The Iran Nuclear Deal: Missing the Forest for the Trees.

I’ve had a few days to listen to all of the talking heads and various “experts” discuss the pros and cons of the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and most of the arguments have focused on specific details of the agreement. There’s a lot of hyperbole over inspection timelines, centrifuges, hostages currently held, sanctions relief, etc, but in my mind the whole discussion misses the broader picture.

For the record, I think some of the debate on the details of the agreement is misguided from both the pro and con camp. For instance, one camp decries the fact that the American hostages currently held in Iran were not a non-negotiable part of the deal. While I despise them rotting in an Iranian jail for no other reason than being American, I tend to agree with the administration that including them would have been self-destructive, both for their release and for the negotiations. The president said that throwing them in the mix would have tied their fate to the nuclear deal itself, in effect holding their release hostage to something that had nothing to do with them. If the Iranians had thrown out something that was absolutely ludicrous, we would have had to make a choice over the hostages’ fate – take a deal we did not want to obtain their release – or walk away. If we’d walked away, then any negotiation to release the hostages afterwards would immediately default back to the nuclear deal. In effect, every time we attempted to free them, the answer would have been, “You know what you need to do to obtain release.” In addition, this deal wasn’t crafted by the United States and Iran alone. It was called the P5 + 1 because there were five other countries besides the United States working the deal. If we had included the hostages as a non-negotiable plank, Russia, China, and other members could have attached issues specific to their country, until the nuclear deal devolved into a waste of “what can I get out of this?” non-negotiable planks that had no bearing on nuclear weapons, but provided some specific benefit. It’s a travesty those men are being held, but this is not the primary problem with the nuclear deal.

The other camp touts the “teeth” of the sanctions, and dismisses fears that Iran will cheat because of the robust ability to “snap back” those penalties. In effect, the sanctions are crippling the country, and the Iranians know that if they fail to live up to the letter of the agreement, they’ll be brought to their knees within 65 days. This is an absolute farce, and the president’s own words prove it. The administration has made much of how shrewdly they crafted the “snap back” – that we don’t need a majority vote to reinstate sanctions, and the United States can initiate the proceedings on its own – but it fails to address the fact that sanctions are only as good as the willingness of the countries to impose them, and here is where the whole house-of-cards falls apart. Obama himself stated that, without the deal, the sanctions were going to be removed anyway, because the EU and other countries were tired of enforcing them:

“Keep in mind it’s not just Iran that paid a price for sanctions. China, Japan, South Korea, India — pretty much any oil importer around the world that had previously import arrangements from Iran — found themselves in a situation where this was costing them billions of dollars to sustain these sanctions…In some ways, the United States paid the lowest price for maintenance of sanctions, because we didn’t do business with Iran in the first place. They made a significant sacrifice.”

In the president’s own words, various countries were going to stop the sanctions in the absence of a deal anyway. Do we really believe that those countries who are willing to stop the sanctions on the potential economic benefits would reinstate them after feeling the actual returns? It’s never going to happen, and Iran knows this. Even if some form of weaker sanctions – say just the United States – were to be imposed, Iran will have recovered enough to absorb the punishment. It’s like watching a man dying of thirst. Just before he fades out, you give him water. A week later, you take it away again. He’s now recovered, and is going to last as long as he did before, and in the case of Iran, it’s been over decades. If Iran wants to cheat, they’re going to get the bomb, and no new sanctions will stop that after they’ve recovered from where they are now.

This, I believe is what is wrong with the entire deal. Everyone is debating the development of a nuclear weapon in isolation, failing to address the underlying problem. Obama himself repeatedly stated that this agreement wasn’t about Iranian hegemony or meddling in regional affairs, but strictly about their ability to develop an atomic bomb. While I see why he focused on that for this agreement, it ironically misses the entire point – and in so doing, so does the deal. In reality, we don’t care about a nuclear weapon per se. We care about IRAN getting a nuclear weapon. It’s not about the bomb. If it were, we’d have had France in front of the UN Security council a long time ago.

Focusing on plutonium and centrifuges ignores the true problem, and that is Iran. They have destabilized or attempted to destabilize every country in the region, from Yemen to Bahrain. They’ve created armies with Hezbollah in Lebanon/Syria and the Shiite militias in Iraq, and both have caused havoc – many with American blood on their hands. We currently seem confused because they proclaim a hatred of the Islamic State, but their actions in Syria and Iraq have been fanning the ISIS flame. Ultimately, we frame the wrong question when we debate the mechanics of the nuclear deal.

Make no mistake, Iran is going to get the bomb. Whether it’s in five years because they cheat, or in ten or fifteen years because they followed the framework to the letter, they are going to be a nuclear power. Given this – and it is a given, no matter what anyone says about this agreement – the question should be reframed:

Is it better to keep Iran as an outlier, pariah state, forcing whatever sanctions we are able to maintain, realizing they may get a nuclear weapon in 3-5 years  (without the means to deliver it)?

OR

Is it better to provide relief from sanctions, allowing Iran to gain legitimacy and hopefully becoming a less hardline country, realizing they may get a nuclear weapon in 13-15 years (with the means to deliver it)?

Obama has defended the deal by stating that it was about nuclear weapons alone, and not about Iran’s other transgressions, but that’s an oxymoron. Iran’s other transgressions are precisely why we’re afraid of them getting the bomb. Iran’s activities and intentions are precisely what we should be focused on, not the nuts and bolts of a specific weapon system.

There is a school of thought that believes through this deal Iran will soften its tone, and that we will negotiate with them in earnest on other things from Syria to Israel. I honestly hope this land of rainbows and unicorns appears, but the best indicator of future performance is past performance. Two days after the deal was signed, the president of Iran held a rally, stating – amongst chants of “death to America” – that his hardline stance with the United States would in no way be affected by this deal. In essence, no change in ideology. What will change is Iran’s ability to implement that ideology through the enormous influx of cash provided by the lifting of sanctions. Even if they use 90% of sanctions relief for “butter”, and 10% for “guns”, with a windfall of an estimated 150 billion dollars, that leaves 15 billion dollars for Iran to reinforce or impose its will around the world. An enormous enhancement of capability. Couple this with a break in the arms embargo and ballistic missile relaxation, and you have the makings of serious mischief.

At his press conference, Obama stated that, while many decried the deal, none had offered an alternative – specifically meaning an alternative to Iran getting the bomb. That’s the wrong question. What should have been asked was, “What does Iran want, and how can they best achieve it?” I will submit that it wants to continue doing exactly what it has in the past: To impose its will in the Middle East. While a nuclear weapon is great for deterrence, it isn’t something the Qod’s force can use when training the Houthis in Yemen. Iran is adept at fomenting internal divisions and fracturing stable state systems, from leveraging Hamas to creating Hezbollah, and executing that task requires conventional weapons and money, not a bomb.

The world is markedly different from what it was when Iran began its quest for a nuclear weapon, and this difference has caused Iran to reevaluate its goals. The sanctions, imposed because of that quest, were preventing them from capitalizing on the turmoil created by the Arab Spring. In effect, they made a choice: delay the bomb for an influx of money that was sorely needed for the implementation of their ideology – from propping up Assad in Syria, to countering Saudi Arabia in Yemen. They focused on their overall goals, while we narrowly focused on a weapon.

In patting itself on the back about delaying a nuclear weapon, the administration may have engendered something much worse. Obama stated that the only alternative to this deal was war – but he may be creating ideal conditions for that very outcome – and Iran will still get the bomb. Focusing narrowly on the weapon might be missing the forest for the trees.

Comments

  1. D'Anne Horner says:

    So, in your opinion what should be done?

    • Brad Taylor says:

      Honestly, given that I think they’ll get a bomb regardless, I think we should have stayed the course, but that horse has left the barn. Obama is right about the current deal – we flame it, and the sanctions are gone regardless, but that’s a function of entering into negotiations in the first place, and it had several second and third order effects. One of the ancillary problems of the negotiation was that we were afraid of “upsetting the apple cart”. We refused to confront Iran on multiple issues, from Syria to Iraq, because our political capital was invested in a deal that had political overtones from a man who was looking for a legacy. Even participating in the negotiations harmed our ability to affect the outcomes around the world. Obama is right in one respect – when he says, “What is the alternative?”, he’s talking about Iran becoming a nuclear state, and THEY WILL BECOME ONE. Outside of a few fan-boys with little intellectual capacity to seriously study the problem, every other scientist agrees that Iran – if they want one – will get a nuclear bomb. Which, of course, is the crux. If they don’t want one, then the deal wasn’t necessary. If they do – and they do – then they’re going to get one. What scares me is that having a nuclear device is different from delivering a nuclear device. The current agreement trades capability for time. Iran gets the ability to develop “conventional” ballistic missiles, and they just wait. Or cheat. At the end of the deal, they’ll build a bomb, and they’ll do it with the mechanics from the deal itself. We don’t live in a perfect world, and sometimes the immediate worst is better than kicking the can down the road.

      But that doesn’t answer your question. So, what should be done is to accept the deal. Too late to do otherwise. The United Nations have ratified it, the other countries have approved it, and us refusing it now will give Iran a fait accompli – a collapse of sanctions and Iran legitimacy to say, “Hey, we tried – back to the centrifuges…”. And a nuclear weapon. It’s a self fulfilling prophecy at this stage. The ONE thing the deal gives us is insight into their capability. At the very least, given another administration, we’ll learn where to strike through the inspection regimen. On top of that, we should vociferously fight the lifting of the conventional arms embargo and flat out deny any ballistic missile technology from entering the country (things that are staggered in the deal, and not a forgone conclusion). The sanctions are gone, but that doesn’t mean we should go the second mile and help them arm every throat-cutter out there with their agenda to destabilize. That should be a redline now. It’s a sad thing to say, but the most we can get out of this deal is intelligence and delay for Iran’s goals. And it will still be imperfect, but walking away now – as Obama has ironically said, neglecting to mention that his effort caused it – is a self fulfilling prophecy. They’ll get the bomb in a matter of years, and no sanctions will be around to provide any stick to the Nuclear hammer. All we can do now is limit what they can do with their newfound wealth and prevent them from developing the ability to deliver a weapon. At the least, we can get insight into their program – which may prove crucial when push comes to shove.

  2. Paul Merritt says:

    Just introduced to you via reading “All Necessary Force”. I will be eagerly reading your other books. You present a powerful reality that is so vitally needed in today’s political climate. I trust that you have the ear of policy makers in Washington.

    Do you share what political candidate you will support at the next election?

    Thank-you for your past and continuing service to our country.

  3. Osama Magdi Elmageid says:

    This was a very enjoyable read! Thanks again for posting! However, I think negotiating with the Mullahs is a bad decision to begin with, no matter. Now, I know why during the Bush administration, negotiation with terrorists was prohibited. Your insights into the hostage situation were helpful in understanding just how much of a weapon a hostage can be used as. Only one way to free those hostages, and it’s definitely not through the deal.

  4. Joe Flowers says:

    If we know they’re going to get a bomb eventually, I think it’s best that we try to have as much of a diplomatic relationship as we can and quit pissing them off with our sanctions, etc. (which we were about to lose anyway as far as our partners giving in).
    This way, we can hopefully begin a long-term relationship that will change their attitude to us over 15 years. I DONT think history is the best predictor of future actions for several reasons: the generation who saw the U.S. installed Shah’s tyranny and supported the revolution is dying off over the next 10-20 years. The younger people–the ones who supported the green revolution–don’t seem to be as supportive of the mullahs and more nutty leaders. I’m hoping that there’s some secret agreements going on–.like Iran supporting a post-Assad Syria, where the divisions can declare a ceasefire and all focus on fighting Al-Nusra and ISIS (though a permanent partition may follow). I’d like to think in the near future, once people are focused on the clown show of presidential nominees, Iran will release the American. We’ll see.
    I don’t think what we were doing was working (or likely to keep working for another year); this seems like the best of a list of non-optimal choices. Like with Cuba. Our policy hadn’t done anything to improve anything for us or them. So why not change it?

    • Brad Taylor says:

      I must respectfully disagree. Your thesis is backwards. Iran isn’t attempting hegemony in the region because of sanctions. The sanctions were emplaced because of their activities vis a vis the IRGC. They have no desire for greater diplomatic relationships out of goodwill, and only want it to increase their freedom of maneuver. You make it sound as if they only REACTED to our actions, as if their calculus is solely based on how much we “piss them off”, but its the opposite. Hezbollah wasn’t created because of sanctions. Syria/Assad wasn’t supported by Iran for years because of sanctions. The Houthis running amok in Yemen aren’t doing it because of Iranian sanctions. I could go on and on. America, as much as we’d like to think otherwise, is not the end-all of activities in the ME, and Iran’s actions are not conducted solely as a reaction to our activities. Iran has goals in the region, and simply because we hold out a hand in pseudo-friendship will not alter those goals. Yes, there was a spark of the green revolution, and it was crushed unmercifully. In a dictatorship (even if cloaked as a theocracy) the wants and desires of the population are irrelevant. The only change comes through revolution – as happened in 1979, and yes, I understand its underpinnings were directly tied to our machinations (see my very first blog). I also understand that this fact is irrelevant. Once they have a nuclear weapon, such a revolution becomes problematic – which is why the mullahs want it. It’s precisely a protective measure for the regime, allowing them much, much more freedom of movement because any other nation-state would be afraid to intervene in any meaningful manner no matter what Iran does. As for what we were doing not “working”, that would have to be defined. If by “not working” you mean delaying an Iranian nuclear weapon, I agree, but my thesis is more holistic. My definition of “working” is preventing Iran from destabilizing the region through proxy wars, given that they’re going to get a bomb sooner or later anyway. A large part of this is funding, arms, and ballistic weapons development, which they will now have. Thus, I fully believe this current path has little hope of “working”. You state our policies haven’t done anything to improve anything for us or them, but you can’t prove a negative. Where would we be if we’d simply sat by the wayside since 1979, not countering Iranian hegemony at all? In your view, if I read it correctly, Iran would be a peaceful country without ambitions for anything other than their own prosperity. I believe the opposite. Cavalierly changing a policy of this magnitude on the hopes that Iran will “turn the other cheek” is, in my view, naive. The agreement has decoupled the nuclear device from Iran’s overarching goals, and I think this is a mistake.

      • JOE Flowers says:

        Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply the sanctions were somehow causing them to run amok directly or through proxies in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, etc. I don’t think ANY of those things were a result of sanctions and don’t believe I said as much. That is primarily regional positioning against Sunni/Saudi/US influence.

        I was ONLY saying IF your hypothesis is correct that they will get a nuclear bomb, then having a better, or less adversarial, relationship (i.e., MORE dialogue–versus refusing to meet with them like in the past–and ending the sanctions ASAP) is better than having a more adversarial relationship. It may have other benefits as well; for example, the sanctions being lifted may help them help us deal with Assad– surely they know he has passed the point where he can ever legitimately rule Syria as a whole…too many Syrians have suffered too much under him. If they want influence in that region, they–like us–have quite the tightrope to walk.

        I have had many Iranians tell me that the majority–especially the young adults, a huge portion of the populace–envy the West and know the mullahs are holding the country back. They know it’s a tyrannical regime. Last time the regime only arrested 500 people and a few people were killed (it’s also possible a few “futball” players were disciplined). BUT isn’t it hyperbole to described that as “unmercifully crushed”?? I mean, compared to the much worse fate that the U.S. allowed to occur with the pro-democracy protesters in Bahrain, where we knew the Saudis were helping to squash that rebellion (few Americans even know about that–CNN wouldn’t even air the special they filmed about it). Since Bahrain is a good oil ally, we don’t care how many they killed (just like we don’t care that Kuwait said they’d end their monarchy after we saved them in the 90s when they were slant drilling into Iraq and had a girl give false testimony to congress who then voted by a few votes to support military action based on that–many congressmen cited her PR-firm-assisted fake testimony as what swayed them).

        In the end, I THINK more Mousavis will come forward to challenge the mullahs and corrupt elections, and the people will only be better organized. If we continued to deny diplomatic relations and support sanctions, then we can always be blamed for their problems–we become the regime’s scapegoat (just like all the ME tyrants do terrible things, but keep their populace distracted by focusing on Israel’s apartheid regime when they steal land, use human shields, or shoot a kid now and then). For example, our sanctions on Iraq had devastating effects on the population–hundreds of thousands died of preventable diseases, the infrastructure was destroyed, etc. It hurt the people more than it ever hurt Saddam, who still ate steak in his palaces every night and did whatever he wanted. So when we entered into that problematic war we were already behind the curve with hearts and minds (of course it didn’t help that we had previously encouraged them to revolt and then abandoned them and watched the Hind-Ds go to work, killing 250K Shia (and I imagine a lot of Kurds).

        As far as their proxy wars, I’m not sure how successful they’ve been (except in Iraq, which we set up and handed them by giving the country over to the Shiites). Yemen has been a mess for a long time, and while the Houthis made some gains, they’re now losing ground ( I think). While Assad seemed to be surprisingly holding his own, at this point, few people think Iran and Hezbollah are going to be able to save him (I think even Russia has pulled advisors out of the region). Iran’s hardline leaders will continue to try to fight what they see as pro-Western hegemony, but I don’t think they have the ability to do much more than support small rebellions that will fail. Other than Russia, they have no good allies. If, as you claim, they want to be like North Korea–able to be as crazy as they want without global interference, AND they will get the bomb eventually, I just think that maybe giving the regime less fodder to use painting us as evil with their populace is better than continuing to hurt their economy and the well-being of the people, so many of whom like Europe and the West more than their own despotic leaders.

        • Brad Taylor says:

          I see your point, but you have a little bias in your statements. Yeah, sure, the Mullahs were easy on the green revolution and Bahrain was absolutely evil on their own protests. You talk about Bahrain and CNN not broadcasting the results without any mention of the fact that Iran didn’t allow anyone to film anything during the protests, then use Iran’s own statistics of casualties to prove your point. I’m not sure why CNN didn’t put out their film, but I’m positive it wasn’t because Bahrain is an “oil ally”. For the record, Bahrain is 61 on the oil producing list, behind Cuba and in front of New Zealand. I seriously doubt oil had anything to do with our interest. But the country brings up my point precisely. The troubles in Bahrain were stirred by Iran, looking to spread their ambitions in the middle east, and using the fracture of the Sunni/Shia divide in that country. Yes, KSA intervened, but make no mistake, Bahrain is case number one of what I’m talking about: Iranian influence attempting to destabilize for their hegemonic goals. As for proxy wars, unlike Iran, you look too short term, using examples from the last year or so. Lebanon was a proxy war, and Hezbollah won – after a fifteen year civil war. They’re the dominant force in that country, created and funded by Iran, and now fighting in Syria. They’d like to do the same in Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, and anywhere else they can, and they take the long view (and saying the Houthis “made some gains” is like saying Tiger Woods “won some tournaments”. Starting with nothing but an impoverished region in the Sadah province, they took over the entire country, toppled the government, and forced the president to flee to KSA). Unlike us, they don’t look at success in terms of weeks. They look at decades. By all means, I’d like to think that the population will rise up and cause the mullahs to become great neighbors, but lets not forget, it was students who over ran our embassy in 1979, not 80 year old religious leaders. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong – I honestly hope so – but I’ve seen the results of Iran’s actions on the battlefield, and I’m not willing to stick my chin out hoping they won’t punch it. Especially after they’ve done so over and over.

  5. Thanks for your responses (and everything else you’ve done in fact and in fiction!). I have trained and spent time with many of your former colleagues or those who came before you (from K Lamb, Shrek, and Pannone to other guys still fighting).
    I actually looked up the Bahrain thing and CNN refuted her (and Glen Greenwald’s) claims–made in the Guardian article I read so long ago. It wasn’t oil, but advertising that they said influenced CNN. I guess I assumed the minority had to have oil riches to stay in power!!
    In any case, my point was that I saw tons of phone camera footage from Iran (and news coverage), and I’ve seen tons of footage/coverage from everywhere else (from Libya to Syria), but I saw very little from Bahrain.
    I don’t really expect the Mullahs to change in any way; I just think their generation is dying off, and the vast majority of the population is young and yearning for change. I HOPE the green revolution was a first ripple, a harbinger of the turning tide. I’ve also met many optimistic Iranians and policy wonks–but for now, it seems Iran is going to wage 20 tiny proxies and lots of ankle biting (they can count on us doing a lot of the work for them–like we did in Iraq).
    As for the Iran Deal, I did think it was interesting just how many of Israel’s top military leaders (mostly retired) have come out in support of it:
    http://www.washingtonsblog.com/2015/08/israeli-military-brass-support-iran-deal.html
    Again, thank you for everything you’ve done, and for the great books you’re doing now!!
    I’m glad to have found your blog.

    • Brad Taylor says:

      Thanks for the accolades! For me, as I stated above, I think we have no choice but to support the agreement now. But that doesn’t mean I think it’s a good thing. It’s just the best of a bad thing at this stage. As for Israel via the Washington Post, I don’t put a lot of stock in any of that. Israel – if it’s possible – is more politically partisan than even America. Everything said there is done with a partisan political lens. I’d view it as more of a bellwether on military acceptance of Bibi than anything having to do with Iran. We have our own list of generals supporting the deal, and any research into them will show that 99% of the signatories of the letter have been Democratic supporters for their entire career. They throw their “military creds” out there as if it’s unbiased, but are really just carrying water. I’m sure, if it had been Bush that had made the deal, it would be a different set of generals in support, and this bunch screaming at how it’s a mistake. But I’m probably cynical.

  6. Patty Gilvey says:

    Brad, I find it interesting that you received over 200 comments regarding Helm and only a handful of comments regarding Iran. Both, of course, are real, but only one has real implications for our future and the future of the Middle East. I do believe that this is because many people have come to distrust the government as a whole and not merely the current administration. It all began with the Kennedy assassination, got worse with Watergate and worse still with the Bush wars. With the way things are now in Washington and with Bush once proclaiming that the Constitution is “just a piece of paper” I think people both distrust almost everything the government says and expect their Constitutional rights to be trampled. It seems then that any outlandish conspiracy that comes along is a possibility in people’s minds. Having been married to a career Marine I understand your mindset and defense of your brothers. I do not disagree with you. I am just writing from a civilian perspective of how a non-military person (which is most people out here) looks at things.
    Love to you and Elaine,
    Patty Gilvey

  7. Jonathan Sayles says:

    Interesting… really interesting… (all of this blog content – and esp. thoughtful comments like Patty G.s).

    I used to teach public school but ended up kids so had to jump into private industry (feeding kids cat food because that’s all you can afford on $11K / year isn’t sustainable).

    Anyway – what I learned in private industry is in fact – that the government is simply another variable in the corporate equation. And the players (Adelson, Koch, Gates, Rometty, etc.) simply manipulate that variable when they can make money off of it.

    Money. It’s all (in the U.S. – for at least the last 40 years) literally all that matters. If you want to know why something happened – especially things measured in 11 – 12 figures like the Gulf Wars – you simply keep asking, “Who stood to gain” – that’s all.

    Why do the Koch brothers support Trump? Money. Why does the NRA support Trump? Money. Why does Wall Street (I think … probably…) support Clinton? Money. In the U.S. – every decision has one – and only one result that matters … and what I learned in the private sector is that – whatever lying/cheating/fraud/etc. goes in Washington is absolutely insignificant compared to the extremes corporations and the “donor class” will go to ….

    To make money. Stop blaming Obama – he didn’t kill those kids in CT – the NRA did + their supporters in Congress + the gun lobby & manufacturers who fight like Tasmanian Devils whenever any sensible gun control is proposed. Why? Because the owners of the gun manufacturers want more money.

    And if you think any of this is some old fart’s conspiracy theories you just never spent enough time in corporate America to understand the equation.

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