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We Got to Yes. Now It’s Time for a Reality Check.
It's never too soon to dish out some harsh truths about a game-changing diplomatic milestone.
Unsurprisingly, President Barack Obama’s administration is excited about the nuclear agreement with Iran. Having spent years in negotiations, I know how hard it is to get anything done — I mean anything, let alone an agreement this complex, with so many moving parts. So in the interests of a reality check, let me offer some politically incorrect observations and inconvenient truths of what two years of negotiations hath wrought.
First, whether you like it or not, this agreement is a big deal. For almost 40 years, Washington based its Iran policy on containment and confrontation. But from now on, the default position will be cooperation. This doesn’t mean the beginning of some Golden Age in U.S.-Iran relations. But the efforts to keep this accord alive will create new patterns of behavior, new efforts to thaw other iceberg issues, and an inclination to test whether Tehran is ready to cooperate on regional matters. The Obama administration will have little choice but to play this game. After all, this is Obama’s signature Middle East success. And he will go to great lengths to protect it. The president was never interested in regime change. What he wants is to change regime behavior.
Indeed, the Obama administration will be hard-pressed to sustain an agreement on the nuclear issue if the mullahs continue to sponsor terrorism and pour new money into propping up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Still, old habits die hard. In the interests of this accord, during the negotiations we’ve acquiesced to Iran’s egregious behavior at home and abroad, and I suspect we will continue to do so during implementation. The administration’s overriding logic is that this deal is too big and important to fail. And such a deal requires a certain amount of mullah-coddling.
Don’t rule out the possibility of a senior U.S. official traveling to Tehran before January 2017. But don’t expect diplomatic ties between Washington and Tehran to be restored anytime soon, either.
Second, this agreement is neither the catastrophe its detractors fear nor the historic breakthrough its cheerleaders claim. The old saw that “if there was a real problem, it wouldn’t have a solution” applies here. There is no agreement — comprehensive or otherwise — that will end Iran’s nuclear weapons program or produce a satisfying, secure end state. This accord, arguably the least-worst of a series of bad options, is a mere transaction, a narrowly focused business deal designed to defuse a short-term problem — Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions — with some long-term and likely unrealistic hopes for how it may change the Iranian regime thrown in for good measure. It’s not a transformation that will make Tehran more compliant or willing to respect international norms, or accommodate U.S. interests.
Third, the United States will accomplish what it wanted or at least get what it settled for: a slower, smaller, more easily monitored and verifiable Iranian nuclear program for at least a decade. Iran, likewise, will get what it sought: sanctions relief. There will be no preemptive Israeli military strike, and no need for U.S. military action. The president’s view that keeping Iran from the bomb is a goal worth pursuing in its own right, whether or not Iran changes its policies in the region, is certainly the right one. And it’s just as well because there’s little chance of any imminent improvement in Iran’s respect for human rights or its support for bad actors like Assad, Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite militias, and Hamas. Indeed, Iranian views of the region, despite some confluence of goals on stopping the Islamic State, are inimical to U.S. aims. Trying to square this circle will become the bane of the Obama administration’s Iran policy now that the nuclear deal is done.
Fourth, we’re paying a high price for an arms control agreement. Don’t forget that this isn’t a disarmament agreement. It won’t prevent Iran from enriching uranium or from becoming a nuclear weapons threshold state. Nor, despite all its safeguard provisions, will it stop Iran from weaponizing should it choose to do so. Indeed, even 15 years from now, Iran will still possess an industrial-size nuclear infrastructure, and by the president’s own admission, the capacity to “break out” potentially at will. Let’s be clear: We’ve created a mechanism to constrain Iran’s nuclear weapons pretensions — not eliminate them.
And in exchange for these limitations, we’re giving up a lot more to the mullahs than they’re giving to us: Billions in sanctions relief. Legitimacy to a repressive regime. The alienation of key allies in the region. A boost to Iran’s own expansionist designs in the Middle East. That there’s no relation between this nuclear accord and curtailing Iran’s egregious behavior both at home and abroad implicitly legitimizes a nasty regime’s attitudes and actions toward the United States.
Finally, as negotiations go, we got the short end of the proverbial stick. A good many sensible Republicans and more than few Democrats understand that. Still, one way or another — either because Congress really doesn’t want the responsibility for killing the deal, or via a sustainable presidential veto, this accord will move to the implementation stage.
But we need to be clear about what we’re getting. In exchange for a nuclear weapon the Iranians don’t yet possess and may never develop, they get billions of dollars in sanctions relief; an “open-for-business” sign that’s worth even more; the pleasure of sticking it to Israel and Saudi Arabia; an administration in Washington so eager to get and preserve the deal that it shies away from confronting Iran’s regional ambitions; and the capacity to weaponize should they so choose. Iran isn’t 10 feet tall and has a bunch of regional allies that are pretty weak tea. But when it comes to the art of the deal, we’re not playing in Tehran’s league. On this one, we played linear checkers, and the mullahs played three-dimensional chess. I hope I’m wrong! But I worry that the future course of Iran’s role in the region will make that painfully clear.
Photo credit: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP