Archive for the ‘Iran’ Category
James Fallows provides a useful framework for how we should approach the Iran deal:
A week ago I volunteered my way into an Atlantic debate on the merits of the Iran nuclear agreement. The long version of the post is here; the summary is that the administration has both specific facts and longer-term historic patterns on its side in recommending the deal.
On the factual front, I argued that opponents had not then (and have not now) met President Obama’s challenge to propose a better real-world alternative to the negotiated terms. Better means one that would make it less attractive for Iran to pursue a bomb, over a longer period of time. Real-world means not the standard “Obama should have been tougher” carping but a specific demand that the other countries on “our” side, notably including Russia and China, would have joined in insisting on, and that the Iranians would have accepted.
“What’s your better idea?” is a challenge any honest opponent must accept. If this deal fails—which means, if the U.S. Congress rejects an agreement that the U.K., France, Germany, Russia, China, and Iran have accepted—then something else will happen, and all known “somethings” involve faster Iranian progress toward a bomb.
On historical judgment, I said that for two reasons the supporters of the deal should get the benefit of the doubt. The short-term reason is that nearly everyone who in 2015 is alarmist about Iran was in 2002 alarmist about Iraq. You can find exceptions, but only a few. That doesn’t prove that today’s alarmists are wrong, but in any other realm it would count. The longer-term reason is that the history of controversial diplomatic agreements through the past century shows that those recommending “risks for peace” have more often proven right than their opponents. (Don’t believe me? Go back and consider the past examples.)
Three topics for today’s updates, with a connecting historical theme.
Correlation of Forces
In the two weeks since the deal was announced, the forces pro and con have lined up. The clear opponents include:
— Candidates for the GOP presidential nomination, including Scott Walker with his promise to revoke the deal on Day One in office (which would be difficult, unless he could convince Russia, China, etc. to reinstate sanctions), Mike Huckabee with his odious “oven” line, and the rest who oppose the deal as uniformly as they opposed Obamacare.
— Many Israelis in and out of government, from Benjamin Netanyahu to Natan Sharansky. And, using arguments like Netanyahu’s, American organizations like AIPAC, Bill Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel, the Zionist Organization of America (which went out of its way to endorse Huckabee’s statement), the Anti-Defamation League, and of course Sheldon Adelson.
So who do we have on the other side?
— Most of the American public, by a 54-38 margin, according to a new poll by the Democratic-affiliated Public Policy Polling. “Voters within every gender, race, and age group are in support of it, reflecting the broad based mandate for the deal,” the PPP analysis said.
— Most Jewish Americans, by a larger margin than the public in general, according to a Los Angeles Jewish Journal poll reported in the The Jerusalem Post. In this poll, American Jews supported the deal by a 49-31 margin; among the rest of the public in this study, the support was only 28-24, with a very large group undecided. According to the poll, 53 percent of Jewish Americans wanted Congress to approve the deal, versus 35 percent who wanted Congress to stop it.— Numerous Israeli analysts and former military and intelligence-service officials. For instance, various members of the IDF’s general staff; a former head of Mossad; a former head of Shin Bet; a scientist from Israel’s nuclear program; a former head of the IDF’s intelligence branch; a former deputy national-security advisor; another former IDF official; the think-tank Molad; Marc Schulman of HistoryCentral.com; and many more. Every American has seen and read the literally cartoonish fulminations of Netanyahu against the deal (see below). How about more coverage of the Israeli defense professionals making the opposite case?
— Five former U.S. ambassadors to Israel from administrations of both parties, and three former U.S. Under Secretaries of State (including Thomas Pickering, who held both jobs), who issued a public letter on Monday supporting the deal. Sample passage: “Those who advocate rejection of the JCPOA [the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s Nuclear Program, a.k.a. the deal] should assess carefully the value and feasibility of any alternative strategy. … The consequences of rejection are grave: U.S. responsibility for the collapse of the agreement; the inability to hold the P5+1 together for the essential international sanctions regime and such other action that may be required against Iran; and the real possibility that Iran will decide to build a nuclear weapon under significantly reduced or no inspections.”
— More than 100 former U.S. ambassadors, career and political alike, and from both parties, who signed a similar public letter endorsing the deal. It begins, “The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran stands as a landmark agreement in deterring the proliferation of nuclear weapons.”
— More than 60 American “national-security leaders”—politicians, military officers, strategists, Republicans and Democrats—who issued their own public letter urging Congress to approve the deal. E.g., “We congratulate President Obama and all the negotiators for a landmark agreement unprecedented in its importance for preventing the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran.” Here are a few Republicans who signed this letter: former Special Trade Representative Carla Hills; former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill; former Senator Nancy Landon Kassebaum. Here are a few Democrats: former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell; former Defense Secretary William Perry. I’m resisting saying: But what do any of them know, compared with Mike Huckabee?
— Hans Blix, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who a dozen years ago tried to avert the disaster in Iraq. He says of the deal, “I think it is a remarkably far-reaching and detailed agreement. And I think it has a potential for stabilizing and improving the situation in the region as it gradually gets implemented.”
— A number of Iranian dissidents, who say that the deal could shift the internal balance in their country.
— An increasingly solid bloc of Democrats in Congress, being marshaled by Representatives David Price of North Carolina and Lloyd Doggett of Texas, who have been working since last year to reinforce support for the deal. “While demanding thorough scrutiny, this agreement appears to mark genuine progress for all who believe that peace will make us more secure than war with Iran,”Doggett (a longtime friend from our days in Texas) said when the deal was announced. “The bomb-Iran naysayers for whom the only good deal is a dead deal will unceasingly raise obstacles, but ultimately reason will prevail and the President’s leadership will be sustained.” It is interesting (to put it neutrally) to contrast the Price-Doggett effort, which has the support of Nancy Pelosi, with the equivocation of their Senate counterpart, leader-aspirant Chuck Schumer.
— An increasing number of journalists asking: if not this deal, exactly what? A notable example is Fareed Zakaria, who wrote: “Let’s imagine that the opponents of the nuclear agreement with Iran get their way: The U.S. Congress kills it. What is the most likely consequence? Within one year, Iran would have more than 25,000 centrifuges, its breakout time would shrink to mere weeks and the sanctions against it would crumble. How is this in the United States’ national interest? Or Israel’s? Or Saudi Arabia’s?”
I could go on, but you get the point. Judge for yourself. You can be persuaded by Netanyahu, Huckabee, Cruz, Kristol, Adelson, et al., all of whom were wrong on the last high-stakes judgment call about U.S. interests in the Middle East. Or by an overwhelming majority of the people from both parties with operating experience in America’s war-fighting and peace-making enterprises in this part of the world.
The Rut of History . . .
It’s pretty simple: Don’t like the deal? Then tell me a realistic, specific, better option. If you cannot, then you have to accept that the Iran deal is the best option possible. (The question is not whether you dislike the Iran deal. It’s whether you can offer anything that’s better. If you can’t—well, then.)
Related story: Why History Gives Obama the Benefit of the Doubt on Iran
Kevin Drum has a post that makes an excellent point:
I’ve been waiting for a while now for a plausible conservative alternative to President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, and Max Fisher informs me today that Michael Oren has stepped up and done just that in the pages of Politico. Except for one thing: the increasingly unhinged former ambassador to the US may have a plan, but it’s about a million miles from plausible.
You should read Fisher’s whole post, but I’m going to skip the long preamble and get straight to Oren’s proposal. Here it is:
Israel would have embraced an agreement that significantly rolled back the number of centrifuges and nuclear facilities in Iran and that linked any sanctions relief to demonstrable changes in its behavior. No more state support of terror, no more threatening America’s Middle Eastern allies, no more pledges to destroy the world’s only Jewish state and no more mass chants of “Death to America.” Israel would have welcomed any arrangement that monitored Iran’s ICBMs and other offensive weaponry. Such a deal, Israeli leaders across the political spectrum agree, was and remains attainable.
That would be great, of course. But not exactly plausible. Here’s Fisher:
All of these are politically impossible and, in some cases, physically impossible….Try to imagine a US negotiator actually asking for this. “The inspections procedures of uranium mines look good here, and we are satisfied with the limits on centrifuge research and development. But we require a binding commitment that no one in your political system will speak certain combinations of words about Israel anymore.” We might as well demand that Iran give us a unicorn that we can ride all the way to Candy Mountain.
….Is it really worth blowing up a historic nuclear deal — one that will substantially and verifiably limit Iran’s nuclear program, with global cooperation — over the possibility that one of the Iranian ayatollahs might not be legally forbidden from saying the wrong words?
These are poison-pill demands, and very lazy ones at that. They are not designed to be implemented, but rather to raise the political bar for any nuclear deal beyond what can be achieved.
And what about sanctions? Surely the other countries that are parties to the deal would quit in disgust if the US demands were as ridiculous as Oren suggests they should be. Indeed they would, but Oren says that if they drop out we should threaten to sanction them. Fisher: “This is indeed a specific proposal. But it is also insane. Oren is arguing that Obama should threaten to blow up the world economy, including America’s own economy, just to secure some vague improvements to the Iran deal.” . . .
James Fallows has an excellent comment on the deal we (meaning the US, Russia, China, the UK, France, and Germany) managed to work out with Iran regarding their nuclear program:
On Friday, The Atlantic ran an exchange of views among Jeffrey Goldberg, Peter Beinart, and David Frum about the plusses and minuses of the new Iran deal.
To oversimplify: Peter Beinart thought the deal was more good than bad, David Frum thought it was nearly all bad, and Jeffrey Goldberg could see merits on both sides but thought on balance that the deal might be the best of flawed alternatives.
In case you’ve been wondering what the debate would have been like with four participants, wonder no more. And if you’re wondering why I care, given that the Mideast is not my normal beat, here’s why:
— There’s a backward-looking reason: I’ve been interested in Iran since I first visited in the 1970s. Also, I worked for a president whose final two years were wrapped up with, and ultimately destroyed by, the effects of the Iranian Revolution; who believed deeply in nuclear non-proliferation; and who probably would have been reelected if not for his failed “Desert One” mission to rescue American hostages in Iran—some of whom I knew.
— There’s a forward-looking reason too: In the years since the foreseeably disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq, the next-most frequently discussed potential arena for U.S. combat has been Iran. For reasons I laid out in an Atlantic cover story back in 2004, I contend that anyone who has looked at the realities understands that the fantasy of a successful “preemptive” strike against Iran has always been pure, reckless fantasy, an extension of the “cakewalk” delusions that led us into the Iraq War. Moreover, from the American perspective I argue that there is far more to gain than lose in strategies to bring Iran in from its pariah status. (For more on the argument, see the Iran postings collected here, and this.)
To oversimplify my hypothetical fourth-man argument: If I were in the debate I would have agreed with Peter Beinart, completely disagreed with David Frum, and agreed most heartily with the parts of Jeffrey Goldberg’s writing in which he was agreeing with Beinart.
I’d go further. On reflection, I think this is a far better deal than most rational observers thought obtainable—especially considering that “our side’s” negotiators included not simply the U.S. and its normal Western allies but Russia and China as well. I also think that the agreement does more to avert a nuclear-armed Iran than any real-world (not tough-talk fantasy-world) alternative would do.
I know this won’t be the case, but in the upcoming congressional debate I think the burden of proof should be on the opponents to explain what arrangements, in the real world, would have done more to advance American interests and delay or deter the prospect of Iran getting the bomb.
Let’s consider, briefly, facts and judgments.
Facts: There is one simple-seeming factual point that President Obama emphasized in his thoroughgoing defense of the Iran deal at his news conferencea few days ago, and that (my one-time professor) Graham Allison has examined in even more thoroughgoing fashion here, here, here, and here. That point is: If you don’t like this deal, what’s your better idea?
More specifically: What is your better real-world idea, one that could actually come about, not your applause line for a speech or your snappy summary on a cable-TV hit?
Most of the “Oh, we should have been tougher—that would have done the trick!” rhetoric, including David Frum’s in this Atlantic exchange, abstracts away from several realities. Of these, the most important is that the U.S. can’t get its way just because Tom Cotton, Lindsey Graham, Bill Kristol, or Ted Cruz thinks it should (as Peter Beinart argued here). Iran is smaller, weaker, and poorer than the United States. But that doesn’t mean it will just accede—a lesson the United States might have learned from its dealings with Vietnam, Cuba, and various Middle Eastern states over the years. Negotiations are what both sides agree to, not what tough guys on one side think that side should demand.
Moreover, Russia and China, while somewhat poor in per-capita terms, are very far from small and weak. The most amazing part of U.S. debate on this deal is how rarely anyone notices that Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China, the opposite of strategic allies of the United States right now, have been shoulder to shoulder with the Western negotiating team so far. Is the thought that because an American hardliner, or for that matter one from Israel, tells them they’re too lily-livered, they’ll suddenly snap to? That’s an argument you might make on a talk show or in an op-ed, but not if you’ve dealt with either country. . .
Steve Coll in the New Yorker has another good analysis:
In the late nineteen-eighties, in Switzerland, Iranian officials met with collaborators of A. Q. Khan, the scientist who fathered Pakistan’s nuclear-bomb program. The parties may also have met in Dubai, where Khan maintained a secret office above a children’s store called Mummy & Me. In 1987, the Iranians received a one-page document that included the offer of a disassembled centrifuge, along with diagrams of the machine. They reportedly ended up paying as much as ten million dollars for information and materials that helped Iran advance its nuclear program during the nineteen-nineties. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a scientist sometimes described as the closest thing to an Iranian Robert Oppenheimer, oversaw the Orchid Office, working secretly on detonators and on the challenge of fitting something like a nuke on a missile. In 2003, the agency confronted Iran with evidence that it maintained a clandestine nuclear program. Tehran denied any wrongdoing and parried inspectors, then built a centrifuge facility under a mountain near Qom, whose existence was revealed by the United States, Britain, and France in 2009.
This record of deception is one reason that the nuclear accord that Secretary of State John Kerry brought back to President Obama last week runs to a hundred and fifty-nine pages of text and annexes. Paragraph after paragraph seeks to close loophole after loophole. “Every pathway to a nuclear weapon is cut off, and the inspection and transparency regime necessary to verify that objective will be put in place,” the President said last week. If Iran tries to build a bomb before 2025, he insisted, inspections and surveillance will provide the world with at least a year’s advance warning.
The deal’s fine print does include remarkable Iranian concessions, such as the sale or the downblending of almost all Iran’s enriched uranium, and the disabling of a heavy-water reactor at Arak, which could be used to make plutonium. Yet the deal has weaknesses, too. Its protocols for surprise inspections of military facilities could allow Iran to delay the arrival of investigators for more than three weeks, ample time to hide contraband equipment. And although Iran must now provide the I.A.E.A. with answers about its secret atomic history, the accord does not spell out how forthcoming it must be. Inevitably, some uncertainty about Iran’s past weapons experiments—and, therefore, its present bomb-making capacity—will remain.
Congress has until mid-September to act on the deal. It seems unlikely that legislators will scuttle it; Republicans appear implacably opposed to Obama’s diplomacy, yet they may not have the votes to override the veto that he has promised. But, to see the deal through, the President will have to persuade wary Democrats to back him. They face lobbying by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies. Netanyahu continues to intervene in American politics on the Iran matter, despite his slim odds of success and the damage he continues to cause to the U.S.-Israeli alliance. Yet he is a canny campaigner. Speaking on National Public Radio, he homed in on the accord’s surprise-inspection regime as “woefully inadequate” and “completely porous.”
In fact, the accord is tighter and more prescriptive than many I.A.E.A.-enforced agreements, including the one with North Korea that broke down a decade ago. Obama’s best argument, however, is not the fine print but the fact that the deal is better than any other realistic course of action. Certainly it is better than preëmptive war. A more nuanced question that Congress will now debate is whether Obama could have done better by maintaining economic sanctions longer and negotiating for tougher terms. That is an illusory choice, the President argued last week, because, “without a deal, the international sanctions regime will unravel.” If he is right about that, the accord is more attractive still. The coalition that negotiated the deal now on the table—the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany, and the European Union—represents an extraordinary front of unity against nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. Holding that rare alliance together will make it easier to challenge Iran later if the ayatollahs do cheat or go for a bomb after the termination of the agreement. . .
Jon Schwarz reports in The Intercept:
According to paragraph 67 of the new nuclear deal with Iran, IAEA inspectors in charge of monitoring the agreement may only be “from nations that have diplomatic relations with Iran.” This means that no inspectors will be American (unless the U.S. unexpectedly reestablishes the diplomatic ties with Iran that it severed in 1980).
This seems like a strange, telling concession by the Obama administration. But there’s an extremely good reason for Iran to insist on such conditions: during the UN’s weapons inspections of Iraq during the 1990s, some inspectors were American — and some of them were spies placed there in an apparent effort to conduct espionage against, and eventually overthrow, the Iraqi government. This was one of the key reasons Iraqi relations with the inspectors were so rocky, since Iraq repeatedly blocked inspection teams because of the presence of Americans.
But now the no-Americans-allowed-in-Iran clause has become a talking pointin right-wing media. And when Wolf Blitzer recently interviewed National Security Advisor Susan Rice on CNN, he felt it was so crucial that he did what television hosts almost never do: question a powerful guest until they get a straight answer out of them.
BLITZER: No Americans will directly be involved in any on the ground inspections in Iran, is that right?
RICE: Wolf, yes, the IAEA, which is a highly respected international organization, will field an international team of inspectors. And those inspectors will, in all likelihood, come from IAEA member states, most of whom have diplomatic relations with Iran. We, of course, are a rare exception.
BLITZER: So no one…
RICE: The British have diplomatic relations…
BLITZER: — so no Americans…
RICE: — the French…
BLITZER: — will be — I just want to be precise on this … No Americans will be on the ground in Iran actually inspecting?
RICE: No Americans will be part of the IAEA inspection teams.
BLITZER: Will Americans be outside of the IAEA inspection teams? … I’m talking about American government officials or military officials who could be inspecting … I take it they will not be doing that?
RICE: I don’t anticipate that, no.
Rice here was caught between two unpleasant options, and it’s significant which one she chose. On the one hand, she didn’t want to candidly acknowledge something that, shorn of historical context, makes the Obama administration look bad. But she clearly preferred that to making the Obama administration look better by explaining the context that would make the United States look horrible.
Also significant is that Wolf Blitzer personally covered the issue of U.S. espionage against Iraq during the 1990s — yet as much as he wanted to ask Rice hard questions, he scrupulously avoided questions that would have been even harder.
I wonder what the average Iranian thinks of the US. First, the CIA overthrew the elected government to install the Shah, so the US definitely was hostile to Iran there. And then of course a US Navy ship actually shot down an Iranian domestic passenger aircraft (even though the airliner was properly broadcasting the IFF identification for a civilian aircraft), killing everyone on board, and he subsequently received a decoration.
I do understand that Iran has a bad record on human and civil rights (but of course the US record in those areas is nothing to be proud of). But I do see how Iran could have some negative feelings about the US.
Kevin Drum takes a look at the informed opinion on the Iran deal. His post is worth reading in its entirety, but one quotation sums it up:
Jeffrey Lewis: ….As a deal, this is what deals look like. Actually, they usually don’t look this good….I see it as a really straightforward measure to slow down an enrichment program that was going gangbusters.
So you ask, “Does it slow it down?” Yes. “Does it slow it down in a way that is verifiable?” Yes. “Does it slow it down more than bombing it would?” Yes. “Okay, good deal.”