It is tempting this morning to focus on the bracketology of the NCAA basketball tournament, like the rest of the country. Alas, one of the fundamental problems our nation faces is that so many people think entertainment is more important than civic engagement, and powerful economic interests want it that way: While the people are busy watching sports or Real Housewives or something to do with the Kardashians, those economic interests are gaining control of the government. Besides, my UConn Huskies did not make the cut this year.
Secretary of State John Kerry – and the representatives of the five other nations engaged in the negotiations with Iran – face a self-imposed deadline of March 24. When you listen to Kerry discuss the negotiations, he certainly doesn’t sound like Neville Chamberlain. He admits that difficulties remain even as progress has been made, and he has consistently upheld one of the most crucial, and most frequently forgotten, aspects of diplomacy: There is no deal until you have a complete deal.
None of us in the commentariat know exactly what issues remain outstanding, but we know the basic contours of what any deal would look like. We know the Iranians would have to submit to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has a proven track record of identifying attempts to cover-up weapons’ programs. We know that the deal would have a sell-by-date, at which point it must be renegotiated. We know that the Iranians would be permitted to continue the peaceful use of nuclear technology. And, we know that the Western powers, and Russia, which have imposed the stiff sanctions’ regime on Iran, would ease those sanctions.
The Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, has said the deal being negotiated is a bad deal. Certainly, anyone charged with the security of the state of Israel recognizes a nuclear Iran as its worst nightmare. As Netanyahu correctly points out, this is an existential threat to Israel not a mere geo-strategic challenge. One bomb could destroy his country. And, unlike some Americans who are addicted to rose-colored glasses when viewing foreign enemies, Netanyahu is correct about the evil of which the Iranian regime is capable: Even those described as moderates in the Iranian regime, men like Akbar Rafsanjani, are capable of horrific deeds: During the Iran-Iraq war, Rafsanjani organized the brigades of teenagers who were sent into the minefields ahead of the Iranian tanks and troops so that these unarmed civilian children could detonate any landmines and therefore allow the troops to pass through unharmed. That is what passes for a moderate in Iran.
The problem is, of course, that there is no alternative to negotiating with Iran. Conservative critics of Mr. Obama’s negotiations, including the 47 Republican senators who sent that sophomoric letter to the leaders in Iran, say they want Iran to completely abandon its nuclear program. Well, who wouldn’t want that? But, they are not going to do it. So, we either enter into negotiations to restrain that program and direct it towards peaceful means, or we go to war. Those same Republicans get a bit shy, if not downright queasy, when you ask if they are in favor of going to war in Iran. Sen. Tom Cotton may appreciate Prime Minister Netanyahu’s manly braggadocio, and any Israeli leader knows something about the reality of war, but, to paraphrase the late, great Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, Sen. Cotton, you are no Bibi Netanyahu. And, it is worth noting, that the Israeli public, which is much more informed and attentive to geo-political issues than most Americans, might turn Mr. Netanyahu out of office tomorrow.
There is the further complicating factor that the recent setbacks inflicted on ISIS have come largely through the support of Iran to the Shiite militias in Iraq. When he addressed Congress, Netanyahu said that in this case “The enemy of your enemy is your enemy.” True enough, though there are times when one makes common cause with one enemy in order to defeat another: We were allied with the second greatest monster of World War II, Stalin, in order to defeat the worst monster, Hitler. In any event, the Republicans are the last people to applaud Mr. Netanyahu's line. It was easily discernible before the Iraq War that toppling Saddam Hussein, evil man that he was, would strengthen Iran in the region. General Wesley Clark repeatedly pointed that out before the war and the Republicans did not want to listen then, nor have they wanted to admit it has been proven true since. It is no use crying over spilt milk, but you would think that the GOP would be a bit more humble in asserting its claims about Iran after having been proven to be so catastrophically wrong about Iraq.
Tomorrow is St. Patrick’s day, but before you start celebrating, say a prayer for the success of the negotiations in Switzerland. They will not yield a perfect outcome. They may not even yield a very good outcome. But, they are the only thing standing between us and another war on the one hand or a nuclear-armed Iran on the other. Iran will be dangerous until the current regime gives way to a more democratic one. If Mr. Kerry can buy us ten years, that may be enough. No matter what happens, it is preferable to another war and, while the Republican hawks won’t tell you so, their approach makes such a war inescapable.