The deal reached between Iran, the United States, and other powers, not all of them allies, had already been engulfed in controversy before it was reached. Some, like Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu and certain conservative U.S. members of Congress, had been denouncing the deal for weeks. On the other hand, members of the Obama administration were not only quick to praise deal but offered an interpretation of its provisions that was somewhat at odds with the interpretation being offered by Iranian officials.
The most important thing to know about the deal is that it is not yet finished. It is like judging a half finished work of art: It looks fine, so far, but the artist could yet wreck the thing. Many of the details – and we know who abides in the details – remain to be worked out.
Still, the deal was more explicit in many regards than some had anticipated. The Iranians will be allowed fewer centrifuges than expected and, more importantly, these are all of the older variety, less able to make weapons grade material. But, the deal also permits them to continue research on centrifuges which could prove frighteningly useful in the future. Most importantly, the International Atomic Energy Agency will have access to key Iranian nuclear sites. Everything we know about the IAEA should comfort those who are worried: They do their job and do it very well. Oftentimes, international organizations fail to live up to their promise, but the IAEA is one of the great success stories of world politics.
There is also some debate about when and how the sanctions against Iran will be lifted. This is important: Once sanctions are lifted, they will be harder and harder to get them back in place. In six months, or six years, Russia may think it has bigger fish to fry than re-imposing sanctions. And, it was the sanctions that brought the Iranians to the table, not any goodness in their hearts. There is little in the way of goodness in the heart of this regime. But, states do not negotiate only with good guys. One makes peace with an enemy.
The deal comes at a time when the geo-strategic situation in the Gulf and Mideast could scarcely be more complicated. Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states, with some kind of covert help from the U.S., are trying to stop Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen. But, in the battle to retake Tikrit from ISIS, the U.S. and the Iraqi government it armed could not have achieved victory without help from the Iranian backed militias. And, Iran continues to help Hezbollah and other terrorists, keeping the region almost perpetually unstable. For all the sins of the Saudis, and they are many, at least they are committed to stability. We wish they were committed to human rights, or even to the ethical standards of the 19th century, but in that part of the world, we will take stability. Yes, long term stability will require regimes like the one in Saudi Arabia to eventually modernize, but there are enough short term issues facing us in the Mideast and Gulf regions that we are advised to place the long term issues at the feet of the gods.
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One sideshow that we could do without will be the verbal abuse thrown at the Israeli government in the coming weeks. Netanyahu’s expectations for what was achievable in these negotiations were unrealistic and his fierce language is as much about domestic politics as international relations. Still, anyone who looks at the Mideast today and thinks that Israel is the problem needs to have their head examined. I am not thrilled with some of the policies of Likud-dominated governments, but they are not beheading Christians.
Let us stipulate that the deal reached with Iran regarding its nuclear program is not ideal. The real burden on those who oppose this deal, however, is to propose an alternative. And there is none. Iran is a sovereign nation and can start a nuclear program if it wishes. The mullahs are not likely to be constrained by international laws against proliferation. Sometimes, a bad deal is worse than no deal. But this is not one of those times. And, as far as we can tell, at this point, we got more from these negotiations than seemed likely even a few weeks ago. There are details that remain to be ironed out. There will be a need for vigilance for many years. And, we can hope that the rising generation of Iranians will bring about change in their countries governance. This deal is not a panacea but it seems like a good deal. Those who say it is either a great deal or a dreadful deal are probably more focused on issues and narratives other than the negotiations themselves.
Note to readers: I am in Boston all day for Boston College’s conference “Why Libertarianism Isn’t Liberal,” so no links posted today.