The Iran Nuke Agreement

by Michael Sean Winters

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The deal with Iran, after marathon negotiations, was greeted with both derision and praise yesterday. There is no doubt President Obama hopes the deal will be one of the cornerstones of his legacy, a hope that only increases suspicions. But the critics of the deal mostly covered themselves in shame yesterday.

The negative reaction to the deal – from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, from GOP leaders in Congress, from every Republican candidate for the presidency – was swift. Too swift. As Dana Milbank notes in his column in the Washington Post this morning, Sen. Lindsay Graham was denouncing the deal moments after it was released and was also forced to admit he had not read it one moment later. The rush to judgment shows that the judgment in question, for those so quick to make one, is not so much about the deal itself as about the concerns and composition of the GOP electorate. The deal is a highly complicated technical text and warrants judicious examination, something our politic class is not very good at these days.

The deal is also the result of a complicated diplomatic process, involving not only the US and our Western allies but Russia, whose interests in the region are not exactly consistent with our own, at least not always and on every issue. One of the principal criticisms of the deal is that it lifts sanctions on Iran and that re-imposing those sanctions, if Iran reneges on any part of the deal, will be very difficult. Indeed. But, Russia was already threatening to abandon the sanctions regime we now know President Obama spent concentrated effort on putting in place in the first two years of his presidency. The Europeans were equally desirous of getting out of the sanctions. They were falling away in any event, and at least now that falling away was put to some use.

Will the deal help or hinder Iran’s effort to secure a nuke? On the one hand, that effort could have continued apace tomorrow, without any inspections from the International Atomic Energy Agency. Now, it is decidedly turned back, at least for ten years. That is the single best accomplishment of the deal to be sure, and whatever the critics say, it was worth putting some big carrots on the table in securing that accomplishment. Those who worry about Iranian intentions are not wrong to worry, but ten years is a long time. I recall studying diplomatic history in college and the rule of thumb was that any foreign policy that lasted ten years should be considered a success. Beyond that, so many things change, so many new considerations intrude, so many old concerns fall by the wayside, most policies need to be refashioned after a decade.

The more thoughtful criticism of the deal focused not on its particulars but on its strategic implications. In one of the bizarre, and potentially beneficial consequences, Israel and its Sunni neighbors are more inclined to work with one another than at anytime in recent memory. They all worry about an emboldened Iran creating more havoc in the region, and that is a legitimate worry. It is expressed well in this morning’s column by Michael Gerson. The regime in Iran is not our friend and we have just made a deal with the devil to be sure. To return to a worry voiced in the first paragraph above, presidents seeking legacies can let their hope for a legacy distort their vision and in dealing with a regime like that in Iran, one needs clear, even cold, vision.

This concern, however, is not available to members of the George W. Bush administration. It was galling to see former Vice President Dick Cheney on Fox News last night ranting about what a bad deal this is. He might as well have been identified as a spokesman, I had almost written smokescreen, for the Saudi government. Even the left seems to have missed why the former Bushies should be made to hold their tongue. On MSNBC, Chris Hayes said that the worries about Iran’s nuclear development sounded a lot like the worries about Iraq’s nuclear development back in 2002 and 2003, and that America was not going to get hoodwinked again. But, that misses the key strategic fact: The most foreseeable consequence of the Iraq War was that Iran was going to be strengthened. Cheney and Co. were willing to allow that to happen to pursue their vendetta against Saddam Hussein. Now, they complain about the consequences of Iran’s power in the region. They are hypocrites or dolts or both.

It must be said that the desire to forestall a conflict is not always a good guide to the conduct of foreign policy, especially if that conflict is inevitable. Anyone can look to history and find an analogy they like, but few of those analogies really work. This is not Munich, Iran is not Hitler, and it is not 1938. A more proximate analogy might be Syria where American inaction created a vacuum into which all manner of evil rushed. An even better analogy might be found in US policy towards the Soviet Union in the postwar era. We had obviously divergent interests but direct conflict was deemed to horrible to contemplate and so the conflict was conducted by proxies. Sometimes, US intervention worked, as in Korea. Sometimes it failed, as in Vietnam. But, over the long haul, war was avoided and the Soviet regime collapsed from its own internal contradictions. We do not know which analogy is the most appropriate. We will not know for a long time.

My gut reaction is hopeful. We are not the only ones who made a deal with the devil. The regime in Iran has long considered us “the Great Satan.” Last night, there were images of people in Teheran celebrating in the streets and I am not sure they had read the deal either. I suspect they were celebrating the prospect of reintegrating their learned and culture people with the rest of the world. A truly repressive regime needs to have an incarnate evil enemy, a Great Satan, to fight, and it needs to keep its people destitute. Repressive regimes are not overthrown by the poor, but by relatively affluent and educated internal opposition. Here, the North Koreans may be evil but they are not wrong: They keep their people enslaved and enervated by their poverty. Iran’s regime sees those images of people celebrating in the streets and it must wonder: What do those people want? And, whom will they follow to get it? The hope is not only that Iran will be prevented from covertly developing a bomb. The hope is that this deal with pave the way for changes in the nature of the regime. Some call that naïve but it is not uncommon in the annals of history. In either event, this is ultimately the bet Obama has placed: Will the change come before the regime gets an atomic bomb? 

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