Wishful Thinking on Iran
By Michael Krepon
Which camp – pro or con — is most guilty of wishful thinking about the Iran deal? Supporters who argue they have secured verifiable, significant reductions in Iran’s ability to make nuclear weapons? Or opponents who argue that a “better deal” can be negotiated after rejecting this one?
For opponents to avoid being guilty of wishful thinking, existing sanctions must remain in place after killing the deal, until a new administration tries to do better. Since the Obama Administration won’t be negotiating better terms, the current sanctions regime must hold as long as it takes for a new administration to resume negotiations. Also, the next American president must be able to convince all of Washington’s negotiating partners to support better provisions than those rejected by the Congress. Plus, “tougher” sanctions must remain in place on all of Iran’s significant trading partners for as many years as it takes Tehran to cry “uncle.” All of these hopeful assumptions rest on the next president’s ability, moral standing, and political backing — domestically and internationally — to negotiate a better deal.
Supporters argue that the deal doesn’t rely on trust; it relies on intrusive monitoring provisions, included at suspect sites, where timelines for access are short enough to prevent “break out” or “sneak out” from key limitations. Tehran may well abide by its obligations, which is at least as plausible a reason for accepting them as for its intention to violate them. But if Tehran accepted these provisions because it intends to cheat, President Obama and his successors will know about Iranian noncompliance in time to take remedial action – including military strikes, if needed. Sending U.S. pilots and other forces into harm’s way will, however, be a last resort. This option will remain in place after the terms of this deal lapse. As for Iran’s misbehavior in the region, the Obama Administration is taking many steps to shore up friends, especially Israel and the Gulf states, with military assistance. Subsequent administrations will do so, as well. Rather than engaging in wishful thinking, supporters of the deal make sound arguments that they have put in place prudent hedges against worst cases. Critics don’t argue with this hedging strategy; instead, they express doubt in presidential resolve.
Now let’s examine the underlying assumptions behind the push for a “better” deal. Will existing sanctions hold between the time this deal is torpedoed by the Congress and the advent of the next administration? Realistically speaking, sanctions will fray because the Congress will be in no position to hold the line against every other trading partner of Iran, all of whom support this deal. Will America’s negotiating partners agree on tougher constraints? All of them are telling the Congress that this is fantasy. Will the next U.S. president have the standing to negotiate better terms, the way that Ronald Reagan was able to secure deeper cuts in nuclear forces than the strategic arms limitations that Jimmy Carter negotiated?
Ronald Reagan got a better deal because he wanted deeper cuts, if not the total elimination of nuclear weapons in both the United States and the Soviet Union. In the Iran deal, the United States (and Israel) accept no nuclear constraints; all of the limitations are on Tehran. Besides, Ronald Reagan won’t win the next election. The next American president will have to operate in the same severely partisan circumstances as President Obama – except that he or she will have less standing because Republicans in Congress have sided with a hard-line government in Israel against every other state that supports this deal. An America that is diplomatically isolated will be in no position to negotiate a “better” deal.
Realistically speaking, the probability of sanctions eroding if Congress torpedoes this deal is greater than the prospect of tougher sanctions. Tehran has been willing to accept significant, long-term constraints on its enrichment program in return for the lifting of some sanctions. It won’t cry “uncle” as sanctions erode.
Sinking this deal is far more likely to result in no deal than a better deal. If Congress rejects this deal, if sanctions erode, and if Iran increases its enrichment capabilities – as opponents fully expect — an American president is left with basically two options. One option is to refrain from using military force. President Obama chose this option in Syria after Bashir al-Assad’s regime used Sarin against his own population. But President Obama secured the removal and demilitarization of nerve agents from Syria in return for not using force. An American president would not have the option of doing nothing if Iran blows by constraints that are not in force because the Congress has rejected this deal. Only the second option remains: to initiate another war in the Middle East to prevent another country from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Although backers of a “better” deal rarely say so, their fallback plan is the same as that of the deal’s supporters – the use of force. But there is a huge difference between making war against a country that violates the terms on an international agreement not to make nuclear weapons, and making war after rejecting an agreement could have avoided war in the first place. Nothing will weaken America’s standing in the world or exhaust its armed forces and treasury more than fighting a second, unnecessary war in the Middle East to prevent a state from acquiring nuclear weapons.
This deal provides an opportunity to prevent worst cases, while being prepared for them. Torpedoing this deal increases the odds of worst cases. This deal is not based on wishful thinking: it is based on close monitoring and international support, backed up by U.S. military power. Those who expect that a better deal will result from killing this one on Capitol Hill win the contest for wishful thinking.
Note to readers: A shorter version of this essay appeared in the September 3rd issue of Defense One.