Michael KreponThe Iran Deal: Critiques and Rebuttals

“Obama imagines that this deal will bring Iran in from the cold, tempering its territorial ambitions and ideological radicalism.” — Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post, April 9, 2015

“If the world powers are not prepared to insist that Iran change its behavior before a deal is signed, at the very least they should insist that Iran change its behavior before a deal expires.” – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before a Joint Session of Congress, March 2, 2015

Critics are trying to have it both ways: The Obama administration’s framework agreement is bad because it fanaticizes improved Iranian behavior. Or the agreement is bad because it won’t change Iranian behavior. Both critiques are wide of the mark. This agreement has a narrow but essential purpose: it seeks verifiable limits on Iran’s capabilities to make nuclear weapons. U.S. observers will probably be the last to recognize improved Iranian behavior, should it occur. Few U.S. analysts predicted that Iran’s leaders would accept limits this constraining three years ago, and Americans know far too little about Iran to make confident predictions about its behavior over the next decade and longer. Whether Iran’s external policies remain bad or change for the better, a verifiable deal to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities makes good sense.

“Absent the linkage between nuclear and political restraint, America’s traditional allies will conclude that the U.S. has traded temporary nuclear cooperation for acquiescence to Iranian hegemony.” – Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, Wall Street Journal, April 7, 2015

Three underlying assumptions lie behind this sweeping assertion: that linking behavioral change with nuclear restraint is essential; that absent linkage, friends and allies in the region will bend to Iran’s power; and that the United States will not be able to contest Iranian ambitions.

Linkage is a luxury that serious negotiators like Kissinger and Shultz have not previously allowed to get in the way of deals to reduce nuclear dangers. Their historic accomplishments, the SALT I accords and the INF Treaty, would not have been finalized had the Nixon and Reagan administrations insisted on linkage. When Kissinger and Shultz negotiated with what Ronald Reagan called “the evil empire,” Washington shored up friends and allies that were concerned about Soviet intentions and military capabilities.

Analogous support for friends and allies concerned about Iranian intentions and military capabilities will take many forms, including high-profile visits to the region, military assistance programs, military advisers, multilateral military exercises, arms sales, sanctions that will not be removed as a result of the nuclear deal, the Fifth Fleet, alliance ties with Turkey, close ties with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, improved ties with Egypt, and reaffirming support for Israel despite Prime Minister Netanyahu’s destructive behavior. These initiatives do not add up to “acquiescence to Iranian hegemony.”

“You set out to prevent proliferation and you trigger it. You set out to prevent an Iranian nuclear capability and you legitimize it. You set out to constrain the world’s greatest exporter of terror threatening every one of our allies in the Middle East and you’re on the verge of making it the region’s economic and military hegemon.” — Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post, April 9, 2015

“At a time when many hope that Iran will join the community of nations, Iran is busy gobbling up the nations.” – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before a Joint Session of Congress, March 2, 2015

Nuclear deals are always more suspect during adverse developments abroad. Support for strategic arms limitation waned when the Soviet Union seemed to be gaining ground in the Horn of Africa and Angola. Lingering hopes for SALT II ratification were dashed when the Soviet Union “gobbled up” Afghanistan. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that some meals are hard to swallow – even for superpowers – and that concerns about an adversary’s “strategic” gains in unruly places are usually overblown.

Is Iran on the march in Yemen? Don’t jump to conclusions. But Iran has gained significant ground in Iraq after the George W. Bush administration decided to topple Saddam Hussein. Iran’s inroads in Lebanon and Syria are also undeniable. These concerns will have to be addressed by countermeasures alongside a verifiable nuclear deal.

“I’ll say it one more time — the greatest dangers facing our world is the marriage of militant Islam with nuclear weapons.” — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before a Joint Session of Congress, March 2, 2015

Precisely. Which is why a verifiable deal that constrains enrichment to levels at the very bottom of the cartoon bomb that Netanyahu used as a prop at the UN is essential, along with foreclosing the plutonium route to the Bomb, and securing inspections at suspect sites.

“Inspectors knew when North Korea broke to the bomb, but that didn’t stop anything. North Korea turned off the cameras, kicked out the inspectors. Within a few years, it got the bomb.” — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before a Joint Session of Congress, March 2, 2015

Actually, the North Korean framework agreement delayed a bomb for eight valuable years. Then North Korea kicked out inspectors and withdrew from the Non-proliferation Treaty. If Tehran wants to have other states in the region build nuclear weapons, it can act like North Korea. Or future Iranian leaders could decide that reviving their country’s economic fortunes without having more nuclear-armed states in the region makes more sense than building nuclear weapons.

“Iran’s aspiration may be sinister, but U.S. wars of regime change in Iraq and Libya have shown other nations the advantages of possessing nuclear weapons… Iran is going to be a nuclear power if it intensely wants to be — and it does; no practicable sanctions can be severe and durable enough to defeat this determination.” — George Will, Washington Post, April 10, 2015

A very different takeaway from U.S. wars of regime change is that nuclear weapons are not needed to effectively counter U.S. expeditionary forces. Will’s proliferation fatalism is widely shared by critics of the deal who can foresee only two outcomes – that Iran cheats early on or that it waits patiently to build a stockpile after key provisions lapse. A third possible explanation for the framework agreement, entirely consistent with the terms under negotiation, is that Iran’s leaders want the benefits of economic growth more than the risks associated with a stockpile of nuclear weapons. This way of thinking makes little sense to those steeped in western precepts of nuclear deterrence, where weapons in hand have more deterrent effect than a capacity to make them. Whichever scenario comes to pass, verifiable constraints on Iran’s nuclear capabilities are essential.

“If it comes to it, air strikes to set back the Iranian nuclear weapons program are preferable to this deal” — Bill Kristol, The Weekly Standard, April 4, 2015.

Those who believe that military action against Iran can be confined to air strikes and can succeed by air strikes alone are guilty of wishful thinking far more damaging than that which they ascribe to the Obama administration. The best rebuttal to war hawks has been provided by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who told an audience of West Point cadets in February 2011 that, “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.” Speaking before a Jewish group in Philadelphia last month, Gates was equally candid, saying “If you think the war in Iraq was hard, an attack on Iran would, in my opinion, be a catastrophe.”


  1. J_kies (History)

    Its not the Obama Administration’s framework, its a European lead with participation by the UK and US. Big differences and the (dis)loyal opposition might more correctly whine about what the Europeans are willing to allow in their neighborhood. Bibi could certainly take up his issues with the French and co and see how far that gets…

  2. Eric (History)

    For the record, explanation of the law and policy, fact basis for Operation Iraqi Freedom:

  3. Jonah Speaks (History)

    “Iran’s leaders want the benefits of economic growth more than the risks associated with a stockpile of nuclear weapons.” This is very likely true. Iran is an authoritarian state, like Russia or China. Unlike totalitarian North Korea, all three states require or desire economic growth to pacify their populations.

    Another wrinkle is that Iran wants the benefits of nuclear weapons knowledge, but not the consequences of appearing too eager to acquire nuclear weapons, since this could engender a regime-ending response from the outside world. It could also be that Iran is proud to be an NPT member, and even more proud of rebelliously testing the very limits of its “rights” under the NPT. If Iran were dead-set on acquiring nuclear weapons, why don’t they have them already? Iran is no less capable than Pakistan and North Korea, so why has Iran been so slow?

    Perhaps Iran’s secret ambition is for a virtual bomb, not an actual bomb. A virtual bomb never killed anybody, though we must remain cautious that Iran’s nuclear knowledge is never converted to an actual bomb. If Iran’s nuclear ambitions are modest, rather than unlimited, then a good deal can be had and implemented, to the benefit of both Iran and the outside world.

  4. Yeah, Right (History)

    My view, for what it is worth: the more strident critics are being forced to anchor their opposition on two mutually-exclusive arguments, and therefore their opposition is…. irrational.

    Because you don’t have to scratch very far under the surface to see variations on these propositions:

    (1) These Mullahs are CRAZY! They are so obsessed with destroying Israel that they’ll nuke Tel Aviv without a second’s thought to what will happen next. They can’t be deterred, because they simply don’t care about anything except wiping Israel off the map.

    (2) Man, these Mullahs are CRAFTY! They are possessed of near-infinite patience, and are perfectly capable of lying low for 10-15 years if that’s what it will take to lull “the West” into sleepy-bye-byes.

    Now, so sorry, you can pick (1) or you can pick (2), but claiming BOTH involves talking out both sides of your mouth at once.

    Either Iran’s leadership is impulsively irrational to the point of suicidal or Iran’s leadership is uber-rational to the point of being downright superhumanly patient.

    Sure, feel free to pick one. But only one.

  5. Ataune (History)

    I believe those radical critics you quote so abundantly are correct in one aspect: their fear that Iran, like China in 1973 and unlike USSR at the time of Gorbatchev, is an ascendant power and not a declining one. But they are essentially wrong in one important truth: a powerful state on top of the Iranian plateau is not necessarily to the detriment of US interests, au contraire.

    Helping intensify the debate on the “Deal” and having “all” the arguments, for or against it, come to the surface will certainly help showcase this basic logical flaw.

  6. krepon (History)
  7. Rob Goldston (History)

    Aside from Iranian hardline posturing about the timing of sanctions relief and inspections at military sites, the real issue is the long-term one: How does the IAEA verify a distrusted country with a large enrichment facility, meeting its obligation for “timely detection” of significant violations? We need to develop an AP+ that works in this context – or deal with the consequences of its non-existence.