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Iran deal advances US interests – even if it fails

Military options become more effective and credible as a result of the process

April 9, 2015 2:00AM ET

On April 2, Iran and the P5+1 group (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) reached an agreement that laid out the parameters for a nuclear deal with Iran. According to the White House and most nonproliferation experts, the deal would prevent Iran from having the capability to build a nuclear weapon for at least a decade, allowing U.S. policymakers and intelligence agencies to concentrate on more pressing matters. The agreement might also allow the United States and Iran to identify areas of common interest and engage each other about their differences.

But even if the agreement fails to facilitate reconciliation, it will still put the U.S. in a stronger position to confront Iran militarily than any of the alternatives that critics of the deal have put forward.

Is there a better deal?

The various arguments that the U.S. could extract a more favorable deal out of Iran if it made more serious military or economic threats boil down to a simple syllogism: Pressure brings Iran to the negotiating table, and more pressure will result in Iran’s making further concessions.

In Commentary, Jordan Chandler Hirsch advances one version of this argument. According to Hirsch, the U.S. extracted its largest concessions from Iran when it had a “high degree of credibility as a forceful actor,” for example, when the 2003 invasion of Iraq pushed Iran to to suspend enrichment during the EU-3 negotiations. Since then, he writes, U.S. negotiations with Iran have failed because George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s administrations shared a “desire to avoid military engagement with Iran at all costs.”

Hirsch believes that in the most recent negotiations, the Obama administration neglected an alternative to all-out war or acquiescence: a “surgical strike, relying on airpower alone, that would seek only to destroy Iran’s nuclear program.” Such a strike could “cripple the program indefinitely if not dissuade Iran from resuming it entirely,” and even the credible threat of such an attack would allow the White House would be able to extract more concessions.

Hirsch is correct that credible threats of force would improve the U.S. bargaining position. The problem is that Washington cannot credibly — or responsibly — threaten the level of force necessary to extract further concessions from Iran. For one thing, the very idea of a surgical strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities is a fantasy, as Fareed Zakaria writes in The Washington Post:

Iran … has a vast nuclear industry, comprising many installations spread across the country, some close to population centers, others in mountainous terrain. The United States would effectively have to go to war with Iran, destroying its air defenses, then attacking its facilities in dozens — perhaps hundreds — of sorties.

Even Hirsch admits that the attack he advocates carries huge risks: 

[It] could lead to a regional war in exchange for a minor delay in Iran’s nuclear program, while driving Tehran to … a fierce response involving a strike on Israel and perhaps terrorist outbreaks in Europe and the targeting of American interests around the globe.

Since both sides know the consequences of a strike would far outweigh the benefits for the U.S. and its allies, introducing credible threats of force would simply empower Iranian hard-liners and skeptics who already doubt the United States’ good faith.

Even if we assume that Iran will try to cheat, the agreement still puts Washington in a better position to strike Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.

A slightly modified version of Hirsch’s argument substitutes the threat of continued economic pressure for the threat of military force. But as Samuel Berger explains in Politico, it is “unlikely that even our allies in Europe would join us in further sanctions against Iran in the wake of a nuclear agreement they believe is sensible and positive.” Countries such as India, China, Japan and South Korea, which do not feel threatened by the prospect of a nuclear Iran, would be even less cooperative.

Can Iran be trusted?

The other main argument against the current negotiation framework is that the Iranians are determined to build a nuclear weapon as soon as they think they can get away with it. By engaging drawn-out negotiations and legitimating the Iranian regime, the U.S. is setting itself up to fight Iran, as Hirsch writes, “under far worse and far more dangerous circumstances.”

But even if we assume that Iran will try to cheat, a deal along the lines laid out in the agreement would still put Washington in a much better position for a strike against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. As Austin Long explains in The Washington Post, the framework parameters include a comprehensive inspection regime that would monitor the entire Iranian nuclear supply chain, including its centrifuge-manufacturing base. This would provide U.S. intelligence agencies with an “unparalleled opportunity to collect, analyze and develop targeting databases on this crucial element of Iran’s ability to reconstitute its nuclear program” — intelligence that would make a future U.S. strike far more effective than one launched today.

Pursuing the framework deal would also lend a U.S. strike greater international legitimacy. A strike now would likely undo the current sanctions regime, but if Iran were to violate a deal, sanctions would be reinstated and military action would be viewed as a “response to Iranian violations of a diplomatic deal that already had the blessing of the United Nations,” Long writes.

Of course, we all hope that such an attack will never become necessary. But if it does, a deal within the framework would offer important benefits to Western military intervention. Critics of the recent negotiations, especially those in Congress, would do well to bear this in mind. 

Jordan Olmstead is a research fellow at the Southwest Initiative for the Study of the Middle Eastern Conflicts, where he specializes in international security issues involving Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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