What’s the alternative to a deal?
Not long ago, President Obama’s legacy was said to be up for grabs. He faced three big outcomes with more or less a June 30 deadline: the Supreme Court decision on Obamacare, Congressional approval of “fast track” (trade promotion authority, which allows only an up or down vote on trade agreements without any amendments), and the Iran nuclear deal.
He has now won the first two bets (in addition to housing discrimination and gay marriage). The third however is a biggy, even if the real deadline may be July 9.
So many people have written so many intelligent things about what a nuclear deal with Iran should contain that it is difficult to contribute. But my own personal criterion for whether the deal is acceptable or not is just this: is it better than no deal?
To assess that, we need to understand what no deal would mean. There is more than one possible scenario:
- Best case: the Joint Plan of Action is maintained, which would continue IAEA inspections and limits on Iran’s uranium enrichment and stockpiles as well as its plutonium production.
- Worst case: the Joint Plan of Action and multilateral sanctions go down the drain, along with IAEA inspections and pursuit of questions about the possible military dimensions (PMDs) of Iran’s past activities.
The worst case is really very bad. It would not be hard for an imperfect agreement to be better than that.
The decision then boils down to whether we can somehow keep the Joint Plan of Action, multilateral sanctions, and IAEA inspections as well as work on PMDs intact if the talks break down.
This issue is path dependent. Maintaining sanctions in particular depends on who causes the breakdown in negotiations. If the US is perceived to reject an agreement that the Russians, for example, think adequate, why would they agree to continue to do their part on sanctions? They might even be inclined to block IAEA inspections as well as its work on PMDs. Even Germany might abandon our cause, which would end European Union sanctions.
So to those who think the diplomacy useless, I say this: without it, you have no chance of avoiding the worst-case scenario, which is patently worse than even a bad deal with Iran. Ditching the talks leaves the US with no other option than war.
That of course is what some people want. Let us suppose that the United States can destroy all of Iran’s key nuclear infrastructure (centrifuges and centrifuge production facilities as well as plutonium production reactor), without suffering any significant military losses or precipitating Iranian retaliation against Israel or American interests in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon (or elsewhere). That’s a giant and highly unlikely assumption, but so be it.
No one I know thinks that would delay the Iranians from developing nuclear weapons for as many as ten years, which is the minimum the nuclear deal claims to do. The best advocates of war can do is to suggest Iranians might overthrow the regime in the wake of war or that we’ll repeat the exercise as needed. But there is no guarantee a successor regime would be any less committed to nuclear weapons than the current one, or that the Iranians will oblige us by rebuilding their nuclear program in ways we will find possible to destroy the next time around.
There are definitely deals that will not fly however. Last week Supreme Leader Khamenei chimed in suggesting that Iran wants sanctions lifted before implementation and verification of its obligations and no IAEA visits to Iranian military sites. Those are deal breakers for the Americans, who should expect an agreement with such provisions not to be disapproved in Congress, perhaps even with a veto-proof majority.
Ray Takeyh in this morning’s Washington Post opposes the deal on the basis that it will give Iran ample resources for its regional troublemaking. But he doesn’t consider the alternatives. Iran isn’t going to make less trouble in the region as a nuclear power, or as one that has suffered an American military attack.
Negotiating leverage comes from your best alternative to a negotiated solution. Those who don’t consider what that is are fated to make big mistakes.