Michael KreponIran: The Punditariat Weighs In

Now that the negotiating endgame for a nuclear limitation agreement with Iran has been extended to July 7th, critics and kibitzers have had an extra seven days to push, prod and excoriate the Obama administration. It’s far easier to criticize an agreement-in-progress for not being good enough than to defend it – even when the outlines of the deal negotiated in early June were surprisingly good.

Critics and kibitzers fall into various camps. There are “friendlies,” “wary-ies,” and “hostiles.” The Washington Institute issued a public statement by an influential group of “friendlies” and “wary-ies” itemizing details where the Obama administration needed to be bucked up. One friendly, Bob Einhorn, subsequently amplified that none of these benchmarks were “poison pills.” But if they aren’t met, Bob could be wrong.

David Albright has suggested that the Congress underscore Tehran’s obligations under an agreement. This approach would hand over the interpretation of imprecise or purposeful diplomatic compromises to legislative opponents of an executive agreement. This happened after the 1972 SALT I Interim Agreement, when Republicans on Capitol Hill termed every Soviet action on every provision that the Nixon Administration was unable to nail down as a damning violation.

One veteran of these negotiations, Al Carnesale, has weighed in by suggesting a simple question when evaluating the final agreement: “Compared to what?” Advocates will certainly do this, but “wary-ies” and opponents will have different metrics of measurement.

There’s a slight groundswell on Capitol Hill, including Presidential candidate Lindsey Graham, in favor of the status quo rather than a negotiated deal – but this assumes that Tehran would be willing to continue a policy of weapon-related restraint absent the prospect of sanctions relief. The safest position for nay-sayers to take, as exemplified by Presidential candidate Marco Rubio and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is to advise the Obama Administration to “just walk away” while toughening up sanctions. But then what? No deal would satisfy critics who take their cues from Benjamin Netanyahu.

Which leads us to the non-negotiation-from-strength camp. This school of punditry argues that we wait for a regime’s collapse, or actively assist in its demise, or set conditions for a negotiated settlement that won’t happen, thereby holding the high ground and not being tainted by compromise. For much of its tenure, the George W. Bush administration adopted this stance, with minor variations, toward North Korea and Iran, while watching their nuclear capabilities grow.

Matt Kroenig, a member of the non-negotiation-from-strength camp dressed up as the negotiation-from-strength camp, has written that “the only way to prevent nuclear proliferation in Iran would be to eliminate its uranium enrichment capability.” I, too, would prefer this outcome, but I understand that it won’t happen. Since Matt is a very smart guy, I presume he does, too. This leaves three options: watching dangerous stockpiles grow, limiting Iran’s capabilities through a negotiated agreement, or bombing Iran’s nuclear production complex.

Matt and a few others from the non-negotiation-from-strength camp get high marks for candor in acknowledging support for the military option – a tough sell for a war-weary American public and overburdened U.S. military forces that have been tasked with tidying up messes made by elected officials in the Middle East while gearing up to counter a revanchist Russia and the rise of China.

Secretary of State Colin Powell once invoked, regrettably without much emphasis, the “Pottery Barn rule”: you break it, you own it. Powell was prescient but still wrong about Iraq. The George W. Bush Administration broke plenty of pottery, but never owned Iraq, despite spending a trillion or so dollars there. It rejected the possibility of a negotiated settlement that could assuage concerns over Iraq’s WMD programs after Saddam sent feelers out: The Bush Administration didn’t want to negotiate from strength; it wanted regime change.

Regime change by use of military force in Iran is out of the question. Waiting Iran out isn’t an option, either, leaving periodic aerial sorties to keep Iran from acquiring the means to make nuclear weapons. Tehran’s countermoves will place even more burdens on U.S. military forces, and are likely to include blowing past the nuclear constraints that opponents rail against as being insufficient. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates estimated the time bought by bombing runs as perhaps two to three years. Compare this to provisions the Obama Administration is negotiating that would extend limitations on Iran’s bomb-making capability from ten to twelve years and perhaps longer. Those calling for military strikes are, in effect, arguing that extending limits on Iran’s nuclear program for ten or more years is insufficient, while delaying it for two to three years is good enough.


  1. Scott Monje (History)

    I’m intrigued by Ray Takeyh’s argument over at the Council on Foreign Relations that the agreement will allow “a repressive regime to consolidate power.” The revolution was 36 years ago, but evidently the regime hasn’t gotten around to consolidating power yet.

  2. George William Herbert (History)

    I think regime change by military force *is* within the scope of what could happen here. One bombing would almost certainly not permanently deny them the ability to weaponize. They’d dig deeper and go at it again. We would have to change the regime to make sure they never could get there, which is what several leaders have said is unacceptable.

    The consequences of that regime change are fairly obviously widespread chaos. I don’t know that the proponents of a war are willing to stand up and accept that; they want to cause it and then turn our back on it. Worked great in Syria, and Iraq, eh.

  3. Ara Barsamian (History)

    Looks like it’s a done deal: both Obama’s legacy and Iranian economic desperation are “colluding” to make this happen.

    Overall, if P5+1 klinch a deal that slows down the Iranian accumulation of enriched Uranium stockpiles, and avoids another war (that will be fought mainly by working class Americans, not the kibitzers), it is a win-win for everybody in the region. 10 years is a long time…We might even convert Iran to US-style free-enterprise, and collaborate to defeat ISIL…

    For the warmongers, Iran and Russia are not going to play dead if we do something stupid like bombing Iran (it’s not a “slam-dunk”), just start the fires of hell…

    Nobody can prevent Iran or any other determined country from making nuclear weapons (remember Pakistan’s Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and we’ll eat grass!!!), unless existing nuclear weapons states, i.e. US, bomb it to the “stone age”.

    Whether we like it or not, the know-how is everywhere, Iran has a set of first class scientists, and it “smells” pretty certain Iran had done implosion tests and other weaponization work previously. So it is imperative that the “deal” includes “trust-but-verify” provisions.

    The bottom line: it buys time – 10 or 15 years of relative non-proliferation is better than a new major war.

  4. Jonah Speaks (History)

    Lest we count our chickens before they come home to roost, a final deal has not yet been reached. The U.S. and Iranian versions of a framework don’t fully agree, and the Ayatollah is busy re-negotiating key elements of the framework. Perhaps tomorrow will bring the real deal, or perhaps another extension.

    If a deal is announced, we will have plenty of time to analyze its terms and conditions, before pronouncing it good or bad. Those who have already pronounced it bad have shown us their true colors. Why should we go to war, if most of what we want can be obtained through negotiation?

  5. krepon (History)

    More from the non-negotiation from strength camp:

    “The only way to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon is through military force, which President Obama will not undertake. That is why the spotlight has long been on Israel, which twice before in its history has struck preemptively against nuclear weapons programs in hostile states” — John Bolton

    • J_kies (History)

      Bolton needs to get a grip on history and geography. The Iraq reactor strike did not avert the Iraqi nuclear program, it jumpstarted it. Syria isn’t in any position to develop nuclear weapons in the middle of a civil war that it is losing to modern barbarians called ISIL.

      Getting to Syria is a couple of minutes of straight flight instead of their normal turns. Iraq wasn’t particularly hard to reach without tanker support.

      The only credible Israeli strike against Iranian facilities would involve the Popeye turbo via submarine launch with non-conventional warheads.

  6. Anon2 (History)

    This deal is better than what would happen without it. For 10 years, the Iranian weapons program is frozen. In 9 years, another deal can be reached extending it again. I see no drawbacks as the alternative as per G.W. Herbert above is much much worse.

    And who knows — maybe in 10 years Iran can end friendly.

    The deal allows good things to happen and is better than the negatives in the alternative.

  7. Mohammad a. Khalid (History)

    We need to pay a lot of care when we suggest Bombing Iran.

    Nuclear fallout can affect 80 million people in the vicinity, from Persian gulf to pacific our waters will be polluted with radioactivity for ever.Their Uranium enrichment facilities are deeper down and closer to human dwelling not like Iraqs Nuclear reactor which was destroyed by Israel.
    Still Fukushima reactors are seeping 300 tons of radioactive waste in the pacific on daily basis.Lets for a change declare these 9 Nuclear nations as rouge nations and put sanctions on them

  8. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    No matter what happens with the talks, Israel and Saudi Arabia will not be pleased. Should they, either in parallel, out of sequence, or act in ‘secret’ alliance against Iran independent of the US and EU, what would be the effects on Iran? 2008 showed that Iran has fissures. Would opposition forces be able to take advantage of a strike? Would they even try? Or would it be a means of containing the forces of 2008 even further? If the forces of 2008 are let loose again could it turn Iran into another Syria? What would it mean with civilization breaking down over so much of the Middle East?

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Andrew, I think it’s important to separate “Israel and Saudi Arabia will not be pleased” and “Israel and Saudi Arabia will initiate a war on their own accord regardless of US support”.

      I think they will *not* be pleased because Iran is not going to stop being aggressive, period, no matter what. But Israel and Saudi Arabia can be displeased without being threatened enough by Iran’s nuclear program that they start a military campaign over the issue.

      It would ultimately be a grand failure for the west to negotiate this pact that we view as good enough to prevent weaponization, which does not convince Israel or Saudi Arabia and ultimately fails due to those two starting a war. We have to be mindful of that (and, both these parties are kicking and screaming to some degree) but also cognizent of parties that have already concluded they’re going to have to fight a war and are using the negotiations as cover for that, trying to set unmeetable conditions as justification for that eventual war.

      THOSE people, we cannot coddle; war MAY happen, anyways, but if those people drag us into one when the basic security / nuclear nonproliferation question was answered well enough, that’s the most counterproductive outcome imaginable from an eventual stability point of view.

    • krepon (History)

      A friendly government would not try to drag the United States into a war that the U.S. Government feels can be avoided by effectively verifiable constraints on a mutual adversary.

    • J_kies (History)

      So by extension of Michael’s statement the Israelis are not a friendly or allied government when US national interests do not align with their political narrative. When the US Congress acts against our national interests to support Israeli demands; that reflects poorly on the innate patriotism of our elected representatives.

  9. fred miller (History)

    The logic of the hawks leads inevitably to a huge conventional invasion, which would ruin us financially, or a massive nuclear strike against Iran, with tremendous consequences for downwinders and the global climate.

    Iran wants nuclear weapons because it is surrounded by nuclear armed states, some with political leaders very hostile to Iran. Reduce the number of nukes pointed at Iran, and you’ll reduce the motivation of Iranian leaders to invest in their own deterrent.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      The possibility of a nuclear strike against a nuclear-unarmed Iran is an irrelevant hypothetical. At most, Iran’s leaders might rationally fear a conventional attack or invasion.

      Moreover, if Iran’s leaders are rational, they know that the one thing that might set off such a conventional attack is if the outside world came to the conclusion that Iran was making a sprint for the bomb. Nuclear weapons are neither needed nor relevant for Iran’s security; any effort by Iran to obtain the bomb would be counterproductive.

    • Yeah, Right (History)

      “they know that the one thing that might set off such a conventional attack is if the outside world came to the conclusion that Iran was making a sprint for the bomb”

      True enough, as far as it goes.

      But it does rather assume that this “conclusion” is going to be reached via rational decision-making on that part of the “outside world” with a proven record of going BANG! on another countries.

      “Nuclear weapons are neither needed nor relevant for Iran’s security;”

      Again, true enough as far as it goes.

      “any effort by Iran to obtain the bomb would be counterproductive.”

      And, again, true enough. It does rather ignore the possibility that the Iranians might end up being, ahem, verballed by another country determined to see Iran pummelled by the “outside world”.

      Laptop of death, anyone?

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      If Iran’s leaders fear a conventional attack or invasion, there are two things they can do: 1) Provide and permit stringent transparency, inspection, and verification measures on its nuclear and related programs. 2) Stop shouting death to America, death to Israel, death to Sunni Arabs, and death to dissidents.

      Both of these changes would vastly improve Iran’s security, and both changes would be vastly cheaper and more efficacious in providing for Iran’s security than trying to acquire a bomb.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Jonah, lots of things would be easier if nations had a less aggressive view of things around them. But it’s people’s national identities.

      Israel has the same problem. China has the same problem. Russia has the same problem.

      The United States has the same problem…

  10. Sam Dean (History)

    Jonah Speaks

    That’s not correct as Iranians don’t shout death to Sunni Arabs, and death to dissidents, but the part regarding USA and Israel is real, but it’s intended for internal consumption as it has no meanings in the real world, Thus, basing an all our war against Iran on such benign flimsy pretext is ludicrous as USA and Israel well aware of Iran’s intentions and capabilities.
    It’s too simplistic & deceiving to base an assessment of Iran’s nuclear issue through the western perspective. Iran has been under rigorous inspection regime for decades, and all 16 US intelligence agencies refute the allegations of Iran’s involvement in nuclear arms production or research since 2003. However, there’re no paper trail, Radiological detection or any shred of evidence corroborating the (up to 2003 stuff) conclusion. Thus, the Israelis invented the infamous Laptop computer (most documents written by an Arabic language Alphabet/keyboard even though Iranians don’t use such alphabet as the Persian language is different from Arabic) to botch the 2007 IAEA report clearing Iran of any suspicious research or military related nuclear work. We bribed the Indian to vote against Iran, so we got the majority needed to transfer Iran nuclear file from IAEA to the UN security consul. This whole manufactured crises planned by Israel/USA to corner Iran, destroy its economy and prepare the world for an unprovoked military action against it under the pretext of stopping the fantasy nuclear-Bomb. The rest is political posturing, fabrications and pure aggression and a complete violation of Iran’s sovereign rights under NPT and UN charter.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      The only slogan more malign than “Death to America” would be “Kill them now.” Constant repetition of the first slogan primes Iranian hard-liners to carry out the second. Moreover, the object of the slogan is easily re-targeted, e.g., “Death to Saudi Arabia (allies of America)” or “Death to dissidents (stooges of the West).” Yes, the current slogans don’t target Sunnis and dissidents, but that is hardly reassuring. War with Iran, simply because they shout nasty slogans, suppress human rights, or annoy Israel, would not be justified.

      I don’t agree that Iran has provided the inspections that count, so as to put its nuclear file to rest. If it is all just a hoax, why is the Iranian government so reluctant to disprove it? Why are Russia, China, and Europe so willing to go along with a fantasy? The negotiations are about something important that Iran needs to address.

  11. Sam Dean (History)

    Jonah Speaks.
    First, I agree with George William Herbert 100%, who is a well known wonk whom I follow and respect greatly.

    Your views are based on manufactured facts, as mentioned in my first reply. What’s an inspection that could count? How could Iran disprove fabricated info derived from a Laptop that no one could see or examine? That Laptop was provided by the Israelis in 2004-2005 (the date is not exact, because only Israel and USA have that info).

    In fact Iran requested a forensic check of that Laptop, and the fictitious files (only hard copies only) fed to IAEA. But IAEA and the western countries denied the request claiming their sources and methods would be compromised . . . ! Well, how could anyone disprove void or Santa for example?

    To this moment the mysterious Laptop’s remains the only source to Iran’s so called military nuclear research, but IAEA has no access to that Laptop, because USA (on the behest of Israel) refuses to surrender that damning -albatross to any party for examination. Why doesn’t USA provide an electronic copy of some of these so-called (Iranian?) documents for forensic scrutiny, so IAEA could confront Iran about their authenticity? Better yet, let’s have an independent party of experts examine the files to settle this pending pandemonium? Iran suggested this idea during 2007, 2009 and 2012, but USA, UK, France and their coerced minions at IAEA BG rejected the idea, yet again invoking the pretext of sources and methods could be imperiled?

    In a nutshell, Iran is (was) a punching bag, demonized as a menace, a security threat to the world community and a terror supporting nation, otherwise how on earth they could impose all these crippling sanctions, freeze their assets and preclude them from normal commerce with the world. Now that USA and Iran are in relatively civilized discourse, Mr. Kerry has a huge problem recanting these falls charges, and revealing the truth, which is quite appalling to admit. The Neocons and their buddies in the Israeli war mongering camp holding his feet along with Obama’s to the fire demanding that Iran must come clear about past military nuclear work (something they fabricated in the first place). So, it took a while, but IAEA will be clearing Iran’s name by December (reportedly dictated to Amano by USA), therefore, our paper-pusher at IAEA (Amano) has the inglorious task of affirming Iran’s full compliance regarding the past PMD work, and then some. The world is amusing when you dictate to others to commit crimes then sanitize the mess, thus, fearing no consequences.

    That’s the persuasion of the solitary superpower, and may God bless America.

  12. Sam Dean (History)


    The third paragraph of my reply should read as follows.

    In fact Iran requested a forensic check of that Laptop, and the fictitious files (only hard copies provided)fed to IAEA. But IAEA and the western countries denied the request claiming their sources and methods would be compromised . . . ! Well, how could anyone disprove void or Santa for example?

  13. Jeannnick (History)

    @Sam Dean , Ehh man cool down
    Israel ! standing all righteous about non proliferation in the middle east , are you joking !
    doesn’t matter ,Netanyahu own the republicans
    (and a fairly good slice of the democrats too)
    it’s all a game of shuffle the cards and lean on the elections
    the irony of it all is that the Iranians (Persians) are the natural ally of America , how could this all happen?
    just to show that the US of A are a bunch of political Zombies…big time !!!

    • Sam Dean (History)


      You’re correct on all counts. It’s an irony indeed, but is it possible that no one in Washington DC seems to notice?

  14. Ara Barsamian (History)

    Well, as predicted, the deal is done, and the nay-sayers will eat crow (or better, “Make Love, Not War”).

    Presidents Obama and Rouhani deserve the credit of breaking what seemed an insurmountable impasse, and Secretary Kerry doggedly staying with it.

    Now the even more difficult and challenging task of verifying the implementation lays ahead…I hope some you WONKS get involved.

    Mazel Tov!