Strange values and colossal misjudgment

I have to give credit to New York Senator Schumer for laying out his thinking on the Iran nuclear deal. But it is thinking that betrays strange values and in the end a colossal misjudgment.

Schumer looks at three issues:

  1. nuclear restrictions on Iran in the first ten years,
  2. nuclear restrictions on Iran after ten years,
  3. and non-nuclear components and consequences of a deal.

He asks if the United States is better off with or without the agreement.

On the first issue, he faults both the inspection provisions and the snapback of sanctions. He ignores the unprecedented inspections of nuclear facilities and somehow finds that the US unilateral ability to precipitate re-imposition of sanctions on Iran has little value. But in the end he admits we might be a bit better off in the first ten years than without the agreement.

On nuclear restrictions after ten years, Schumer is concerned because lifting of sanctions will greatly enrich Iran and enable it then to pursue an even more robust nuclear program. He simply ignores the agreement’s provisions for permanent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections and the permanent commitment by Iran not to seek nuclear weapons. He says

Iran would have a green light to be as close, if not closer to possessing a nuclear weapon than it is today. And the ability to thwart Iran if it is intent on becoming a nuclear power would have less moral and economic force.

It is strange to value a problem that we might (or might not) have 10 years from now as much as you value it today. If nothing else, you’ve had 10 years with a non-nuclear Iran to think and organize what you’ll do next. It is even stranger to suggest that after 10 years of successfully preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon that somehow doing so then would be less compelling rather than more so. If you think war might be necessary to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, you are on a lot firmer ground if Iran violates an agreement than if there are no constraints at all on its nuclear program.

On the non-nuclear issues, Schumer is principally concerned with use of the money Iran will get from sanctions relief for nefarious activities in the region and beyond. I entirely share this concern, which is well-founded in Iran’s need to satisfy its hardliners after what Schumer should admit is a gigantic defeat at the bargaining table.

But then there is the colossal misjudgment: Schumer thinks you have to believe Iran will moderate in the future in order to support the deal. That is wrong. Forget Iran’s political future.

What you have to consider is the reaction of the rest of the world to American rejection of the agreement, which Schumer completely ignores. Instead, he blithely suggests:

Better to keep U.S. sanctions in place, strengthen them, enforce secondary sanctions on other nations, and pursue the hard-trodden path of diplomacy once more, difficult as it may be.

He offers not a word about how America’s European allies, the Russians, the Chinese and the Gulf states would react to this proposition. That is where his arguments go wildly wrong.

First consider what “secondary sanctions” mean. They mean the US will tell other countries’ banks and corporations that they can’t do business with Iran. If they do, they will be excluded from the US market and their assets in the US frozen. There are few things we could do to enrage our closest allies more quickly than that. They would be thrust into the arms of the Russians and Chinese, and together try to work out financing mechanisms that escape US scrutiny and control.

Second, consider whether there would be any diplomacy to pursue. Either the agreement will collapse altogether, in which case you can bet on Iran moving quickly to get nuclear weapons, in order to forestall a US attack. No diplomatic openings there. Or the agreement will remain intact, without US participation. Iran will get sanctions relief from everyone but the US (something it did not expect any time soon anyway). Why would Iran re-engage diplomatically with the US if it can get what it wants from everyone else?

America’s allies would find themselves moving away from their trans-Atlantic connections to much deeper engagement with our adversaries. Support for the US on many issues–especially but not only the Middle East–would wane rapidly. “Secondary sanctions” levied in retaliation against American companies could wreck havoc with the world’s financial and trading systems.

What would the Gulf states do? If the agreement falls apart, they will have no choice but to race for nuclear weapons. If it doesn’t, they still need to consider whether to stick with the isolated and weakening US as a major ally or shift in other directions. I’d bet on a shift in other directions, something that has already started but could accelerate.

The Iran nuclear deal is likely to survive the Congressional challenge next month, as it would require a more than 2/3 majority in both houses to defeat it. But if it fails, we can thank strange values and colossal misjudgment. Senator Schumer is not alone.

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