Is There a Viable Alternative to the Iran Deal?
The writers engage in a debate the merits of the Iranian nuclear deal and ask whether or not there are any viable alternatives.
[Peter Beinart] Proponents, like myself, compare it to the alternatives: which are doing nothing, war, or trying to increase sanctions in hopes of getting a better deal down the line. What frustrates me is how rarely I see opponents explaining in any detail how any of these alternatives would be preferable. A few years ago, one saw more hawks arguing for a military strike. (I detailed some of the folks who did last year.) But one rarely hears anyone these days arguing that a military strike makes sense. Some say that a “credible threat of force” would make Iran concede more. But Israel and America have been threatening force for a decade now. Why would more saber-rattling work now? Besides, to have your threat of force be credible, don’t you have to be willing to follow through—which requires explaining why military action would be effective in retarding the nuclear program and wouldn’t make the current regional conflict far worse? More often, deal opponents talk about increasing sanctions, which would supposedly force Iran into concessions. But I rarely hear them explain how that will work given the internal politics of Iran. Seems more likely to me that scuttling this deal, and passing more sanctions, would devastate [Iranian President] Rouhani and [Iranian Foreign Minister] Zarif politically. Rouhani was elected to improve the economy; torpedoing the deal would make him a failure. That would empower those hardline opponents who never wanted any deal. Beyond that, what basis is there to believe European and Asian countries, which have strong economic interests in Iran, will maintain sanctions indefinitely? The lesson of Iraq in the 1990s is that sanctions erode over time. British and German diplomats have warned that if the U.S. destroys the deal, sanctions could unravel. So why should we believe economic pressure will go up and lead to more Iranian concessions? Seems at least as likely to me that economic pressure will go down.
[David Frum] The United States did not negotiate the way people negotiate to get the best deal obtainable. It signaled from the start of the talks that it regarded the military option (supposedly always “on the table”) as in fact unthinkable. It collared Congress to prevent imposition of new sanctions when the Iranians acted balky. It was a mistake too to send the secretary of state to head the delegation, especially a secretary of state who had been a presidential nominee: Secretary Kerry was too big to be allowed to fail. His Iranian counterpart, by contrast, could easily be disavowed by a regime whose supreme authority always maintained a wide distance from the talks.
Nor is the administration enacting its agreement as if it felt confident of its merits. The administration invented an approval process that marginalizes Congress. The agreement becomes binding so long as just one-third of the members of either House support it. For an administration that has complained so much about the anti-democratic filibuster, that’s quite a bold departure from the normal constitutional rule.
The administration brought home a weak deal, having negotiated in a way that put a better deal out of reach. Now it challenges critics: Accept this weak agreement or fight a war. But it’s the deal’s authors who created a false and dangerous choice. As we think about what comes next, keep in mind how we arrived where we are.
[Peter Beinart] But we can’t talk about Iran’s position in the region without acknowledging that today, the group most likely to commit another 9/11 on U.S. soil is ISIS. And Iran wants very badly to destroy ISIS, which is, after all, a genocidally anti-Shia group near their border. There are problems with Iran’s fight against ISIS, of course. It alienates the Iraqi Sunnis who we need to turn against the jihadis in their midst. But on the ground, Iran is the most potent force fighting ISIS—and if it has more money to do so, that’s not all bad. What’s more, if this deal makes it possible for the U.S. and Iran to coordinate their fight against ISIS more effectively, that’s good for American national security. And morally, if we can liberate the people who’ve been living under ISIS hell for the last year, that’s good too.
To my mind, one of the biggest problems with much contemporary Beltway foreign-policy discourse is the refusal to prioritize, to accept that foreign policy sometimes requires working with the lesser evil, which is still really evil. From a national-security and moral perspective, ISIS is the greatest threat and Iran, like Stalin during World War II or China during the Cold War, is a highly problematic partner against it. But in terms of ability to project power, it’s the best partner we’ve got.
I also think that the history of the 20th century shows that cold wars produce regional wars that are brutal for the people whose countries become battlegrounds. Syria is a proxy war, partly between the Sunni powers and Iran, and partly between the U.S. and Iran and Russia. If there’s ever going to be a deal to end that nightmare, Iran is going to have been at the table, along with the U.S. If Iran doesn’t feel the U.S. is going to attack it, it becomes easier to imagine that Tehran could accept a deal where [Syrian President] Assad goes. I’m not saying this is going to happen anytime soon, but when the Cold War ended, proxy wars ended across the globe. And if the cold war between the U.S. and Iran thaws, it makes it easier to craft a solution in Syria. It also makes it somewhat easier to imagine a political solution in Afghanistan, a country where Iran has significant influence.