Losing the Forest of Iran Policy for the Trees of a Nuclear Deal
There has been much recent discussion about Mike Doran’s recent voluminous piece in Mosaic in which he argues that President Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East – his approach to Syria, ISIS, Israel, Iraq, Sunni allies, etc. – can be explained through the prism of a desired rapprochement with Iran and a goal of building a new regional order in which Iran plays an integral role. According to Doran, Obama sees the U.S. and Iran as natural allies and believes that blame for enmity between the two countries rests with the U.S., and thus the president’s strategy has been to accommodate rather than confront Iran in the hopes that a nuclear deal will lead to a larger grand bargain.
In other words, the nuclear deal itself is a means rather than an end, which makes the particulars of any negotiated deal less important to the White House than the fact that a deal gets done in some form or another, as a deal on Iran’s nuclear program is the only pathway to a new Middle East in which the U.S. and Iran cooperate on a set of shared interests. Doran has written in detail on how American inaction in Syria and bad relations between Obama and Bibi Netanyahu were impacted by this overarching goal, and he also spends a lot of time building a case that the U.S. has made permanent concessions to Iran in return for short term and easily reversible Iranian restraint. The result, according to Doran, is that the U.S. has given Iran all of the leverage and guaranteed that any emerging nuclear deal will be a disaster. I have quibbles with some of the details and sub-arguments (more on this below), but I find the overarching thesis convincing: that the White House’s ultimate goal is to turn Iran into an ally based on the view that the U.S. and Iran are natural partners with a set of common interests.
Building off Doran’s piece and off a Washington Post editorial that takes Obama to task over the nuclear negotiations, Walter Russell Mead lays out a list of problems with a nuclear deal that he sees the White House needing to address in order to gain real support for its Iran policy.
These include enhancing Iranian power in the Middle East at the expense of a regional balance, assuming that a more powerful Iran will be less hostile to the U.S., linking more engagement with Iran to eventual regime liberalization and transition, and selling out a set of current allies without any guarantee of an adequate replacement.
Even more so than Doran’s, Mead’s piece resonates because he is focused on the end game and on challenging the assumptions underlying the Obama administration’s view of a post-deal world. I agree with Doran that the administration’s strategy on nuclear negotiations is animated by wanting a grand bargain rather than wanting to deal with Iran’s nuclear program qua nuclear program, but I part ways with him when he focuses his ire on the nuclear deal itself. Not only am I not convinced that a nuclear deal is inherently a bad thing, I think that focusing on the nuclear aspect of Iran policy is a bad tactic. Those worried about Iranian intentions and Iranian power as a force of destabilization in the Middle East – and you can firmly include me in that camp – should assume that a deal is going to happen and should start thinking now about how to then contain a nuclear Iran in every way possible instead of wasting time trying to prevent what may be a fait accompli.
Why do I think that a nuclear deal is itself not a disaster? I’ll stipulate up front that I have no expertise in the science component of this or in knowing precisely how much enriched uranium constitutes a significant quantity, a.k.a. the point of no return in terms of preventing a usable bomb. But friends and colleagues who are experts on these issues claim that the fighting about number of centrifuges is a red herring because the real issue is the 20% enrichment level, and nobody disputes that the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action successfully diluted the enriched uranium, which is what lengthens the breakout time. The ten thousand centrifuges that Iran already has are IR-1 centrifuges, but those are not the efficient ones that will allow a quick nuclear breakout, and the more efficient IR-8 centrifuges are the ones that the JPOA addressed. So any deal that preserves this status quo, meaning continued dilution of 20% enriched uranium and a cap on IR-8 centrifuges, makes a breakout period long enough to be easily detectable in time to verify it and take required action, military or otherwise.
Let’s assume for a moment though that this is wrong, and that somehow the Iranians will figure out a way to use the old centrifuges with greater efficiency and increase their stock of 20% enriched uranium. Let’s further – and much more concretely – assume that Iran is going to do everything it can to game the system and violate nuclear agreements, since all evidence suggests that it has tried to do so with degrees of success for years (see Fordow for the most prominent example). Let’s also assume that Iran sees a nuclear deal as nothing more than a way to lift sanctions and has no intention of genuinely freezing its nuclear program.
Even in this situation – and to be clear, I am not playing devil’s advocate on these last two assumptions; I presume that this is precisely what will occur – isn’t a deal that creates an inspections regime the best way of preventing Iran’s attempts at cheating from being successful? If Iran wants a nuclear bomb, I’d much rather have as many roadblocks in place as possible than having no roadblocks at all. If a deal is not reached next month and further sanctions are slapped on Iran, that’s all fine and good, but sanctions alone are not going to stop a determined wannabe nuclear state from achieving that status. The most punishing sanctions conceivable will make it harder, but will not foreclose the eventual result. North Korea has no economy to speak of and is as isolated from the rest of the world as if the country exists in a different galaxy, and somehow it managed the trick. Put more simply, option one is to allow Iran to resume its nuclear program in a hellbent manner and with no inspections or safeguards in place, and option two is to put inspections and safeguards in place to try and frustrate Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Isn’t the logical choice here option two, even if it is a less than perfect solution? Isn’t something in this case much better than nothing if the actual ambition is to stop an Iranian bomb (as opposed to regime change)?
The argument against a deal at this point rests on the implicit assumption that military action will be used to stop Iran’s nuclear program (and perhaps overthrow the regime), and I don’t see that happening. It’s pretty clear to me that the Obama administration won’t do it, and anything short of an Iraq War-style ground invasion (as opposed to some targeted strikes against nuclear facilities) would be a band-aid solution anyway, whether such a limited strike is carried out by the U.S. or Israel. Regular inspections and continued dilution of 20% uranium are the only possible ways of preventing a nuclear Iran given current realities, so why not just strike a deal and watch Iran like a hawk for the next few decades? I agree that the administration has been too sanguine about Iran and its nuclear ambitions, but arguing about what could have been done better in the past is pointless. If your absolute and most pressing goal is to prevent Iran from going nuclear, and you recognize that a long and sustained military campaign is just not in the cards even if you think such a move would be wise (and I don’t), then the best way of doing so is a deal that puts intrusive inspections and limits in place, as it provides the highest chance of detecting Iran’s attempts at a surreptitious breakout.
The real action right now should not be on preventing a deal, but on preventing a larger policy of trying to turn Iran into a partner and ally. To call such a policy foolhardy would be charitable, as the regime’s very legitimacy is derived from its demonization of the West generally and the U.S. in particular. I wrote about this in September so there’s no need to extensively harp on it again now, but the Iranian regime cannot and will not risk its own domestic standing by significantly decreasing its public hostility to the U.S. To do so would put its entire rule in danger, as ideological states that allow their central governing political ideology to be delegitimized end up dealing a fatal blow to their own legitimacy and ultimately to their own survival by making themselves vulnerable to challenges from the opposition. The Iranian state’s rule and political institutions are structured around a revolutionary ideology that assumes opposition to the U.S. and the West as a raison d’être and thus betraying the revolution in such a blatant manner as openly reconciling, let alone partnering, with the U.S. is not a realistic or even rational move for the Supreme Leader and his cadre. In Iran’s case, this is magnified by the fact that the first generation of ideological and revolutionary true believers are still around, and to the extent that ideological states become post-ideological, it only happens once the originators of the ideology are off the scene, as they can be expected to have a deeper and more personal connection to the ideology than successive generations of leaders who have had the ideology instilled in them but were not present at the creation.
Hoping for a change in regime and a more friendly government to come to power and embrace the U.S. is barely more likely than the current regime changing its tune. As the past four years in the Middle East have demonstrated, revolutions frequently do not lead to regime change, and in the event that they do, there should not be any reasonable expectation of a liberal or pro-American government coming to power, no matter how educated/wealthy/enlightened/secular/fill-in-your-favorite-adjective the population is. Nobody likes to remember this, but the leaders of the Green Movement in 2009 were not opposed to Iran’s nuclear program, and in fact embraced it.
Assuming that engagement with Iran will quickly lead to greater liberalization, political pressure from the masses, splits among ruling elites, and eventually a transition to democratic government is destined to end with dashed hopes. Political change in this manner is glacial in its pace, and the link between economic liberalization and political liberalization is dubious. Look at China for the best datapoint, which has economically liberalized relatively rapidly in the scheme of things (and by relatively rapidly, I mean over 20 or 30 years), but has moved far more slowly on political liberalization. The point here is that anyone assuming a grand bargain with Iran leading to cooperation on a variety of fronts and a new regional order anchored by a pro-American Iranian government is taking so many leaps of faith that are contradicted by theory and evidence as to make a serious argument in its favor crumble on sight.
For as much as Obama’s critics like to paint him as a slave to reflexive liberal ideology, when it comes to foreign policy the White House focuses on interests rather than ideology to the exclusion of all other factors. Obama behaves like an ideal type of a theoretical realist, and in nearly every situation assumes that states act according to their pure rational utility maximizing interests. It has led to a miscalculation of Russian behavior, and it is leading to what will be an even costlier miscalculation of Iranian behavior. What should be happening now is preparation for a full court press to see Iran completely bottled up in the aftermath of a nuclear deal, and a plan for reassuring our allies in the region – assuming that we still want to have any – with explicit security guarantees and large public demonstrations of military cooperation. A nuclear deal is only a bad thing if it means ceding the region to Iran in the aftermath of an agreement, and that does not have to happen. Separating out the nuclear deal from Iran policy writ large is difficult as the two are obviously connected, but it’s not impossible. To paraphrase Leon Wieseltier on a different topic, we should be working toward a deal as if there is no larger reason to contain and hinder Iran, and containing and hindering Iran as if there is no nuclear deal.
This article was originally posted in Ottomans and Zionists.