Why a ‘Bad’ Deal With Iran Is Better Than No Deal at All

Look here, you hypocritical Republicans: There is no such thing as a "good" deal. But anything that slows Iran from getting the bomb is worth doing.

By , director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
A picture taken on August 20, 2010 shows
A picture taken on August 20, 2010 shows an Iranian flag fluttering at an undisclosed location in the Islamic republic next to a surface-to-surface Qiam-1 (Rising) missile which was test fired a day before Iran was due to launch its Russian-built first nuclear power plant. Iranian Defence Minister Ahmad Vahidi said the missile was entirely designed and built domestically and powered by liquid fuel. AFP PHOTO/VAHID REZA ALAEI (Photo credit should read VAHID REZA ALAEI/AFP/Getty Images)

Back in November, I warned that the decision to extend negotiations with Iran into March was a death sentence because the Republican-controlled Senate would move swiftly to impose additional sanctions on Iran.

Boy, was I wrong.

In my defense, it was hard to predict the complete goat-rodeo that Republicans would make of their efforts at international diplomacy.

Back in November, I warned that the decision to extend negotiations with Iran into March was a death sentence because the Republican-controlled Senate would move swiftly to impose additional sanctions on Iran.

Boy, was I wrong.

In my defense, it was hard to predict the complete goat-rodeo that Republicans would make of their efforts at international diplomacy.

What I did not know was that Israel’s national intelligence agency, the Mossad, had been telling members of Congress that more sanctions might be a bad idea. The briefings came to light after John Kerry announced that a senior Mossad official had told him another round of sanctions would be “like throwing a grenade into the process.”

Those briefings seemed enough to persuade Democrats to give President Barack Obama a bit more time. Even Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) came out against his own sanctions bill, at least for the time being. It also split Republicans along a question of fundamental strategy: Should they press for more sanctions or for a congressional opportunity to vote on any agreement?

And then things got silly.

House Speaker John Boehner invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress. There are any number of reasons to recoil at the invitation, from the manner in which it was coordinated with the White House (not at all) to the fact that it is election season in Israel (very much so: Elections are on March 17). Plenty of ink has been spilled on the Netanyahu speech, but the important fact is that the nakedly partisan nature of the invite had the effect of pushing Democrats like Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) back into the president’s camp. Again, Obama had bought a bit more time.

And now comes the letter. Oh, the glorious letter.

Led by newly minted U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), 47 Republican Senators signed a letter to the “Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” that explains the constitutional system of government in the United States, with the intended purpose of warning Iran that the Republican party will attempt to undo any agreement reached with President Obama. The ever-restrained New York Daily News headlined its story with “TRAITORS.”

When asked directly whether he was trying to sabotage a deal, Cotton avoided answering. But almost immediately, the opposition research dug up a talk to the Heritage Foundation in January, at which Cotton said, “The end of these negotiations isn’t an unintended consequence of congressional action. It is very much an intended consequence. A feature, not a bug, so speak.”

The letter is arguably a violation of the Logan Act, although the statute is never enforced. (That’s probably a good thing, actually.) Still, the letter managed to further solidify support for the president among congressional Democrats — something Obama seems incapable of doing unaided. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) called the letter “partisan and nutty.” More importantly, it deepened the split among Republicans. Seven Republicans declined to sign the letter, which by the standards of contemporary partisanship is pretty amazing.

So, where does this leave us?

There is an enormous amount of discussion about whether a deal is a good one or a bad one, a debate that arises from the suspicion that there is no agreement that would satisfy the president’s opponents or, comes the rejoinder, that Obama would reject. Indeed, CNN’s Jake Tapper repeatedly pressed Cotton to define a “good” deal that might win his support, to no avail.

The thing is, there is no “good” deal. Any deal will be a compromise that leaves in place many dangers to Israel, as well as Iran’s neighbors and the United States. The essential thing is to delay as long as possible an Iranian nuclear bomb. Almost any deal will buy more time than if talks were to collapse. If Iran and the United States agree, we can debate the details about whether Iran got too many centrifuges, too much sanctions relief, or isn’t subject to intrusive enough inspections. And whatever the Iranians get to do with the plutonium production reactor at Arak will be not wholly satisfying. But there is no good reason to believe that walking away from a deal now puts the United States in position to get a better one in a few years.

I am old enough to remember when, back in 2006, I argued that the United States should let Iran keep 164 centrifuges in standby mode during talks. Do you know what people said? “164 centrifuges? Are you mad? You are giving away the store to the Iranians!” Well, now Iran has more than 15,000 centrifuges (that we know about) in at least two sites.

One of the most frustrating things about following the past decade of negotiations is watching the West make one concession after another — but only after the Iranians had moved so far forward that the concession had no value. The people arguing now for a “better” deal at some later date are the same people who in 2006 said 164 centrifuges was way too many and, that if we just held out long enough, we’d haggle the Iranians down to zero. Look what that got us.

This is a fantasy, a unicorn, the futile pursuit of which ends with a half-assed airstrike against Iran, a region in flames, and eventually an Iranian nuclear weapon. And let’s be clear: If negotiations collapse, the United States will take the blame from Europe and the sanctions regime will unravel. And here’s the best-case scenario: Any military action against Iran will set its nuclear program back, at best, a couple of years. But the anger will last generations.

In 2000, the Republican candidates for president campaigned against the Clinton administration’s policies toward North Korea and its nuclear weapons program, especially the 1994 Agreed Framework that froze North Korea’s plutonium production infrastructure. In particular, Republicans argued — as they do today with Iran — that North Korea’s nuclear programs had to be completely dismantled, not merely frozen. Sen. John McCain accused the Clinton administration of “appeasement” then, as Sen. Cotton accuses the Obama administration of appeasement today. There were plenty of reasons to be worried about North Korea’s compliance, but the fundamental interest was the same as with Iran: Even an imperfect freeze on plutonium programs put the United States in a stronger, safer position to manage the problem. When intelligence emerged suggesting that North Korea’s enrichment program was more advanced than previously thought, the Bush administration walked away from the Agreed Framework, as well as its own policy of a “bold approach” to transform U.S.-DPRK relations. The deal was dead.

What happened next should temper the enthusiasm of anyone who wants to walk away from talks with Iran now. North Korea stockpiled plutonium and tested a nuclear weapon. In recent years, a nuclear-armed Pyongyang also engaged in a series of conventional provocations, like sinking South Korean ships and shelling islands. After a few years, and to his credit, Bush reversed course and tried to negotiate a new agreement. But the North Koreans had far more leverage at that point, and certainly weren’t about to agree to dismantle any nuclear facilities. Since “freeze” was still a dirty word, the State Department called the process “disablement” — which is a make-believe word for a make-believe world in which a Republican administration had not just negotiated the same deal (well, a little worse, actually) than the one they trashed.

I’ve come to think that Bush gets unfairly judged for his North Korea policies — I suspect Clinton or Gore would have responded to intelligence about the enrichment program in the same fashion as Bush did — but I can’t abide an entire political party pretending that it is opposed to the very things it did the last time it was in office.

So let me say this as clearly as I possibly can: A Republican administration, if given a chance, would negotiate exactly the same agreement that this administration is negotiating, with all its flaws and shortcomings. Republican partisans are convinced they are tougher than Democrats, just as Democratic partisans believe they are more respected in the world. Each party thinks it could get a better deal than the other. This is just Meet the Press nonsense. The outlines of any deal with Iran are largely determined by the relative power of the parties — how advanced Iran’s nuclear programs are, what U.S. military options look like, the vitality of the sanctions regime, etc. — not the personal qualities of the presidents we elect. You can believe that George W. Bush’s flinty gaze would have stared down Hassan Rouhani or that Ali Khamenei will understand that Barack Obama is a transformational figure of historic importance. You can believe those things, but you’d be an idiot.

A deal on Iran’s nuclear program won’t resolve all the issues that trouble our relationship with Tehran. Iran is still going to engage in all kinds of regional aggression that threatens our allies and our interests. It will still treat its citizens terribly. But it might not have a bomb — at least, not for the moment.


Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

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