A better place to start from

More or less half of American voters will cast their ballots for the Republicans in 2016, so it behooves us to examine seriously what they propose to do about Iran’s nuclear program. Jeb Bush has been inaccurate and hazy. Rick Perry is clearer. So let’s consider his proposition, which consists of sanctions, regime change and war.

The problem with ratcheting up sanctions is getting others to follow the US lead. Russia, China and the Europeans have gone along with the Obama Administration’s strengthening of sanctions because they saw it as part of a broader diplomatic effort intended to reach an agreement with Iran. The Obama Administration made it clear war was an option only if negotiations failed. No one would be under that impression if Rick Perry becomes president. He aims to compel Iran to give up its nuclear program, which would lead quickly to the other members of the P5+1 (that’s UK, France, Russia, China and Germany) deciding to abandon the effort. Unilateral US sanctions, as we’ve seen with Cuba, are destined to fail.

If sanctions fail, Perry suggests a push for regime change. That would revive a longstanding American ambition, one that failed for 35 years until President Obama put it on ice. Of course Perry might be better at it than Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush  (41), Clinton, Bush (43) and Obama, but the odds on that proposition are not good. The Islamic Republic will fall some day, because it is incapable of meeting the aspirations of the Iranian people. But when that might happen is anyone’s guess. In the meanwhile, supporting the aspirations of Iran’s Kurdish or Baloch separatists, as has been done at times in the past, is frighteningly risky in today’s Middle East, where state structures are already at risk in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya.

Then there is war, aimed at destroying Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. But in order to do that, the US will need also to destroy its air defenses and somehow prevent Iranian attacks on shipping in the strait of Hormuz. With no prospect of a negotiated solution, Russia is bound to export modern air defenses to Iran. Weeks if not months of bombing would be required. The only really reliable way to protect shipping is to seize the Iranian side of the strait, an option no doubt included in US planning. In the meanwhile, oil prices would spike back to $100 and more per barrel. Any multilateral effort to negotiate an end to Iran’s nuclear program would die an ignominous death.

The net result of the military effort by most estimates would be no more than a two or three year setback for Iran’s nuclear program, which would be redoubled in the aftermath. While some may hope for regime change after a US attack on Iran, experience suggests that the initial reaction will be for Iranians to rally around the flag. The government would squelch any nascent pro-democracy efforts as treacherous and hardliners would be buoyed. That might change later, but there are no guarantees.

Let’s ignore for the moment the possibility–a real one–that Iran will cheat on its obligations under an agreement along the lines of the one already outlined. Can anyone seriously argue that setting the Iranian nuclear program back 10 or 15 years, as provided for in the “framework” agreement, is not better than the Perry formula of sanctions, regime change and war?

I think not, but that still leaves the verification issue. The agreement is strong on verification, but not fool proof. Iran could conceivably establish an entirely separate nuclear program, starting from uranium ore, that would escape the scrutiny of international inspectors and the import controls provided for in the framework agreement. It could also renounce the agreement and expel the inspectors, or even withdraw from the Non Proliferation Treaty, as North Korea did.

But if it did so, we would be much more likely to get cooperation from others on sanctions, regime change and war. The framework agreement looks like a far better place to start from than no agreement at all.


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