Some people are serious, others aren’t

I’ve read two critiques of the Iran nuclear deal this morning: Rob Satloff’s published in the Daily News and Israeli Ambassador Dermer’s in the Washington Post. Rob’s is mostly serious. Dermer’s is not.

Dermer first then. Ambassadors merit precedence. He complains that the deal leaves Iran with a “vast” nuclear infrastructure and neglects to mention that it will be much reduced from its current state. He also complains that the record of international inspections is bad. That just isn’t true. No country has ever developed a nuclear weapon in a program safeguarded by the International Atomic Energy Agency. It is true that Iran has not answered the questions about “possible military dimensions,” but the first milestone in implementation of this agreement is their answers (by October 15). Dermer forgot to mention that.

Dermer doesn’t like the fact that some of the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program last only 10 years. But isn’t 10 years better than none? The ambassador characterizes this as “paving” Iran’s way to the bomb. But without the restrictions there wouldn’t be any barrier at all and no need for paving. Why does he prefer that?

An arms race in the region is the ambassador’s next concern. But that too is more likely if there is no agreement than if there is one. Iran is already within two or three months of producing the material for a single nuclear weapon. Why hasn’t that precipitated a nuclear arms race? And why wouldn’t failure to roll Iran back be even more likely to precipitate one?

Dermer’s final concern is the only real one: the deal puts a lot of money in Tehran’s pocket. Iran is likely to do bad things with it. That is the basic trade-off here. Iran gets money owed to it and we get restrictions on its nuclear program. Reasonable people can disagree on whether that is a good deal.

But in order to believe it is a bad one you have to argue that the multilateral sanctions could have been sustained in the absence of a deal. That is hardly likely: Europe and China want the commerce with Iran that the lifting of sanctions will bring. Had the US walked away from this deal, we’d have been left with no restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program, no inspections and no sanctions.

Rob Satloff is more serious. He worries about the possible delay in getting inspectors to nuclear sites (he thinks the delay might be 24 days given the procedures in the agreement; I think it might be longer). But efforts to “clean up” nuclear sites are notoriously difficult and usually unsuccessful. They would also likely be observable by satellite.

Rob also complains that the “snapback” of sanction is the only consequence of cheating, making smaller violations immune, and Iran says snapback would free it of its obligations. Those are problems, but they are not arguments against the deal. With no deal, the Iranians would also be free of any obligations, allowing it to do whatever it wanted while we struggle to keep the multilateral sanctions in place.

Snapback would not apply to contracts already in place. This is the most serious of Rob’s arguments. He is correct that states and companies will rush to put in place umbrella agreements that can be used to protect future business with Iran. I don’t have an answer for this one. Maybe one of you does?

Also serious is Rob’s argument that the US might be constrained from imposing sanctions for non-nuclear reasons. I don’t read the agreement that way, but I’ll be interested to hear the Administration’s response on that issue.

In the end, Rob argues that the agreement represents a departure from traditional US policy:

It marks a potential turning point in America’s engagement in the Middle East, a pivot from building regional security on a team of longtime allies who were themselves former adversaries of each other — Israel and the Sunni Arab states — in favor of a balance between those allies and our own longtime nemesis, Iran.

But that imposes on history a coherence that just isn’t true to the facts. US intervention against (Sunni) dictator Saddam Hussein in Iraq on the false premise of weapons of mass destruction is not explicable in this theoretical construct. Nor is the failure to intervene in Syria in favor of a largely Sunni rebellion against an Iranian-supported dictator.

The nuclear deal does not represent a monumental and premeditated shift of US policy in Iran’s favor. It does open the door to a return of Tehran to a more normal status within the international community. That’s the price we pay for 10-15 years of serious contraints on Iran’s nuclear program. Satloff and Dermer haven’t convinced me that price is too high.

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