Obama Administration Is Right: Interim Iran Deal Only Matters in Terms of What Comes Next

Obama Administration Is Right: Interim Iran Deal Only Matters in Terms of What Comes Next

Defenders and critics of the interim deal with Iran on nuclear issues apparently agree on one thing: What is most important about this deal is what will come next.

To their credit, officials within Barack Obama’s administration have been more careful than some outside boosters in emphasizing how limited this deal is. It does not stop Iran from making progress toward building a nuclear weapon. It does not even irreversibly slow Iran’s progress. At best, it slows that progress slightly and, more consequentially, introduces more intrusive inspections that offer the hope of detecting violations sooner.

The most important result of the interim deal is the establishment of a short six-month timeline for securing the ultimate long-term deal. In the next six months we will discover whether the critics are right that the Obama administration made too many concessions on the pressure front — alleviating the pressure that had helped propel the diplomacy thus far and thus eroding our bargaining leverage too much. If the defenders of the deal are right, then Iran will negotiate in good faith and, if not, the West will have the wherewithal to re-ratchet up the economic pressure.

This will likely prove harder than the boosters admit. The Achilles’ heel of most multilateral sanctions regimes is that it’s usually easier to pressure too little than it is to pressure too much. Once sanctions are relaxed a little bit, it is even harder to reimpose them. And if sanctions are linked directly to ongoing diplomatic negotiations, this problem is multiplied many-fold. It is always easier to block or delay new sanctions even if they are warranted on the grounds that imposing them would kill off what little diplomatic momentum remains in the negotiations. (Remember: President Obama vigorously opposed the sanctions he now claims were decisive in bringing Iran to this point — it was congressional hawks who forced the pace, not the administration.) Even if some states are willing to run that risk, it is hard to reach consensus across a large and diverse coalition. That is why hawks were so eager to keep the maximum sanctions in place at the outset of the direct negotiations and why they worry that the relaxation in sanctions already promised to Iran will be a one-way door to ever-decreasing economic pressure.

(Doves had a compelling answer to this concern, but one that raised other worries: Doves pointed out that if the United States did not reach this interim deal, then the global support for sanctions would erode markedly and so sanctions would be eased regardless. This may well have been true, but it raises doubts about the ability to reimpose sanctions if Iran cheats in clever ways. If the international coalition is so fraught, is it likely to support renewed sanctions if circumstances warrant?)

Yet there is one more less-heralded way that this interim deal is but a precursor to the more decisive showdown: It was the necessary antecedent to the military option.

Although Obama has been adamant that "all options are on the table," in fact the credibility of military options has been receding dramatically in recent years. The dramatic growth in Iran’s nuclear program means that there is a more sizable nuclear footprint that would need to be destroyed to have high confidence that a military strike had "succeeded." Moreover, for the past five years, the Obama administration has signaled in myriad ways that it is reluctant in the extreme to resort to military force on Iran — and, for that matter, the Bush administration signaled a similar reluctance in the last five years of its tenure.

In other words, Obama made it clear that he considered the military option to be so undesirable that he would only consider it if all other alternatives that offered any prospect of preventing Iran from developing a weapons capability had been exhausted. The only way to convince Obama — as well as the domestic and international allies that Obama would need in order to support a military option — that all other alternatives had been exhausted was to pursue the apparent opening offered by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s charm offensive. Put another way, the necessary first steps either toward a diplomatic deal or toward a military confrontation were one and the same: securing an interim agreement that put Rouhani to the test.

Only if Rouhani failed that test would other options be politically viable.

Even that may not be enough. People much closer to Obama than I am have told me they think Obama might opt to learn to live with a nuclear Iran in the same way that the world learned to live with a nuclear China and a nuclear Pakistan rather than launch a military strike.

We will discover whether this is the case soon enough, just as we will discover whether Israel can live with this interim deal. Either way, what matters most is not what happened this past weekend but what transpires from here on out.