The debate has begun. Criticism of the Iran deal has begun to rise, and it has done so along the lines anticipated. Some stand back and focus on the bigger picture: U.S. government blessing of Iran’s status as a nuclear threshold state, and what that means for the region both in the near-term and going forward. Others, concluding that avoiding that posture could not have been attained once Iran had mastered the fuel cycle, are focused mainly on the verification package and other, lesser details.
The former school of criticism cannot be appeased or persuaded by details over terms, whether concerning verification or anything else. It is the basic tradeoff in the deal they cannot abide, which some are not shy to characterize as appeasement. The latter probably can be persuaded, at least in principle, and at least to the extent that concerns over verification are honestly put forth and are not a cover for other motives. But both schools of criticism have at least this in common: Anyone who believes the deal deserves the thumbs down in Congress is obligated to specify an alternative policy. Clearly, if the deal goes down, the interim accord will lapse as well, and the Iranian program will be sprung into a world of zero negotiated constraints. If that alternative involves coercion, whether sustained economic warfare or direct military action, then one must engage the calculus of such an approach to the fullest, and make oneself mercilessly self-aware of the risks and uncertainties involved. They are not trivial, and they must not be shunted aside via the pyrotechnics of cognitive dissonance.
On the other hand, they must not be exaggerated either by those who support the deal, who are no less prone to cognitive dissonance distortions than anyone else. The President, the rest of the Administration, and its sundry supporters are waxing ecstatic over the deal and are defending it with vigor. They have already specified the null set of alternatives: It’s this or war, they claim. The President said as much yesterday. The competitive spinning is already so intense that it is causing more dizziness than real debate.
The President said plenty yesterday, and there is no point in rehearsing it in detail here. But there is a point in specifying that he undoubtedly believes what he said. In other words, he may be mistaken, but he is not lying. It is important to the higher claims we as Americans make to be citizens of a civil republic that this be understood clearly. The Bush haters still refuse to distinguish between mistakes and lies over the Iraqi WMD stockpiles affair of 2002-03, which defines them as either moral illiterates or partisan fanatics, or possibly both. The Obama haters will probably display an equal and opposite version of the same. It is dismaying, but it is what it is. True patriots should want to make what “it is” as small as possible in the coming days and weeks. Certainly that should be the guiding principle once the debate alights in the House and Senate.
I confess perhaps too much about chronologies when I say that all of this reminds me of the summer and autumn of 1979. Then, too, a Democratic Administration put an arms control “big” deal on the table. Then, too, opposition split into broad and narrow schools, while supporters made claims about no better or viable alternatives being available. Then, too, one heard shouts of “appeasement” and retorts about warmongering, and a whole host of less abstract exaggerations followed dutifully in train. Then, too, the opposition was capable of tactical shrewdness: The SALT II Treaty should be amended by the Senate, or sent back to the table for selective renegotiation, or at the very least its dangerous flaws should be compensated for through hikes in the defense budget and other outside-the-four-corners means of redress.
I fully expect all of these tactical variations to make themselves known over the Iran deal in coming weeks. These kinds of discussions bear a certain perduring logic, after all. The proper nouns change, as do the personalities; but the underlying elements of political contention seem to endure, almost as though the players are tethered to their scripts as they strut across the stage. I can still see Scoop Jackson’s face, as though it were just yesterday, as he strategized in the Russell Senate Office Building about how to maneuver Secretary of State Cyrus Vance into admitting during SASC hearings that the “no new types” and the encryption aspects of the text were self-negating when seen together. My guess is that other Senatorial faces are looking sort of familiar in that scene right now.
How would I advise a Senator to vote on the Iran deal? Dear reader, this is the wrong question. It is, I dare say, an inappropriate question. It is the duty of a staff member or an informal adviser to an elected official in a democracy to explain, if asked, what the implications are of this or that course of action. That goes for Senate staff relative to Senators, and it goes for Cabinet officials relative to the President. It is irresponsible in a genuine democracy for a Senator or a President to ask an unelected aide what he should do, and it is improper for an aide to offer such advice unbidden.
That said, were I an elected official, I would vote “no.” I would do so partly because I sympathize with the broader critique of the deal, but also because I do believe that the President is mistaken about his claims for the deal at the level of the verification arrangements and what it means concerning the hypothetical abeyance of conflict. Let me briefly explain how I (and others) come to this conclusion after having finally digested all 159 pages of the EU version of the text (something I had not done and could not have done when I wrote my first take on all of this on Tuesday morning.)
First, the monitoring provisions the IAEA will be permitted to use in Iranian facilities fall well short of what it is technically capable of doing. A July 6 New York Times feature co-authored by David Sanger and William Broad lays out these capabilities. When one compares the potential with what in fact will be permitted, one can only be dismayed at what the P5+1 negotiators let get away from them.
Second, as several observers have pointed out, Rob Satloff perhaps first and most effectively, the agreement allows the Iranians up to 24 days to fend off an IAEA demand inspection. That is plenty of time to hide or clean up after most kinds of violations. Moreover, one has to assume the possibility that the Russians will act as mole for Iran inside the P5+1 consensus machine, as they did on behalf of Iraq back in another time. So, for both reasons, catching the Iranians cheating will not be easy, and one has to assume based on past behavior that the Iranians will cheat if they think they can get away with it for long enough as to constitute a de facto fait accompli.
It gets worse. Even if the IAEA can catch the Iranians in a violation, or we can do so through what is euphemistically referred to as “national technical means”, and even if then we can get the P5+1 to agree to seek redress, the agreement has only a single gear for penalizing infractions: a sanctions snap-back. This means that a violation or a series of violations would have to be of major dimensions to warrant making the effort, and if the effort anyway failed to shove the Iranians back into compliance, two things would happen, both of them bad. The lesser bad consequence is the precedent that a failed effort would set. The very bad consequence is that if and when confronted, the Iranians have the option, according to the agreement, of simply walking out of the deal and daring us to snap back the sanctions regime.
Let us understand clearly what this really means. Suppose the Iranians cheat here, there, and perhaps everywhere for several years, but at less-than-critical levels, before we finally get up the moxie to confront them. Suppose the cheating involves more R&D on IR-6 or IR-8 centrifuges than is allowed, and not turning over the fissile material that work produces. Or suppose they take mothballed centrifuges out of storage and ship them to an unmonitored facility for reinstallation. Note that the agreement makes no reference to SWUs (separation work units), only to the number of centrifuges—which seems unfortunate. Suppose we confront them over such transgressions and they walk out of the agreement. That would validate the military utility of all the cheating that has gone before. Suppose the walkout happens in year five of the agreement, timed to coincide with the lifting of the arms embargo. Do I really need to spell this out further?
Never mind for now that a sanctions snap back could not re-freeze $150 billion in assets and, worse, would not apply to “grandfathered” deals signed between the implementation date and the hypothetical walk-out date. The point is not really about money. It is that if the Iranians can pocket the cumulative military value of their violations and still walk out of the agreement anytime they judge it to be propitious, then the claim that the deal buys us at least 15 years of calm, non-crisis strategic oxygen is completely bogus. In just five years or even less, we could easily be back in the stark position the President described yesterday: diplomacy or war.
Now, worst of all, this being the case—and this will dawn on American officials sooner or later—who is really deterred by the verification provisions? As time passes, we will very likely be deterred more than the Iranians. We will justifiably fear to push accusations of militarily-significant cheating because it would probably crash the deal and put us right back where we started, except with the Iranians richer and much further along in their program. How will that look to the world? One can already hear the echoes of the Ayatollah Khomeini at a tender moment in the history of the bilateral relationship: “The Americans cannot do a damned thing.”
The Iranians will certainly know this, and likely feel reasonably free to cheat as a result. Now what kind of verification package is it that, in practice, deters us more than it deters them?
Critics have pointed to other supposed flaws in the agreement as well. Some don’t like the fact that the conventional arms embargo business got dragged into the deal. I don’t like it either, but I don’t worry about it much. As long as we can keep NATO allies from selling the Iranians weapons, they would be stuck with Russian and Chinese stuff. Some of that stuff, like the advanced versions of the S-300 air defense system, is strategically significant, but we had that problem to face prospectively deal or no deal. The rest of the stuff one can imagine the Iranians buying is not impressive. We can handle it if need be.
Some don’t like the whole business contained in Annex III, where the P5+1 promise to help Iran with a whole host of technical and other issues. This creates an optic to U.S. allies in the region, some claim, that persuades them that we are indeed selling them down the river with neither paddle nor bait pail. And that, reasonably inferred, will only impel them to proliferate or seek other forms of self-help, setting the stage for a nuclear conflagration down the road.
The point is taken, but they probably would feel that way with or without Annex III. Moreover, it may have been necessary in the course of negotiations to promise these things in order to secure other constraints on the Iranian program deemed more important. Until we see the detailed negotiating record (if we ever do see it), it will remain hard to render such judgments.
But promises are anyway mere contingencies. We can do these helpful things if we think they are in our interests, which can include flooding Iran with intel collectors as well as insidious Western cultural and business influences; and we can prevaricate and procrastinate over these promises to build leverage if we think that is in our interest. So to me this issue is a little like the “Backfire bomber” line of talk in 1979—pulse quickening but ultimately of only marginal importance.
Besides, as I have tried briefly to show, the problems with the whole monitoring/verification scheme are so serious that no other complaints need to be piled on. They are killer flaws in and off themselves.
I must now hold myself to the standard I laid down at the outset: If “no”, then what?
It is many years now that I have been saying and writing that this problem would come down to either being willing to live with Iran as a nuclear-armed state or using coercion of one kind or another to prevent it. The former, as I have argued many times, is too dangerous; but we may end up a decade and so hence having to deal with a nuclear-proliferated Middle East anyway, which is most unfortunate but not hopeless. In the meantime, yes, the least bad option is to prevent an Iranian breakout by any means necessary.
That in turn boils down to three generic approaches that are not necessarily mutually exclusive. One is to seek regime change via internal disruption, taking advantage in particular of Iran’s character as a multiethnic state. It may be too, as I have suggested before, that the sudden opening of the Iranian economy will alone be enough to accomplish this despite the best efforts of the mullahs to smother the prospect in its cradle. The second is to engage in various forms of economic warfare (blockades, cyber-attacks and more) designed to bring the economy and perhaps the regime to its knees. The third is to bomb the program, perhaps with the “spice” of special-forces operations tossed in.
This is not the place to detail these three approaches. Suffice it to say that the first approach is uncertain, not without an array of risks, and perhaps unlikely to work on a timetable relevant to the problem. It is not clear that the U.S. government has the kind of intelligence assets necessary to do this successfully in any event. The second approach could be more powerful than most observers credit; it is unwise to say anything more about this in public. The third approach need not destroy the entire program to set it back a significant distance. It is a red herring to define the kinetic problem to mean destroying pretty much everything; the weakest or most critical few links in the value-added chain would suffice, and the U.S. military is quite capable of doing this. And of course, once having accepted the diplomatic onus of using force, doing it a second or third time as might be necessary would carry less additional cost. I would consider approach one, start with approach two, and remain open to approach three.
Does this make me a warmonger? I don’t think so, anymore than a cancer operation makes a surgeon a butcher. I don’t relish the thought; I abhor it. And if the United States does in due course use force to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapons arsenal from coming into being, it can afford to wait a while in a studied posture of Micawberism, hoping that something turns up to save the day. I certainly would not have the U.S. government resort to force within the next 17 months. After what this Administration and this President have done, it’s hard to imagine that they could really put their heart into it.