Negotiating with Iran is Better than War

Diplomatic deterrence has a more impressive track record.


For some neoconservative pundits and GOP hardliners, it's always 1938.

The provisional agreement with Iran concluded last week — freezing uranium enrichment above 5 percent, committing the Islamic state to neutralizing its stockpile of 20 percent uranium, and allowing weapons inspectors ready access to suspect sites (in exchange for unfreezing some $6 billion in Iranian assets)—is merely the latest to provoke cries of "Munich!" and "appeasement!"

But there aren't a lot of great choices when it comes to preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. The Washington Post's Max Fisher runs through the unappealing menu of "four bad options": Bomb Iran, invade it, take covert action to topple the regime, or continue the status quo in the hopes that Iran will finally cry "uncle." There's "one okay option": Try to negotiate a deal. These choices essentially reduce to two: war or diplomacy.

Even Winston Churchill, Munich's fiercest critic and nobody's dove, recognized in 1954 that sometimes "jaw-jaw" -- even with the Soviets -- was "better than war-war." So too here.

Of course, the repugnant nature of the Iranian regime suggests a stronger version of Reagan's maxim for negotiating with the USSR: Don't trust -- verify.

The interim agreement provides means for doing just that. It allows weapons inspectors daily access to Iran's key nuclear sites and monitoring of centrifuge production facilities and uranium mines. It's hard to see how that enhanced scrutiny increases the chance of a nuclear "breakout" for the six-month period it will be in effect.

We could, of course, continue as before, hoping they'll just give up. But the preemptive "cessation of nuclear enrichment by Iran," even for civilian purposes, was always a nonstarter. Besides, as Jeffrey Lewis observes in Foreign Policy, there's no guarantee that the international will for restrictions will continue: "Sanctions have always been a wasting asset. It makes sense to get something for them now."

It's very much worth trying to prevent Iran from going nuclear, but not because of the fanciful scenarios some hawks advance, like a suicidal first strike on Israel or "a nuclear suitcase" in New York.

Nuclear deterrence has an impressive track record: It's worked even for demonstrably genocidal dictators like the nuclear-armed Mao and Stalin, and for extremist Islamist regimes like Pakistan. There's a reason Iran has never given chemical weapons to its terrorist clients Hamas or Hezbollah—the threat of massive retaliation by Israel, which has some 80 nuclear warheads deliverable by F-16s, ballistic missiles and submarines. The same logic of deterrence would apply to a nuclear Iran.

Like it or not, there is no plausible military option that could stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons if it's hell-bent on doing so. (For whatever it's worth, the U.S. intelligence community consensus is that the regime has not yet made that decision.).

We're not going to invade and occupy a country with more than twice the population of Iraq; and airstrikes would only delay a nuclear breakout, while empowering hardliners who want the bomb. "You can't destroy knowledge and you can't destroy the basic technology," says defense analyst Jeffrey White. Air raids would set a weapons program back "maybe two years, maybe three years." At what cost? Likely a wider war in the Middle East with Iranian attempts to close the Straits of Hormuz and terrorist strikes on the U.S. homefront.

Trying to broker a deal with a reprehensible regime isn't ideal. But, as CIA operative Tony Mendez described his unlikely hostage-rescue plan in last year's Oscar-winner "Argo": "There are only bad options. It's about finding the best one."

War is the worst bad idea we've got--by far. Thankfully, it just became a little less likely.

This column originally appeared in the Washington Examiner.

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  1. It's also the best option because the last presidential election seems to have gone smoothly, so while the regime might not quite have the consent of the governed, by our standards, citizens are living with it, and any amount of aggression against it would remind reformers that they are Iranians first.

    1. "Aggression" is not the only alternative to "negotiating."

      1. Well there is ignoring but pretty much all courses of action boil down to one of those 3

        1. Ignoring would be my choice

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  2. I'm not clear on why preventing Iran from having nuclear weapons is worth impoverishing its people over.

    1. Sounds like someone wants to see our enemies win:. Hugh "Secret Muslim" Akston.


        1. My God, it was staring us in the face the whole time!

  3. "You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war." Winston Churchill

    1. "I'm a bloodthirsty asshole who had some good quips."
      Winston Churchill

  4. Its all pretty academic at this point. The Iranians are going to get nuclear weapons, and the international community will do nothing real to stop it from happening.

    The real unknown is, what happens next? Who else in the ME tools up with nukes? Do they use them on each other? What about the second-order effects of eliminating non-proliferation as a thing that anyone is willing to do anything about?

    I don't see any way this is a positive development. What we will learn is whether the world is a whole shitload worse off, on only a little worse off.

    1. If it was me....I would say to Iran: Go ahead, produce your little nuke...just be warned that if one goes off and we find that it is tied to you...then we will make your country the biggest parking lot in the world.

      But thats just me.

      1. Go ahead, produce your little nuke...just be warned that if one goes off and we find that it is tied to you...then we will make your country the biggest parking lot in the world.

        I would not be surprised if the same envoy that informed Pakistan of the new geopolitical facts of life as a nuclear power, also is getting ready to give the Rev. Councils in Iran the same sort of speech, like you describe.

        Given that it is possible to determine the origin of special nuclear material used in a device, provided reference samples are available, with a possible nuclear arms race in the MidEast, I would be sweating if I were the Russians. Are they really sure they know where every scrap they ever produced of HEU, Pu-239, and every other isotope that helps things go Boom!, ended up? Maybe there was another cache like Project Sapphire's that we haven't heard about? What is the U.S. going to do if that apartment in Anacostia goes bang, NEST comes in, and determines the HEU came from Chelyabinsk-70? Make it even hazier: have the bomb go off in Riyadh or Tel Aviv. Are we still going to retaliate, and if so, against whom?

      2. Of course, this all depends on how much they believe just such a threat. The Taliban didn't believe that harboring al Qaeda and shouting DEATH TO USA at every opportunity would get them invaded.

        And you know, I am not really certain that the US *would* react the way you describe. If some bomb cooks off in a major city, it will take a week or more before the US Government is comfortable blaming Iran.

        Does anyone think that one week later, the US would then nuke Tehran? It wouldn't be cut and dry. 'Experts' would come out of the woodwork to explain why our proof isn't accurate. And of course Iran would have some story about how those materials were stolen or whatever. And then people would be asking why a bunch of Iranian subjects have to die to 'punish' a bunch of dictators who would likely be safe in a bunker anyway.

        I can see many of those arguments coming from THIS SITE, let alone whatever opposition party is around at the time.

        No, I think it is at least a dicey enough proposition that Iranian leaders could convince themselves that they could nuke us without MAD retaliation.

        1. The US will never again use nuclear weapons.

          Even if another country nukes us, it will all just be a lot of hand-wringing, how we deserved it, blah blah blah.

      3. "If it was me....I would say to Iran..."

        And Iran would say the same thing to you. That's how deterrence works - the nuclear power has to be seen to be willing to use them. If not, it doesn't work.

    2. Saudi Arabia could easily afford it, and they have big issues with Iran (and vice versa). So, more nuclear states in the Middle East. What could possibly go wrong?

    3. Saudi Arabia

      I'm surprised they don't already have at least one or two.

      They can't possibly build them but Pakistan has been a reliable provider for others.

  5. I came across Hanity on the radio during my drive back home on Sunday and he was going apoplectic over this. According to him, the sanctions were working (he didn't cite any evidence for this), so we should have tightened the noose while sticking to our demands. I actually agreed with his first assertion: the sanctions were and are working, but unlike him, I can point to Iran's willingness to make some concessions in exchange for a moderate easing of sanctions as evidence. That bit of evidence, though, wouldn't have got his war boner up. I would hate to be a puppy that he was trying to train.

    1. the sanctions were working (he didn't cite any evidence for this)

      Okay I will: foreign reserves were evaporating.

      Iran's willingness to make some concessions

      What concessions? The deal lets them do what they want.

    2. " According to him, the sanctions were working (he didn't cite any evidence for this),"

      "I actually agreed with his first assertion: the sanctions were and are working"

      Yet you don't cite any evidence either.

      The evidence lies in their actions. They were willing to come to the negotiating table so that means the sanctions were working.

      It's not their fault they got every thing they wanted in the negotiations.

  6. This rather depends on what one means by "War" and "Diplomacy". If "Diplomacy" means, as it has tended to for decades, "Giving the other side everything they ask for in exchange for vague promises to do something noise for us at some unspecified time in the future", then "Diplomacy" is very expensive. On the other hand if "War" means, as it has come to, "trashing the country and then rebuilding it without exercising any real control", then it is ruinously expensive too.

    "Diplomacy" should mean pointing out how very unpleasant annoying us could be, and "War" should be a demonstration of same. At this juncture, we need to use "War" (in this sense) on several successive occasions before people are going to take our Diplomacy seriously.

    On the other hand, a world in which Iran has Nuclear weapons might have its good side. They are absolutely stupid enough to use them, and such use might just demystify them a tad. Nuclear bombs are not the end of everything. They won't awaken Godzilla. Hiroshima has a population of over a million, and a population density of over 3,000 per square mile.

    Iran would use nuclear weapons once. Then it would cease to exist.

    1. Nuclear bombs are not the end of everything.

      Unless it kills you.

      1. True. But the same can be said of a roller-skate left on the sidewalk, or a slightly off portion of fish.

        1. a slightly off portion of fish

          Gentlemen, the only possible conclusion we can draw is that we must invade the ocean.

    2. if "War" means, as it has come to, "trashing the country and then rebuilding it without exercising any real control",

      The reason war has come to this standard is because of the "just war" approach and the legacy of the Marshall plan. The population as a whole wouldn't stand for it if it was made clear that we initiated an unprovoked war of aggression so it has to be cloaked in good intentions. We have to go in for their own good as well as ours otherwise there is no way to spin it and retain political power.

      If we demonstrated real warfare for the world they might start to believe we're serious but they're more likely to push back against the aggressive bully most of the world believes we are.

    3. Evidence that Iran is "stupid enough" to use nukes, please?

  7. Iran would use nuclear weapons once. Then it would cease to exist.

    Maybe. It would depend, I suspect, on who was the President of the US (if they popped one over Tel Aviv next week, would you care to bet any substantial sum that we would respond in kind?). It would also depend on whether their Great Power sponsor(s) (Russia, maybe China) extended their nuclear umbrella over their naughty, naughty client state.

    1. If attacked, Israel would atomize and irradiate Iran far more thoroughly than the U.S.

      In the aftermath of a major nuclear attack on the U.S., Russia and China would keep their fucking mouths shut. They like to fuck with us whenever possible, but they also know the limits.

      1. If attacked, Israel would atomize and irradiate Iran

        Maybe. Wouldn't take more than a handful of nukes to completely atomize and irradiate Israel, so there might not be an Israel left to respond. I suppose their subs could respond, but that brings us to:

        whether their Great Power sponsor(s) (Russia, maybe China) extended their nuclear umbrella over their naughty, naughty client state.

        1. Israel wouldn't wait long enough for Iran to develop a handful of nukes. I have the feeling that as soon as we see a successful nuclear weapons test by Iran, then it will be game over as mushroom clouds start popping up over the ancient cities of the middle east.

          Israel has already shown that they don't give a damn about the opinion of the rest of the world when their very survival is at stake.

          1. If that were really the case, there wouldn't be any Palestinians. They've all be driven out into Jordan and Egypt.

    2. Why do you think Russia and China would ever want an Iranian nuke to go off? What world are you guys living in?

      1. The real one?

        Why wouldn't they, exactly? Russia and China got a huge kick out of 9/11, they'd love to see someone allied with the US (or better yet, the US itself) get nuked.

        1. Can't decide if you're paranoid, stupid, or trolling

          NO world leader wants a nuke to go off. Not one.

  8. War is the worst bad idea we've got--by far.

    Only if you believe that Iran will be a benign and responsible regional power and custodian of nuclear weapons. Maybe they will be. But, maybe not. Its not hard to posit plausible scenarios where time-wasting diplomatic "engagement" turns out to be the worst bad idea.

    1. Given how WWII started, that is an amazingly stupid statement.

      While peace is the best option. War with a conventionally armed Iran is a far better option than war with a nuclear armed Iran.

    2. There's a league's worth of wiggle room between "benign and responsible" and "worth going to war over"

      Pakistan is not benign or responsible - they fund terrorists and fuck with their neighbors constantly. Yet we haven't invaded them (drone strikes notwithstanding) despite their nukes

    3. I woud also add that the United States is not "benign" or "responsible" in its foreign policy.

  9. War is the worst bad idea we've got--by far.

    So you should oppose bad diplomacy, like this 'pact' with Iran, because bad diplomacy leads to bad wars.

    1. or how about no diplomacy and mind our own damn business.

  10. On a broader note why do we continually pump money into the Middle East by paying ridiculously high prices for oil? A lot of our money ends up supporting regimes we don't agree with, and it's not that much of a stretch to assume some of this money ends up in our enemies' hands. We have more than enough resources to be independent of the Middle East, but apparently it is preferable to be enslaved to the Saudis. And with Syria the Saudis tried to pay us to fight their oil war! If you really wanted to hurt the Middle East don't buy their oil.

    1. America itself isn't (or doesn't have to be) dependent on the Middle East for oil, but I have feeling that some very large OIL COMPANIES are, and they do have considerable influence

      1. most of our oil does not come from the middle east, in fact American oil companies accounted for about 1% of Iraq's oil exports so don't say we are fighting for oil anymore. In fact God only knows why we are still involved there I think it's because big government types think we need to be "world leaders" and probably don't have any idea why, other than of course "Just cuz".

  11. Iran will always be a problem until we turn their cities into dust and fire. I call for an immediate nuclear attack on this cancer upon the world.

    1. ......Murdering innoccents who have nothing to do with it all.

      1. It's a troll. Unfortunately Poe's Law is in effect because Cytotoxic actually believes this shit

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  14. Government welfare is not supported by the teachings of Jesus Christ nor any part of the bible.

    You certainly won't find the prophet and president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints agreeing with the Pope on this issue. We KNOW the Constitution and those who created it were inspired by God.

    Since it is a violation of our inalienable rights to take anything from another, especially by force, and since we cannot consent and give power to the government that we do not possess, there is no basis in the teachings of Christ that would allow, or be in agreement with, any action by government to compel the contribution to the welfare of others or to compel us to act in our own best interest.

    Providing for employment or any other need is according to the same principles. We freely assist those in need and not by compulsion.

    What we call "Church Welfare" is more accurately defined as charity. We freely give "fast offerings" for the purpose of assisting those who need who are required to reasonably show their need and then are required to work for the assistance they receive to the extent they are able. Those of us who fail to give generously of our time, talents and material will answer to God in this life as well as the next.

    FREE-MARKET CAPITALISM IS THE WILL OF GOD in this day and time as demonstrated and defined by our inalienable rights, the Constitution and the bible

    1. SORRY! Somehow I switched pages and posted to the wrong issue.

      This was in response to the Pope's criticism of capitalism and support of government welfare.

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