Earlier this month, Bret Stephens attempted to decipher Obama’s thinking behind the Iraq deal- what he would say if he were being honest. Over at Vox, they have been doing the same sort of exercise, trying to decipher, or explain, the thinking of the other side (opponents of Obama’s deal.)
Stephens’ premise is that Obama is giving a lot in negotiations, showing a strong desire to get a deal rather than insisting on terms that a basic distrust of Iran would, on the surface, appear to dictate. (My general perception is that this is the case, and in any case I will assume so for the purposes of this post.) Stephens therefore has his “honest Obama” try to explain why getting almost any deal is worthwhile to him, rather than attempting to deny that he is giving away the farm. He makes a pretty good effort to have “honest Obama” make a good case, but I don’t think he quite captures the best “honest” case for the deal, or, probably, Obama’s actual thinking.
Stephens’s Obama basically argues that we can’t stop Iran from getting the bomb, short of regime change through war, and that isn’t worth it. So we can only hope to delay their acquisition, which a deal will do. Stephens has Obama concedes that “the deal we have negotiated will not, I am afraid, prevent Iran from getting a bomb, should its leaders decide to build one. And eventually they will.” He later offers hope that this isn’t the case, but only if “the Supreme Leader [is] replaced by a new leader cut from better cloth.”
So Stephens forces his Obama to acknowledge that Iran’s current leadership is hell-bent on acquiring the bomb, and that its political decision-makers are monolithic (or that the Supreme Leader is the only one who really matters.) Honest Obama’s case, as a consequence, ends up rather weak.
Here’s a better one:
1) Independent of U.S. sanctions, there are good reasons Iran will not acquire a nuclear bomb. Nuclear weapons acquisition would launch a Mideast arms race, preventing Iran from gaining any permanent advantage over its neighbors and hurting its security overall. Launching its nuclear program as a long-term project gave it options, an understandable course given the time horizons involved (Taiwan, Ukraine and the late Col. Gaddafi all might be wishing they hadn’t given up their nuclear programs/weapons way back when; the future is unpredictable), and given the millions who died in Saddam’s U.S.-backed war of aggression against Iran. However, actually crossing the Rubicon and acquiring a nuclear weapon would uniquely create a backlash. And now Saddam is gone and Iran has a lot of influence in Iraq, and the revolutionary regime has survived all this time and America hasn’t attacked it, so it is in a much more secure position than it was when it launched the program.
2) Iran has strong national pride and will not want to be seen as backing down in the face of international sanctions. Therefore, the sanctions are a stumbling block to Iran following its national interests. The goal, therefore, is to allow Iran to give up its program while saving face.
3) Iran is not a monolithic actor. If we assumed that it were, we could regard it as using different tactics (now intransigence, now a pretense of peacefulness) to pursue the same constant end. But in reality, the different behavior of their regime at different times reflects the fact that hard-liners or soft-liners are up or down at a given time; this isn’t the Kims’ Korea. Ahmadinejad may have been committed to the bomb, while Rouhani may not be. Even if Rouhani is personally secretly committed to nuclearization at all costs, he has acted like he isn’t, domestically as well as internationally, which tells us that it is possible to take such a stance and hold a position of power in the Iranian regime. The Supreme Leader is only one figure among many. We want soft-liners to win internal battles in Iran, and concessions are the best way to do this under the circumstances (see 1 and 2).
4) This is not 1938. Iran is not on a suicide mission and has no expansionist aims; the current regime has not launched any wars to gain territory. Being “a reasonably successful regional power” is enough for Iran. Our goal should be to give it an opportunity to do so, and security to be confident it doesn’t need the bomb as deterrence. There is no plausible scenario in which Iran launches a first strike.
Now, let’s consider Vox’s “devil’s advocate” position:
“Advocates of military action differ from Obama in their assessment of the Iranian regime. They believe the Iranian government is unshakably attached to its nuclear weapons program and will never abandon it willingly. Therefore, the only way to keep Iran from getting a bomb is to destroy its nuclear facilities.
“In this view, Iran’s leaders will never abandon their quest for nuclear weapons because nukes are essential to the revolutionary anti-Western foreign policy Iran has pursued in the Middle East.”
Vox contrasts the critics’ view of the Iranian regime with Obama’s: “The core of the disagreement between Obama and his critics is over the nature of the Iranian regime. Obama sees an Iranian government that’s hostile now, but one that can potentially be reasoned with on specific issues if given the right incentives. “Iran may change. If it doesn’t, our deterrence capabilities, our military superiority stays in place,” he told Tom Friedman on Sunday. The deal is a ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see whether or not we can at least take the nuclear issue off the table.’”
I think the critics’ regime argument is, or should be, somewhat different. Public discussion of Iran focuses monomaniacally on The Bomb, but by itself that doesn’t particularly matter. All regimes are attached to maximizing power and security, and one way of achieving this is to acquire nuclear weapons. The U.S. is “unshakably attached” to its nuclear weapons, as is Israel, as I suppose are Russia, India and Pakistan. And nuclear weapons historically are mostly a deterrent, not an offensive weapon.
Rather, the problem is that Iran is different from most other regimes. It isn’t expansionist or on a suicide mission, but neither was the Taliban. The Iranian regime does things most countries just don’t do, and the U.S. and Israel would really be better off if they can attack it if it does these things on too large a scale, and if it knows they can do so.
Naturally, the U.S. and Israel can’t say “we don’t want Iran to have a nuclear deterrent,” so their implication has always kind of been that the bomb would be an offensive weapon. The U.S. is no longer interested in presenting Iran as a major threat, but Netanyahu certainly is, and key to his argument is the idea that an Iranian nuclear weapon would threaten Israel. When he presented this argument to the U.S. Congress, there were reports that Israeli intelligence agencies disagreed.
An “honest Netanyahu” argument might look like this: “We accept a certain low level of killing by Hezbollah without going to war, but if they really escalate things, or if Iran vastly increases its support for their ability to kill, we want to have the option of crushing Hezbollah and striking or even nuking Iran. If Iran itself directly organizes a large-scale terrorist attack against Israel, we want to have the ability to inflict damage on their regime, including with nuclear weapons (not saying we would, but it would be good for everyone to know we could.) If they have a nuclear deterrent, that changes the calculation in unacceptable ways.”