Reaction to the Iran deal

I have been amused by the reactions to the deal arrived at between the P5+1 nations and Iran. Even before the full text of the final deal was released, some people had denounced it, invoking as usual the tired example of Neville Chamberlain at Munich. When reporters have interviewed these critics about it, you may have noticed that they never ask the question “Exactly what sections in the text of the deal are you objecting to and why?”. This is because it is understood that neither the politician nor the reporter have likely read the agreement at all or if they have, they merely skimmed through the document and have not fully understood it.

While the lack of full understanding is understandable, pretending that you do is inexcusable. After all, this deal took almost two years of hard negotiating on very technical issues. It involved seven nations, all with their own agendas and you can be sure that there was careful parsing of the text for all kinds of nuances and quibbling over specific words. It would be absurd to think that a politician or their staffer or anyone not intimately involved in such things could quickly come up with any kind of reasoned opinion at short notice. Instead we have the usual kabuki theater of everyone playing a designated role, with Republicans and Israeli leaders following the script where they claim outrage over the agreement.

I have not read the agreement and even if I get around to it will likely not fully understand it. It will be too technical for me to digest easily and I really do not have the competence to judge the details, and in such agreements it is the details that are important. I am, however, glad that some kind of deal has been reached because negotiated deals, provided that they are not arrived at under very coercive conditions, usually give something to each side even if they do not get all that they want. So there will undoubtedly be things that neither side likes but that is the price you pay for any deal.

There was no doubt some coercion in this deal. The US and western powers have used their stranglehold on the international finance system and trade organizations and other bodies to impose a harsh embargo on Iran that the latter wants to get out from under, so it was not a deal between total equals. But Iran is not as weak as (say) Greece was in its dealings with the troika. Greece really had almost no leverage and thus that deal seems really suspect. Iran, while also in the inferior negotiating position, is a stronger nation and could have walked away from a really bad deal in a way that Greece could not. So one has to assume that this is a deal that Iran can live with and thus one that can be supported.

As for the details of the deal, I tend to listen to those who are more technical than political in their thinking and whose expertise is in these areas and so far the reaction seems to be good. Max Fisher interviewed Jeffrey Lewis who was initially a skeptic but has been won over.

Jeffrey Lewis was so eager to read the Iran nuclear deal that he woke up at 3:30 am California time to pore through all 150-plus pages of the text. Lewis is a nukes super nerd: He’s the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and also runs an excellent arms control blog network and arms control podcast and has a regular arms control column in Foreign Policy. He is the person to talk to on this.

When Lewis and I first spoke, in early 2015, he was skeptical, as a lot of arms control analysts were. He was skeptical that the US, world powers, and Iran would ever reach a nuclear deal. And he was skeptical that if they did reach a deal, it would be good enough. But when the negotiators released the “framework” in April, describing the broad strokes, Lewis came away impressed and happily surprised — but with some caveats and some unanswered questions.

I called up Lewis to see what he thought of the final deal. His assessment was very positive: Asked to grade the deal, he said, “I would give it an A.”

Some critics of the deal have pointed to the fact that it does not allow immediate on-demand inspections of all of Iran and say that this means that Iran can secretly pursue a nuclear weapons program. This is based on the premise that Iranians are inherently deceitful and cannot be trusted to carry out their promises, ignoring the fact that it is the US that has a terrible record of lying in its international dealings and has proven itself to be untrustworthy. But Jon Schwarz says that such a demand would have been totally unreasonable and a nonstarter from the get-go anyway.

For people unfamiliar with the history of arms control generally and in the Middle East in particular, this might seem like a bad deal. If Iran doesn’t have anything to hide, why wouldn’t it allow the IAEA to go anywhere at anytime?

The answer is twofold:

First, all countries have things they legitimately want to hide, such as conventional military secrets and the security procedures of their leaders.

Second, during the 1990s the U.S. demonstrated with Iraq that it would routinely abuse the weapons inspections process in order to uncover such legitimate secrets — and use them to target the Iraqi military and try to overthrow the Iraqi government.

And if you hope Iran may simply be unaware of our use of arms control as cover for spying, think again: an Iranian spy in Baghdad at the time actually discovered what we were doing before even the UK, our closest ally. (Wonderfully enough, the UK only found out when it intercepted the Iranian spy’s message back to Tehran.)

So while Iran’s recalcitrance may make the U.S. and Israel unhappy, it’s largely the fruit of our own poisoned tree. They will never accept the conditions we imposed on Iraq, and any neutral observer would agree they’d be fools to do so.

So if this deal seems reasonable, why the angry denunciations? One reason is as I said earlier that for the Republicans and Israelis, any deal with Iran was going to be opposed on principle whatever the details. But as Richard Lachmann, Michael Schwartz, and Kevin Young point out, the real reason is that these opponents do not want to leave open even the glimmer of a chance that Iran could develop a nuclear weapon in the future because their goal is to create a client state forever cowering under the threat of a military attack by the US and/or Israel.

But it is this same logic of nuclear deterrence that explains why the United States and Israel have been so determined to prevent Iran from obtaining the capability to build a bomb. Stated simply: while a nuclear weapon is not a useful offensive weapon, it is a formidable defensive weapon.

Given the long history of threats—and covert attacks and assassinations—from the United States and Israel, MAD might be the only effective deterrent against a full-on invasion. CIA veteran Bruce Riedel expressed this logic with sarcasm in 2012: “If I was an Iranian national security planner, I would want nuclear weapons….Those who don’t [often] get invaded by the United States of America.”

And so we arrive at the real reason why U.S. and Israeli governments are so desperate to prevent Iran from getting anywhere near a nuclear weapon: A nuclear Iran would make a foreign invasion of Iran all but impossible.

Maintaining the U.S.-Israeli regional monopoly on nuclear weapons has been a central policy goal at least since the 1979 Islamic revolution turned Iran from a compliant ally of both the U.S. and Israel into a center of independent power in the Middle East.

So all in all, I am pleased that a deal has been arrived at that most informed observers, other than the total crazies, seem to think is viable and will likely reduce tensions.


  1. gshelley says

    There seems to be some genuine suggestion that if Iran does not stick to the deal, it may be much harder to put the sanctions back -- if one of the security council doesn’t agree, they can veto it
    I haven’t seen any that have considered what the current situation is -- if the UN wanted to remove the sanctions, is this something that can be vetoed, or can it be done with just a majority for instance.
    Even with this possible objection, they are still comparing it to the ideal of what they/Israel would want, not to what the alternative would be

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    … during the 1990s the U.S. demonstrated with Iraq that it would routinely abuse the weapons inspections process in order to uncover such legitimate secrets — and use them to target the Iraqi military and try to overthrow the Iraqi government.

    If -- if if IF -- the major US media mention this, I predict it will show up in the 27th paragraph (or equivalent), immediately “balanced” with quotations from some “expert” purportedly contradicting it by throwing verbal poop at the Iranians. Clinton’s name (which Lewis implies by stating the time period) will go unmentioned.

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