Why You Should Support the Nuclear Deal with Iran

In recent days, I’ve started to get very nervous about the pressure being brought to bear against the Iranian Nuclear Deal, especially from Israeli-backed lobby groups. The opponents are loud and getting louder, while too many supporters are acting complacent. So I thought I’d share some thoughts as to why I think we should whole-heartedly support this deal — with hopes of maybe convincing some friends who may be on the fence and possibly inspiring others to call their Senator or Congressman in support of the deal.

A One-Off Opportunity

The real accomplishment of this agreement, as I understand it, is that it brought together a host of international players over many years in a concerted and coordinated effort to push Iran to play by the rules. It’s an incredibly well-thought out long-term strategy that allowed us to face Iran with a seamless wall of international support that is truly rare in geo-politics. The Obama Administration managed to convince a number of countries to act against their own economic self-interests, including China and Russia. As Miles Kahler of Brookings Institute points out:

Each of [America’s] negotiating partners — three European allies, Russia, and China — paid a higher economic price for these economic sanctions in trade and investment foregone than the United States, whose companies have had (and will continue to have) limited economic exchange with Iran since the revolution, prevented by layers of unilateral sanctions imposed by successive U.S. administrations.

Other countries like India that joined the sanctions regime were long-time trading partners with Iran. The process of bringing this coalition together took many years and is what brought Iran to the negotiating table. US sanctions alone would not have had the same impact.

Yet, the only reason these countries were willing to maintain these sanctions was the promise of an end-date — once an agreement was reached. If the US decides not to sign onto this agreement, those countries will undoubtedly lift sanctions on Iran, providing Iran access to more money but without the nuclear limits. In other words, we have a unique moment of leverage over Iran now that took six years to piece together and that we may not ever have again. This context is critically important to understand because it makes you realize how much work went into getting this agreement — and how difficult, if not impossible, it would be to do this sort of thing again if this one falls through. In other words, it’s now or never (at least in the near future). The flip-side is that if this agreement works, then we have a united global front toward Iran’s nuclear program that could potentially be built on in the future or translated to other areas.

The Good Parts of the Agreement

This has been written about in many other places, but as far as I understand it, these are the reasons this is a good agreement, from an arms control perspective — i.e. preventing Iran from getting a bomb:

  1. More Onerous Inspections Than Ever Before. It seems that most arms control experts are thrilled with the weapons inspection regime, with one expert saying the likelihood of catching Iran for cheating is near 100%. Even if it’s not that high, the inspections agreement is undoubtedly more onerous than it’s been previously, and if Iranians attempt to block it, sanctions “snapback” after 24 days of review. The New York Times also points out that Iran seems to have given significant ground on this issue in the final agreement.
  2. Significant Cuts to Iran’s Nuclear Program. They’ve agreed to give up 14,000 of 20,000 centrifuges, 97% of their enriched uranium, the core of their plutonium plant at Arak, and their right to enrich uranium past 3.67% (weapons grade is 90%). These concessions extend the breakout time it would take the country to create a nuclear weapon from several months to a year — giving us a much better chance of stopping them if they’re cheating on the deal or if they wake up one morning and decide to just go for it.
  3. “Snapback” Sanctions That Trigger Automatically. Mentioned above, but this element keeps the international coalition together in the case that Iran cheats by automatically triggering sanctions again. That’s a huge win because as we said above, assembling this international wall of support again might be difficult.

In other words, it will be significantly more difficult for Iran to make a nuclear weapon under this deal, at least for the next 20–25 years — and if they start to cheat, we are likely to know and will be able to respond. To me, that’s the most important conclusion. It does what it set out to do.

Not to say there aren’t weaknesses in the deal. There are many, but that’s what makes it a “deal”, rather than a forced surrender. My big question is: what happens after the various timelines run out? Are we just hoping by then there will be a different regime in place? This merits some thought and planning — but the good news is that 20 years from now, we will be much more likely to be able to build on it if this deal works out. And once again, 20 years is a heck of a lot better than next year.

Searching for an Alternative

The New York Times has this great line in their article today:

[Mr. Netanyahu] also angrily rejected Mr. Obama’s claims about the accord, particularly his argument that its opponents have no alternative other than war for reining in Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, calling it “utterly false.”

But he doesn’t mention any of those alternatives…

That’s honestly how I feel about this situation. I have yet to hear a coherent and solid argument for an alternative strategy that would limit Iran’s nuclear abilities without war. Some critics argue that harder or more sustained sanctions coupled with more credible military threats would force more concessions. The problem is that our allies would not go along with more sanctions and the way to make military threats credible is essentially something that looks a lot like war. Also, the longer we wait to conclude a deal, the farther along the country’s nuclear program will get (in theory).

The other suggestion I’ve heard is for a targeted strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, in the vein of Israel’s strike against Syria’s secret reactor in 2007 or Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981. There are multiple problems with that approach: the Iranians and their nuclear infrastructure are vastly more sophisticated than either Iraq or Syria were, with more facilities and better fortifications. After all, if it was as easy as that, why hasn’t it already happened in the 20 years or so that we’ve been talking about this issue?

Another reason this is not as easy as it seems is because the consequences are more scary than they were in those scenarios. A strike would most likely lead to war and further destabilize the region. The best case scenario for a response, as far as I understand it, would be a limited war with Hezbollah and maybe Hamas and attacks on US forces that remain in Iraq. The worst case scenario is a full-on war that, even if the US and Israel won, would have unforeseen consequences, just as the Iraq war did, and undoubtedly further empower extremists in the region.

Finally, most experts agree that such a strike would only delay, not halt, Iran’s nuclear ability — and for less time than the proposed agreement does without risking war. Whereas a strike would embolden hardliners in Iran and their commitment to get a bomb, the current accord empowers moderates and shows the government that good things happen when you play by the rules. And if the current accord DOES fall apart, presumably this remains an option, right? The question is: do we want to give a peace a chance before committing to war? As the RAND Corporation put it:

A limited strike approach “rests on a faulty assumption that a future, post-attack Middle East would indeed be free of a nuclear-armed Iran. In fact, a post-attack Middle East may result in the worst of both worlds: a nuclear-armed Iran more determined than ever to challenge the Jewish state, and with far fewer regional and international impediments to doing so.”

The Israeli Case Against It

I understand why Israelis may be against this deal. Even the deal’s proponents admit that it could give Iran more cash with which it could create problems for Israel via Hamas and Hezbollah and for other actors in the region. And the international community should recognize that and commit to doing what it can to support Israeli security and prevent that. But the truth is that Iran would be a heck of a lot more likely to create problems if they get a nuclear weapon — which this deal effectively prevents, at least in the near future. And if the international coalition falls apart, Iran’s going to start to get more money to create problems anyway, but with more reason to target Israel.

Finally, I think we need to approach Mr. Netanyahu’s position with skepticism. He’s built his political career pandering to many of the most hard-line groups in Israel, including most recently by rescinding his support for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine Conflict ahead of elections. His current political credibility is largely built on the fact that he’s taken a hard-line against Iran, making it hugely politically damaging should peace become a viable and effective option. When I look at his political calculations, it seems like the ultimate win for him would be convincing the US to go to war against Iran on behalf of Israel. He would get the firepower needed to deal with an enemy, face fewer of the costs, and get political credit from the hard-liners who make up his coalition. But it’s definitely not in the US’s best interests, and this is one of those scenarios where I don’t think we can allow ourselves to farm out our foreign policy to Israel. We can continue to commit to Israel’s security without committing to war before we’ve given the peaceful approach a chance.

This is obviously a complex issue with the potential for disaster whatever course is taken. I see the greatest possibility for continued peace on our terms under the proposed deal that is now on the table.

Have I convinced you? If so, pick up your phone and call a congressman. I just called Chuck Schumer, who I once ran into in Whole Foods, so we’re tight.

If not, tell me why in the comments.

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