The framework agreement with Iran on its nuclear program recalls an earlier episode in the history of American foreign policy: the arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s. Then as now the United States was negotiating with a hostile power about nuclear issues. Then as now the negotiations proved politically contentious in the United States. Then as now the American debate involved, among other issues, the question of whether the other party would observe the terms of the agreement and how the United States could monitor its compliance with them.
The two episodes have important differences, of course—most obviously the fact that the Soviet Union already had nuclear weapons in large numbers, while the United States today is trying to prevent the Islamic Republic of Iran from obtaining any at all. Several other differences between the arms control of the Cold War and the present effort are particularly telling: the magnitude of the stakes involved, the challenges of monitoring any agreement, the relationship of the negotiations to wider political issues, and the balance of power between the two countries involved. These differences illustrate just how difficult it will be to arrive at a satisfactory negotiated solution to the problems that Iran’s nuclear program poses.
For all the contemporaneous attention they commanded, the arms control talks and agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union had less significance than do the current negotiations with Iran. By the 1970s, both superpowers had thousands of nuclear weapons. With the exception of the 1972 treaty effectively banning missile defense systems, which averted what could have been an expensive competition to build them, the negotiations aimed at freezing the two already-large nuclear stockpiles. Regardless of the outcome of those talks, the basic strategic relationship between the two was set. Each side was powerful enough to deter an attack by the other; neither success nor failure in their nuclear negotiations could change that all-important fact. The negotiations, that is, did not affect the most important issue in Soviet-American relations and indeed in international politics generally: the chance of a war between the two superpowers. The agreements they produced at best saved the two countries the relatively modest sums they would otherwise have invested in additional weaponry.
By contrast, the stakes in the Iran negotiations are extraordinarily high. If the Islamic Republic becomes a nuclear weapons state, other Middle Eastern countries will likely get nuclear weapons of their own. If that occurs, the conditions that forestalled nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union will be absent. The region will have several, not merely two, nuclear powers, and none of them will be confident that its nuclear arsenal can survive a surprise attack by a regional adversary. In a crisis, therefore, the nuclear powers of the Middle East will have strong motives to launch preemptive attacks. The chances of a disastrous nuclear war will skyrocket. The American government thus has a much greater interest in achieving its goals in the negotiations with Iran than it did in the arms control talks of the Cold War.
Achieving those goals requires not only reaching agreement with Iran on limiting its nuclear program but also being able to monitor the accord to make sure that the Iranian government, which has a history of violating such agreements, is observing its terms. During the Cold War the United States had to monitor—verify—the treaties it signed with the Soviet Union; because the Soviet authorities refused to permit inspectors to enter their territory, the American side had to rely for verification on satellite reconnaissance: the American government could only reliably verify what satellites passing over the Soviet Union could capture on film. This meant that, for the most part, only very large, easily discernible weapons—giant ballistic missiles—could be included in these agreements.
A nuclear accord with Iran will be much harder to verify. The United States will have to keep track not only of what weaponry Iran possesses but also, and more importantly, what nuclear-related activity, much of it on a small scale, the Iranian regime is conducting. Specifically, verification requires knowing whether Iran is engaged in any of the steps that lead to a bomb. For this purpose far greater access to Iran is needed than was available to the Soviet Union for most of the Cold War. Indeed, inspectors must have more or less unlimited access to all Iranian facilities that are of any conceivable relevance to bomb-making, which presents multiple difficulties.
First, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has asserted that his military facilities will be off limits, a condition that would make adequate verification impossible. Second, depending on the details of an agreement if one is reached, launching inspections might require the approval of the United Nations Security Council, which would lead to delays and restrictions that would undercut the inspectors’ work. Third, the Iranian government could obstruct or attempt to deceive the inspectors, or even ban them completely from Iran, as Saddam Hussein did to UN inspectors in Iraq.
At the end of the Cold War Mikhail Gorbachev, the last, reformist leader of the Soviet Union, did allow Soviet-American arms control accords to include more than very large objects discernible in photographs taken from space by permitting what his predecessors had prohibited: the kind of “on-site inspection” that any agreement with Iran must include. The problems the Iranian case presents were not present in the late Cold War agreements that Gorbachev’s concession made possible, however, because the context of those agreements—the overall political relationship between the two superpowers—had changed dramatically. As the result of Gorbachev’s policies the Soviet-American rivalry was ebbing. Because the Soviet government sought better relations with the United States, it cooperated with the inspectors. The Iranian government cannot be counted on to adopt a similar attitude: while it is seeking relief from internationally-imposed economic sanctions, unlike Gorbachev it does not want to improve its relationship to the United States. Unlike Gorbachev, it shows no sign of reconsidering, let alone discontinuing, the policies that have put it at odds with America.
During the Cold War American arms control policy was linked to Soviet foreign policy. When that policy waxed aggressive, it became politically impossible to gain the necessary political support in the United States for an arms control accord. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, for example, the Carter administration withdrew the laboriously-negotiated second Strategic Arms Limitation agreement (SALT II) that it had previously submitted to the Senate for ratification. In this way arms control served as a disincentive—not always, to be sure, an adequate one—to the conduct of an aggressive foreign policy by the Soviet Union.
The Obama approach to the Iranian nuclear program has had, if anything, the opposite effect. As the negotiations have proceeded the Iranian regime has expanded rather than pulled back from the initiatives that threaten the security of countries aligned with the United States. One Iranian official boasted that his country controlled the capitals of four Arab countries—Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen—in every case in support of forces hostile to America’s friends, or the United States, or both. Iran also continues to proclaim its intention to destroy Israel, a project that an Iranian nuclear arsenal would make horrifically feasible. By the terms of the agreement that have been revealed thus far, Iran will get relief from economic sanctions without having to modify any of these policies.
In the late 1980s not only Soviet foreign policy but also the domestic governance of the Soviet Union changed in ways favorable to the United States. Promoting such change was never, however, an explicit American goal for the nuclear negotiations, and the internal liberalization (and ultimate collapse) of America’s Cold War adversary had nothing to do with them. Here, too, the Obama administration has taken a different tack.
One of the purposes of an agreement, a crucial part of which is the lifting of economic sanctions on Iran, is, the President has said, to integrate Iran more closely into the global economy. As in the case of Cuba, where he has pursued a similar policy but with far less at stake, he believes that greater exposure to the world will weaken the grip of the radical mullahs who rule in Tehran, empower those in and around the regime whom he believes to be moderates, and transform Iranian society and Iranian politics in ways that will make its government less oppressive at home and less aggressive abroad.
Indeed, the expectation of such an outcome is central to the Obama policy. Because the restrictions on Iranian nuclear activities will have time limits, unless the regime does undergo substantial change the expiration of the accord will bring exactly the result that it is the declared aim of the administration to prevent: an expansionist, anti-American Iran confronting no barriers at all to the acquisition of nuclear weapons.
More interaction with the rest of the world might make Iran a freer, more peaceful country. Then again, it might not. Post-Soviet Russia and post-Maoist China have both become far more closely tied to the West, especially in economic terms, than they were under orthodox communism, but in recent years both have nonetheless conducted increasingly aggressive foreign policies. The Obama Iran policy thus represents an enormous bet on an outcome that is far from certain.
A final difference between Soviet-American arms control and the current nuclear negotiations with Iran has, perhaps, the most important implications for American policy. The accords that the Cold War rivals managed to conclude incorporated a fundamental principle of international relations, and indeed of life in general: negotiated agreements tend to reflect the balance of power between the parties negotiating them. The United States and the Soviet Union were equals: neither could force the other to do anything the other did not want to do. Neither could strike the other without suffering a grievously damaging retaliatory attack. The arms treaties they signed therefore left the two sides with equal, or at least comparable, nuclear forces.
In the current negotiations, by contrast, the United States is far stronger than Iran, yet it is the United States that has made major concessions. After beginning the negotiations by insisting that the Tehran regime relinquish all its nuclear facilities and cease all its nuclear activities relevant to making a bomb, the Obama administration has ended by permitting Iran to keep virtually all of those facilities and continue some of those activities. How did this happen?
Part of the explanation may lie in Barack Obama’s personal faith in the transformative power of exposure to the global economy and his fervent desire for an agreement to serve as a capstone to his presidency. Surely the main reason, however, is that, while there is a vast disparity in power between the two parties, the United States is not willing to use the ultimate form of power and the Iranian leaders know this.
The only certain way to prevent Iran from making nuclear weapons is to destroy its facilities for doing so. President Obama has occasionally hinted that he is prepared to do this—“all options are on the table,” he has said—but over time this threat, such as it is, has lost credibility. North Korea has nuclear weapons today because the North Korean regime did not keep the promises it made not to acquire them and the United States did not decommission its nuclear facilities through aerial bombardment. There is good reason to fear that Iran will follow the same path.
The administration portrays the agreement it hopes to conclude as the alternative to such an attack, but whether or not there is an agreement the questions of whether and under what circumstances to strike Iran, and what the American government should say in advance about such a prospect, will become more rather than less important. If the negotiations fail, the United States will have to decide how to keep the Islamic Republic from getting nuclear weapons. Even if the talks do produce an accord that all parties sign, with the resulting removal of economic sanctions and with the theoretical option to re-impose them being almost certainly unworkable in practice, the mullahs will have no incentive other than the threat of bombardment to exercise nuclear restraint. Indeed, one of the strongest arguments in favor of signing an accord is that, when Iran violates it, the United States will be in a stronger position politically, both at home and abroad, to launch an attack. That, of course, assumes what is now in doubt: an American willingness to use force. With or without an agreement, therefore, the all-too-likely alternative to a credible threat to bomb Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is an Iran armed with nuclear weapons, a development that all American political leaders, including the current President, have repeatedly declared to be entirely unacceptable.
Attacking any country, even one as inferior in disposable military power as is Iran, is a serious, dangerous undertaking: all wars have unintended, unanticipated, and often unwelcome consequences. This consideration will—and should—weigh on the all but inevitable American debate about using force against the Iranian nuclear program. Such a debate will have to weigh the dangers of war against the dangers of having to deal with a nuclear-armed Iran. To that debate at least four other considerations are also relevant.
First, the objection to such an attack on the grounds that it would only buy time is not a persuasive one. Since the Obama administration has conceded that any limits on the Iranian nuclear program will expire, buying time is precisely what the administration itself is attempting to do. In general, moreover, time is valuable. In some sense, in human affairs time is all that is available; nothing lasts forever. Asserting that the United States should not stop the Iranian program by force because that will only buy time is like saying that medical care is pointless because everyone ultimately dies.
Second, the North Korean case differs from the Iranian one in ways that make attacking Iran more plausible. The United States did not stop the North Korean nuclear program by force partly because during a crucial period the American government was preoccupied with Iraq but also, and mainly, because it did not have a politically viable military option for this purpose. In response to an attack on its nuclear facilities North Korea could inflict severe damage on South Korea’s capital, Seoul, which lies within range of North Korean artillery. For this reason the South Koreans made it clear that they would not support such an attack, and the United States respected the wishes of its democratic ally. In the Iranian case, by contrast, America’s regional allies that are vulnerable to retaliation by Iran—Israel and Saudi Arabia—strongly favor striking the Iranian nuclear infrastructure. It is even possible that Israel will conduct such a strike itself.
Third, all discussion of an attack on Iran will take place in the shadow of the American war in Iraq, but, as in the case of North Korea, that war offers a precedent of only limited relevance. The American goal in Iraq was first to remove Saddam Hussein’s regime and then to transform the country. These aims required the protracted presence of American troops on the ground in Iraq, which turned out to be unacceptably costly in lives and treasure. The American goal in an attack on Iran—the crippling of its nuclear infrastructure—would not involve American ground troops. Achieving that goal would no doubt have costs, but they would not be the costs the United States paid in Iraq.
Fourth, and finally, if the Obama administration is in fact resolutely opposed to the use of force to keep Iran from making nuclear weapons, then American foreign policy has changed in a fundamental way. For more than seven decades, since its entry into World War II, the United States has carried out a foreign policy of global scope that has included the willingness to go to war on behalf of vital American interests. There is no higher or more urgent current American interest beyond the country’s borders than keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of an aggressive, theocratic, anti-American regime located in a region that harbors much of the oil on which the global economy depends. If fighting to vindicate that interest has become unthinkable, then American foreign policy has entered a new era. Whatever else may be said about this new era and the kind of world to which it will give rise, one thing is certain. By promulgating this new foreign policy (if that is what he is doing), Barack Obama will have achieved one of the goals he set out for himself when he came to the White House: he will be a transformational President.