Readers may have noticed that The Chronicle has published many news stories and op-eds from different perspectives about the Iran deal but has not itself taken a position in an editorial. Until today. Why now? Mostly because assessing the Iran deal in the midst of a swirling Middle East is a very complicated affair, and we wanted time to carefully assess the deal and read and listen to others more knowledgeable about the intricacies of the situation. Now, as we approach the congressional vote, is the perfect time to stake out a position.
Some may say that we are too late now that the outline of the vote in Congress is becoming clear and that the issue is over. But the issue was never really about the vote in Congress, and it is far from over. As Winston Churchill said in 1942, “It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
Although we believe the deal is riddled with problems, we recognize that it is the deal that will most likely be implemented. Therefore, we urge Congress to do its work now to ensure that safeguards are in place to improve the chances of future stability in the Middle East and beyond.
Before getting into the main part of our argument about the substance of the deal, we have to again decry the poor character of much of the debate about it in this country and in our Jewish community, driven more by adversarial politics than clear analysis. Much of the debate consists of ad hominem attacks on opponents and relying on straw men rather than addressing opponents’ legitimate points. Noting a poll or an expert or even a group of experts who agree with one’s position does not constitute an argument for that position. It is clear that there are many Americans, and many American Jews, holding a wide variety of opinions; many experts as well have staked out a wide variety of positions. This is the type of complicated issue where well-meaning and well-informed people can legitimately come to different conclusions.
The most useful — and therefore the best — framework for thinking about the Iran deal is not to declare that one can predict the future outcome of one’s policy with near certainty. The best framework is not a simple black and white world, where the deal is either perfect or without any merit, and that Congress should vote yes or no and then call it a day. Both sides have claimed lessons from history to support their position, and yet the one abiding lesson from history is how hard it is to predict the future as you live through events. The world remains consistently complicated, messy and imperfect whether accommodating or confrontational policies are pursued. Our framework for thinking about the Iran deal is one of uncertainties and risks, possible benefits and possible costs, and the trade-offs between various options. Finally, while the past is interesting to historians and useful to political advocates, arguments that this is the best deal possible or that a better deal was possible are impossible to prove and not helpful. Our starting point for determining the best policy option is where we are, here and now.
Like many others, we think the most helpful way to think about the deal is to consider the most likely consequences of three aspects of the deal: (a) the nuclear aspects of the first 10 to 15 years of the deal; (b) the nuclear aspects after the first 10 to 15 years of the deal; and (c) the non-nuclear aspects of the deal starting now and into the near future.
The first issue, whether or not the deal provides for sufficient monitoring of Iranian nuclear activities and whether or not there are sufficient remedies if it does not, is the most technical and the most concrete of the three issues. Rather than go into reams of detail about this issue, let us summarize the various experts by noting that the inspection and enforcement mechanisms do have some merit and yet present many troubling aspects. They do provide more than we currently have in terms of inspections of Iran, and yet they fall short of what a reasonable skeptic would require. Of particular concern are the IAEA auxiliary deals with Iran and the “snapback” sanction mechanism, to which we will return later. Of the three issues being considered, this one is the most likely to provide its desired outcome, that Iran will not develop a nuclear weapon during its 10 to 15 year duration. Due to the heightened restrictions during this time period and to a shorter amount of time for Iran to advance in other areas, this issue also poses fewer risks than the other two issues. If this was all there was to consider, one might conclude that it was risky but reasonable to cautiously support the deal.
The second issue, whether or not the deal keeps Iran from developing a nuclear weapon after the initial restrictions phase out in 10 to 15 years, is much more troubling. Although some inspections do continue, Iran gains the legal right to have a large, industrial-scale nuclear program, including no restrictions on the enrichment of uranium. Although 18 countries today have commercial nuclear energy programs to generate electricity by purchasing enriched uranium rather than producing it, Iran can legally become a top producer of enriched uranium. There will be no basis to deny a similar capability to other countries, including Iran’s enemies and rivals in the Middle East. Iran will also be free to develop the other two components needed for an effective nuclear weapon, turning the enriched uranium into a nuclear warhead and development of a delivery system in the form of ballistic missiles, including intercontinental ballistic missiles. Even President Obama has admitted that at this point, Iran’s nuclear breakout period shrinks to a very short period of time, such that it would be impossible to stop it through the use of diplomatic means or economic pressure. At this point, if the Iranians want a nuclear weapon, they can have it.
The deal’s supporters argue that all options available to us today will still be available 10 to 15 years in the future. This is not true, at least in the sense that those options won’t be as effective as they are today. Sanctions take time to enact and even more time to bite. Beyond the initial release of approximately $100 billion of frozen Iranian assets overseas, Iran’s economy will be able to re-enter the global economy. Foreign firms from around the world will contract business deals with Iran, invest in Iran and strengthen its economy. It will be in far better shape to weather sanctions. As for military options, most likely they will be far more costly. Iran has already announced advanced weapons deals with Russia (missiles) and China (aircraft). It is reasonable to assume that with money and time, Iran will be a much tougher opponent to fight, at much greater cost.
The combined result of these factors is that the most likely scenario is an Iran that either has a declared nuclear weapon or effectively has one undeclared but ready at a moment’s notice, with its Sunni Arab neighbors in a similar state. This is a highly risky and dangerous stand-off at best, a very high cost to pay for 10 to 15 years of a reduced threat.
The third issue, the non-nuclear impacts of the deal, is also very troubling. The deal’s proponents argue that an Iran without nuclear weapons is less threatening than a nuclear-armed Iran. That would be true if all other things were equal, but all other things are not equal. This argument ignores the risks and the costs incurred by this deal seeking to delay Iran’s ability to acquire nuclear weapons. Let’s tally up those risks and costs. Iran receives its initial $100 billion in frozen assets as long as it behaves in the initial years. While it is likely that some of those funds will go to strengthening its domestic economy or improving the lives of its citizens, no one can guarantee, and indeed it is highly unlikely, that will be all of it. Most likely enough funds will go to strengthen Iran’s conventional military and its support of terrorism and subversion of neighboring countries to have significant impact in these areas. But there’s more than just the initial $100 billion. As Iran re-enters the global economy, its economy will strengthen, giving it more funds to deploy in conventional and nonconventional assets, and more legitimate activities to hide subversive activities.
What we can most likely expect is increased Iranian support for the friendly governments in Iraq and Syria, including weapons transfers to the regimes’ conventional armies as well as development of even more powerful militias. Iran will increase subversion among the Shiite minorities in Saudi Arabia and Yemen and the Shiite majority in Bahrain. There will be increased control over Lebanon’s hapless government and an even stronger Hezbollah ready to challenge Israel again. There will be a strengthened and emboldened Hamas ready to increase its efforts to destroy Israel and to supplant the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. As one side effect of this deal, forging peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians will be much more difficult and less likely. Finally, we can expect increased clandestine activities by Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies in other areas such as Latin America, to export terror and to secure new sources of funding.
It is telling that the only specific proposal that the Obama administration has put forward on the non-nuclear fallout of this deal is to offer to sell yet more arms to Israel and America’s Sunni Arab allies so that they can better protect themselves against an invigorated Iran. The most likely result of this would be a highly risky and dangerous stand-off at best, a very high cost to pay for 10 to 15 years of a reduced threat.
The downsides of this agreement really all revolve around the assumption that Iran will continue to be a “bad actor,” meaning that the current regime will remain in power and not significantly change its values, goals or behaviors. The Obama administration holds to, but is reluctant to emphasize a larger rationale for the agreement: This deal will set the Iranian regime, and therefore Iran as a national actor, on a path toward becoming a friendly Western-style liberal democracy, working to uphold the same values as ours. If this were to be the case, then obviously the risks and likely costs of this agreement would be much less troublesome.
This scenario is indeed possible, and is more likely if one believes the belligerency of the Iranian regime is derived from its international isolation and state of perpetual low-level conflict, rather than from its own history, its internal ideology and its power dynamics. However, we repeat how difficult it is to predict the future, particularly in the case of regime change or evolution. No one could predict when the Soviet Union or the Arab secular regimes would collapse, and no one can predict how long the Chinese or the Cuban communist regimes will last. Indeed the Chinese Communist Party has weathered more than a generation of being open to the West and the creation of great material wealth to remain firmly in control and without significantly changing its nationalism or its ideology. Betting on Iran becoming like Canada in the next 10 to 15 years seems like a poor bet.
On balance then, the deal as currently formulated provides a benefit of limited duration at a significant risk of unacceptable costs longer term (eventual nuclear weapons) and shorter term (increased instability and violence). However, it must be assessed against the alternatives. In the minds of many, the strongest argument of the deal’s proponents is that it is better than the alternative. More specifically, many claim that no better is deal is possible and that war would result if this particular deal is not implemented. Such certain predictions of the future are nonsense, as are the equally certain but opposite predictions of many of the deal’s opponents. We can’t really say what would happen with much certainty if the deal were to collapse. It could indeed be highly risky. Then again, it has been highly risky and uncertain for more than a decade with Iran’s nuclear program, and they haven’t developed a bomb and there hasn’t been a war to stop them. What seems to us to be less uncertain are all the likely negative outcomes of this agreement as currently formulated. If the world were truly simple — deal as is or no deal at all — we would come down against it.
But the world is not that simple, and there are a multiplicity of possible policy choices, not just two. In fact, there was never any realistic probability that Congress would be able to vote down the deal and stop it cold in its tracks. The Obama administration had already sold it to our allies in the P5+1 and pushed it through the U.N. Security Council before Congress even received it. From the beginning partisan ties virtually ensured that the deal’s opponents would not be able to muster enough votes to overturn a presidential veto. Whether Congress would or would not kill the deal was never the real issue. The real issue is this: Now that we have this deal as the starting point, our new reality, what can we do to make it a better deal? Not how to replace it, but how to work with it and around it to reduce the risks, reduce the costs and increase the benefits.
There are three areas where the deal could be considerably strengthened without jettisoning it altogether. First, clarify the ambiguities. Second, examine the auxiliary deals and tweak them if necessary. Third, develop a clearly articulated, specific, realistic strategy to contain Iran in all non-nuclear arenas.
First, the text of the deal is rife with ambiguities. Perhaps they were necessary in order to successfully conclude the deal, but now they are highly problematic. There are many examples of ambiguities in the deal, but here are three. The Iranians have declared that there will be no inspections of military sites; that all sanctions, not just those related to nuclear activities, have to be lifted; and that all sanctions have to be ended rather than suspended, making “snapback” much harder to effect. If all the Iranian interpretations of these and other clauses become the agreed-upon interpretation, then the deal is even more risky. Surely the Obama administration does not agree with these interpretations. It needs to loudly and publicly declare its clarifications of all ambiguities now, and with the support of our Western European allies in the P5+1. If this causes the Iranian regime to repudiate the deal, it’s better to know that now rather than after we’re well down the road. If the Iranian regime accepts our interpretations, then we have just strengthened the deal.
Second, the inspections regime depends critically on the auxiliary deals negotiated between the IAEA and the Iranian regime. It is the IAEA that will actually conduct the monitoring and the inspections, and verify the state of Iran’s work in related areas (weaponization and missiles). Yet no one, including those in the Obama administration, knows what the IAEA-Iran agreements say. Leaving aside the disturbing leaks, the administration and Congress need to know what’s in the agreements. If there are serious flaws, they need to be effectively addressed.
Third, the United States needs a more comprehensive and effective strategy to contain a reinvigorated Iran than just platitudes and a promise to sell yet more arms to the Middle East. We need detailed specifics, and we need credibility. Both have been sorely lacking in the administration’s overall Middle East policy to date — and not just in Syria.
So how should a representative in the House or a senator vote? We know that it probably won’t matter in terms of overturning a veto and killing the deal. And yet it matters a great deal. If the administration were saying, “We know there are a lot of problems with the deal as negotiated, but here are the specific steps that we’re taking today to address the three problem areas,” then fine. But it’s not. The administration is saying the deal is good enough and offering unsatisfactory platitudes like, “We stand by Israel’s security.”
Unfortunately, the only way this administration is going to seriously address the risks in the deal is if it feels immense political pressure. The only way it is going to feel immense political pressure is if members in Congress either vote no or threaten to vote no. A “Yes, but …” vote does not exert pressure. Consider our own Sen. Bob Casey. One could say that he came out in favor of the deal, but that would be a simplification. His statement on the Iran deal runs 18 pages, with a 13 page appendix. He says, “It is imperative that the administration … demonstrate their commitment to … using every tool necessary to check Iranian aggression in the region.” Or consider Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who reluctantly came out for the deal “despite its significant shortcomings.” We wish the administration would recognize and proactively address the significant shortcomings on its own, but in reality only pressure from senators such as Casey and Booker joining senators like Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), will compel the administration to do so.