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)?
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.