The Barack Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran is historic. It significantly rolls back Iran’s enrichment program and staves off the risk of another calamitous U.S. war in the Middle East.
But the deal’s opponents — notably, all of the 2016 GOP candidates, most Republicans in Congress, hawkish Democrats such as Sen. Robert Menendez, and of course Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — remain doggedly against it.
As demonstrated in yesterday’s Senate hearing on the deal, Republicans and their allies continue to deny the deal’s strong non-proliferation features and reject the notion that it can actually yield real benefits to U.S. interests. The facts contradict their objections: Iran has to reduce its number of centrifuges by about two-thirds and dismantle about 97 percent of its low-enriched uranium stockpile while being subject to one of the most intrusive monitoring regimes in the world. The Additional Protocol, which allows for inspection of suspected but undeclared enrichment sites, is permanently adopted under this deal.
What’s more, few of the deal’s critics have offered any realistic alternatives.
One alternative, as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, both presidential candidates, have advocated, is to abandon negotiations and resume the policy of escalating economic sanctions and isolation. Proponents of this route argue more of this kind of pressure will induce greater concessions, even capitulation, from Tehran. Some even believe this can force Iran to abandon its nuclear capacities altogether.
That argument ignores the fact that sanctions have a pathetic record of success. Most often they result in a hardening of positions by the targeted government, not submission.
Another decade of economic pressure is thus likely to empower Iran’s hardliners and elbow out pragmatists such as President Hassan Rouhani, who rode into the presidency on the promise of peaceful engagement with the West and diplomatic resolution to the nuclear issue. It’s hard to imagine another moderate being voted into office in Iran after an embarrassing rebuff by an America unwilling to negotiate.
Besides, the broad international coalition that has cooperated with the U.S.’s harsh sanctions regime would disintegrate if Washington, by abandoning the deal, showed itself wholly unserious about diplomacy.
A second alternative is war. Although at the moment it is not politically advantageous to say so explicitly, many of the most hawkish in Washington are avid champions of this option. Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker has even suggested that the U.S. might take military action on the first day of his presidency, should he be elected. Leaving aside the fact that military action would be totally illegitimate under international law, given that Tehran presents no threat to the physical security of the United States, war would be nothing short of catastrophic.
Even limited airstrikes of specific enrichment sites would lead to large-scale Iranian retaliation against U.S. assets and allies in the region. A classified war simulation held by the Pentagon in 2012 found that airstrikes “would lead to a wider regional war” and would have “dire consequences across the region and for United States forces there.” And a report by the Woodrow Wilson Center endorsed by dozens of veteran government officials, national security experts, and retired military officers estimated such a conflict would require “a commitment of resources and personnel greater than what the U.S. has expended over the past 10 years in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.”
Worst of all, war would culminate in exactly the opposite result than the one intended by hawks. It would not “lead to regime change, regime collapse or capitulation,” the report said, adding that an attack would “increase Iran’s motivation to build a bomb” in order to deter further military action “and redress the humiliation of being attacked.”
These alternatives are profoundly damaging to U.S. interests, while a successful implementation of the deal could do a lot of good. As nuclear experts and arms control specialists almost universally acknowledge, this deal effectively ensures against an Iranian nuclear weapon for well over a decade. Iran has powerful incentives to stick to the deal, for violating it would precipitate renewed economic sanctions and conflict with the West.
The argument put forward by hawks such as Sen. Lindsey Graham and former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum that Iran will use the resources it gets from sanctions relief to start more trouble in the region through violent proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas doesn’t pass muster, either. As the Los Angeles Times reported last week, “a secret U.S. intelligence assessment predicts that Iran’s government will pump most of an expected $100-billion windfall from the lifting of international sanctions into the country's flagging economy and won't significantly boost funding for militant groups it supports in the Middle East.”
One of the key reasons cited for opposing this deal is that our “friends and allies” in the region — notably Israel and Saudi Arabia — think it’s a bad idea. But these countries don’t actually oppose the deal because they fear an Iranian nuclear bomb. Instead, they fear U.S. rapprochement with Iran because they value the military edge Washington gives them over the Islamic Republic. The same is true for Israel, which is particularly invested in maintaining U.S.-Iranian enmity in order to divert U.S. attention away from its brutal occupation of the Palestinians.
As former CIA Middle East analyst Paul Pillar has written, “the Iran issue” provides a “distraction” from international “attention to the Palestinians’ lack of popular sovereignty” which Israel does not intend to rectify. Hysterical stories about the Iranian threat obstruct U.S. pressure on the Palestinian question. Fred Kaplan at Slate put it more bluntly: “What Netanyahu and [the Saudi] King Salman want Obama to do is to wage war against Iran — or, more to the point, to fight their wars against Iran for them. That is why they so virulently oppose U.S. diplomacy with Iran — because the more we talk with Iran’s leaders, the less likely we are to go to war with them.”
President Obama has vowed to veto Republican-led efforts to vote the deal down in Congress after the August recess; it is not likely to be blocked in the near term. But the accord is implemented in stages over the course of 25 years, so its effectiveness and legitimacy depend on broad support in Washington over the long term.
Only time can tell whether that will be achieved. With any luck, the catastrophe of the last unnecessary war fought for interests other than our own will be enough to stave off another.