigger idea behind the deal, Wieseltier quotes Obama’s aide Ben Rhodes as saying that the president is “willing to step out of the rut of history.” Wieseltier responds this way:

The rut of history: It is a phrase worth pondering. It expresses a deep scorn for the past, a zeal for newness and rupture, an arrogance about old struggles and old accomplishments, a hastiness with inherited precedents and circumstances, a superstition about the magical powers of the present. It expresses also a generational view of history, which, like the view of history in terms of decades and centuries, is one of the shallowest views of all.

This is nothing other than the mentality of disruption applied to foreign policy.

This is an eloquent and powerful description of Year Zero–style ahistorical thinking. I just don’t think it applies to Obama, least of all in his foreign policy. In 2009, the Nobel Peace Prize committee may have thought that the newly elected Obama was the man described above. They were wrong. 20 years from now, or 50, I think assessments of Obama’s international strategy will stress its incremental, small-c conservative nature, rather than any impulsive willingness to overturn the furniture and see what happens then.

For decades, US diplomats and scholars have talked about the inevitable end of Cuba’s unnatural exclusion. For nearly as long, they have studied the conditions in which Iran’s extremist-pariah estrangement would end. And for at least a decade, they have considered how the United States could undo the damage in its relations with the Muslim world wrought by the Iraq War. Obama has moved steadily on all these fronts, and slowly. You can agree or disagree with his judgement (I generally agree), but I don’t think you can call him impulsive. If you want to see impatient, impulsive zeal for newness, “the mentality of disruption applied to foreign policy,” go back and study the thinking that led us into the Iraq War.

On the specifics of the deal, Wieseltier says this:

This agreement was designed to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. If it does not prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons — and it seems uncontroversial to suggest that it does not guarantee such an outcome — then it does not solve the problem that it was designed to solve. And if it does not solve the problem that it was designed to solve, then it is itself not an alternative, is it?

I believe that this misstates the ambition of the agreement and thus mischaracterises the standard to which it should be held.

This deal does not guarantee that Iran can never produce nuclear weapons, because no deal could do so. The science and engineering behind nuclear weaponry are no country’s secret anymore. If there ever was a time when Iran’s nuclear potential could have been forcibly eliminated (as Iraq’s was in the Israeli raid on Osirak in 1981), that time is many years in the past. Eleven years ago, US military experts were already judging it impossible. Moreover, as is rarely mentioned in the U.S., Iran could fully comply with the Non-Proliferation Treaty and still keep a civilian nuclear industry.

Through the Cold War era and afterwards, the only way to keep nuclear weapons from being used was to make the cost of that use unacceptably high. This is the brutal logic of deterrence: What stops you from killing us is the knowledge that you’ll be killed in return. And the only way to prevent these weapons from being spread is to make the costs of proliferation higher than the perceived benefits. This was the purpose of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and also of the current sanctions against Iran.

Twenty years from now, assessments of Obama’s international strategy will stress its incremental, small-c conservative nature.

Thus the test of the deal is not whether it guarantees that Iran can never build nuclear weaponry. If that’s what you’re for, you are against any real-world deal.

The question for Congress to ask about this agreement is whether it (a) does more than any alternative to (b) minimise Iran’s incentives to develop weapons for (c) as long a period as possible. Saying “No deal!” notably fails this final test, since China and Russia won’t continue sanctions just because the GOP thinks they should.

The announced deal does more on those three measures than any other proposal I’m aware of. If there is a better option, let’s hear it. Wieseltier says that it is “demagogic” to raise this “compared with what?” question. I think it’s responsible and unavoidable. On this point Charlie Stevenson, a longtime professor at the National War College who is now at SAIS, writes in to say:

Let’s suppose US critics of the agreement succeed in voting a resolution of disapproval and then override a presidential veto. Some sanctions can still be lifted by executive order, but many would stay in place. Meanwhile, the UN Security Council will vote to lift international sanctions and most other countries will rush to trade with Tehran.

Each Republican presidential candidate should be asked to lay out what they would do if elected given that fact situation. Promising even tougher unilateral sanctions would sound weak indeed. They should also be asked how they would conduct their presidencies if an Obama veto stands, and most sanctions are already lifted by America and others. Would they abandon the inspection regime or otherwise undermine its implementation?

Toughness, like hope, is not a strategy.


History as Metaphor

In an earlier post, I argued that most of the past century’s negotiated agreements had turned out better than their political critics feared. The obvious exception, I said, was Munich.

I’ve received a flood of mail from historians and other readers saying that current historiography tells a more complicated story. It sounds like a classic SlatePitch to cast Neville Chamberlain as other than a dupe, and two years ago Slate actually ran an item defending him. But a number of other readers wrote to this effect:

From what I’ve gathered, the Munich agreement was not "peace in our time" (that was for public consumption). It was a ploy to buy desperately needed time to rearm. The British government never expected anything else from it.

In addition, France and Great Britain had very limited power to affect things happening in Eastern Europe. They weren’t in a position to attack Germany worth anything, and the major lesson from WWI was that offensives could be very, very costly, with little to show for them.  

And in any occasion, when one side has nothing to say but "Munich!," it’s clear that they have no argument.

This post is long enough, and it is late enough, that I’ll save elaboration on this final point for another time. July and August are often torpid, silly-news periods in our national life, and certainly there is plenty of spectacle on the political scene. But this Iran deal is important, and I am glad it is getting so much attention.


This post was originally published at The Atlantic