Security hawks will no doubt pan the Obama administration's nuclear deal with Iran that'll be signed in Vienna today. They'll say that it won't prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon — and they'll be right. They'll say that
it'll help Iran build its conventional weapons program – and they'll be right. They'll say that Iran will never fully honor its word — even as the West lifts sanctions against it, and they'll probably be right about that too.
But here's the bottom line: This option is better than anything they've put on the table.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already denounced the deal as a "historic mistake" — and there will be many, many in America who will agree. The Iranians are tough negotiators and there is no doubt that John Kerry and his team were, by contrast, innocents abroad, as I wrote here.
But, here's what the hawks need to grok: America might be the lone superpower right now, but it does not have God-like powers to command the world to its will. Hence, if preventing — or slowing — Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon is a worthy goal, then a less-than-perfect deal is better than no deal — because the alternatives are worse.
All the details of the deal, which still needs to be approved by Congress before America could lift its end of the existing sanctions, are not yet clear. But the ones that are likely to become bones of contention for hawks, as per an account in the Wall Street Journal, are as follows:
- Iran will be required to give up only two-thirds of its centrifuges, not all of them. It will be allowed to keep the first generation centrifuges that supposedly can't be used to as quickly enrich weapons-grade material as the state-of-art ones*
- Its Arak nuclear facility won't be dismantled, just be used to produce less plutonium (and, presumably, it'll have to open its secret Fordo facility to inspections to ensure that it is being used only for peaceful purposes)
- After 10 years of restraint on its nuclear activities mandated by the agreement, Iran will have a free hand to ratchet up its nuclear program
- The ban on conventional arms sales to or from Iran will end after five years—or earlier if the U.N. nuclear agency, the IAEA, gives its final, full all-clear that Iran's nuclear program is purely peaceful. Likewise, a ban on trading ballistic missiles and parts with Iran will expire after eight years, earlier if the IAEA gives it an all-clear.
All of this, combined with $100 billion-plus worth of sanctions relief, critics fear, will allow Iran to recover its economic footing and become an even more belligerent power in the region. It'll get the material means to fund even more proxy fights through its minions such as Hezbollah but without having to permanently abandon its nuclear ambitions — just postpone them a little bit.
All of this might be absolutely what Iran's mullahs intend but what's the alternative?
The reality is that the sanctions regime is already dead. For about three years, this regime managed to impose an international boycott on Iran's oil exports and limit Iran's access to refined oil while barring international banks from doing business with it.
But such sanctions are always shortlived because they are not costless for the imposing parties. Hence, unless their economic downside has a huge political upside for these parties, they fall apart. In this case, Western powers, for whom the political upside was arguably greater than the econonmic downside, had to do some major arm-twisting of China and Russia, Iran's major trading partners, for whom the situation was arguably the exact reverse, to get them to go along. However, with Russia's relations with America in the toilet after Putin's aggression in Ukraine, and China eager to boost its wavering economy by obtaining lucrative deals to develop Iran's oil fields and refinery capacity, America wasn't going to be able to prevent them from dumping the sanctions for a whole lot longer.
So if this deal had fallen apart, the world would have returned not to re-imposing a tough sanctions regime, as the hawks hallucinate. Rather, the world would have returned to overtly or covertly trading with Iran but sans any constraints on the mullahs' nuclear ambitions.
And what about the military option?
For starters, nothing in this deal actually prevents Israel from working with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, who are also spooked by Iran's nuclear ambitions, from launching a strike. Sure, it'll have to contend with America's irritation, but if Iran truly poses an existential threat to it — as well as others in the area — surely that would be a price worth paying?
But here's the problem with the military option (apart from all the unintended consequences), regardless of who resorts to it: A sustained airstrike that is not backed by a major and messy ground offensive — something that literally no one is suggesting — will degrade Iran's nuclear capacity by only four years. That's because much of Iran's nuclear infrastructure — like the Fordo facility — is buried under 200 feet of rock – or shielded in civilian areas and therefore out-of-reach of aerial bombs.
By contrast, the inspections regime in this deal will box Iran in for 10 years. It'll also increase Iran's "breakout" time — the time required for Iran to acquire enough fissile material to build a nuclear bomb — from the current three months or so to a year.
Critics will contend that all of this assumes that Iran will actually lived up to its end of the deal and open it self up to intrusive inspections. However, if Iraq under Saddam Hussein and North Korea under the Kims are any indication, the more likely scenario is that Iran will turn the inspections process into a cat-and-mouse game, opening up some facilities but not all while railing, with a clenched fist, against Western imperialism.
But here's the thing, if Iran does that, America and Israel et al will have a far stronger hand at that point to persuade the world to either reinstate the sanctions regime or join them in launching a military strike. Right now, if the deal falls apart, America/Israel will be isolated while the world slowly but surely restores ties with Iran. Obtaining international cooperation is not about trying to show the world that we are the good guys. It's vital to the success of any effort to contain Iran.
So the best case scenario with the deal is that it'll give the world 10 years of a nuclear-free Iran, during which, who knows, may be the country will make some small headway toward abandoning its mullahocracy and embracing democracy (which might make its possession of nuclear weapons somewhat less problematic). And the worst case scenario is that the whole thing will fall apart because of Iran's duplicity, which will renew the world's will do so something about it.
* This sentence has been modified to acknowledge the possibility of weapons-grade enrichment by old centrifuges