The only alternatives to this deal are the destructive status quo of continued stalemate and standoff that destabilizes the whole region or even more open military conflict that endangers everyone in the region (including Israel). Ignore the naysayers and give this deal a chance.
Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse April 4, 2015
TEL AVIV — Outside of Israel and America’s Republican Party, very few people are against this emerging Iran nuclear deal, which represents the will of the governments of the UK, France, Germany, Russia, and China, as well as America (sorry, Congress and the opposition party generally don’t make foreign policy in America’s constitutional system) and Iran. And whether the hysterics of Texas Republican Senator (and delusional 2016 presidential wannabe) Ted Cruz or of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the counterarguments are hollow and myopic, and bear no weight when weighed against the alternatives. In fact, an agreement with Iran is the only realistic option that is even remotely positive; a lack of an agreement means only less transparency and either a stalemate in which Iran and the West will often continue to use the Middle East as a board in a deadly game of chess or some sort of conflict ranging from military strikes and terrorism to all-out war. An agreement does not guarantee that these far more dire scenarios will be avoided, but it is the only realistic way to avoid them. And while both opponents and supporters of an agreement have maintained that no agreement is better than a “bad” agreement, it is hard to look at this just-agreed-upon framework as a “bad” agreement, even if it not perfect. Don’t let the pursuit of the perfect be the enemy of the good, as the saying goes, since this framework is overall pretty good.
Still, none of this stops Republicans, Israel’s right-wing parties and politicians, and others from making specious, short-sighted, and misleading arguments against this agreement, arguments that, if heeded, will only perpetuate and increase conflict, violence, and death. First, let’s look at the detailed framework that was agreed upon Thursday (we won’t be going into the science of nuclear physics and uranium enrichment in this article, but you can read a great short guide to all that here). Below are some highlights:
- Iran will reduce the number of uranium-enriching centrifuges by two-thirds, and the remaining third will be older, first-generation technology
- Iran will reduce its existing supply of enriched uranium from 10,000 kilograms to just 300, a 97% reduction
- Iran’s biggest and main (also underground) nuclear research center will shift much of it attention away and facilities from activities that could result in a weapon and to advanced peaceful research, often medical
- Iran will submit to more nuclear inspections that any other country in the world today or in the history of nuclear technology. These inspections will be “robust and intrusive,” to quote President Obama, and he noted too that “If Iran cheats, the world will know it”and that “this deal is not based on trust. It’s based on unprecedented verification.”
- Economic sanctions on Iran will be lifted
The agreement will last fifteen years and seriously reduce Iran’s nuclear capabilities, though some restriction will be in place for only ten years. But as far as the U.S., only Congress has the ability to end American sanctions and President Obama has warned Republicans not to destroy the deal.
Now, let’s look at some of the common arguments against this framework.
“Iran can’t be trusted”
Really? Because America, Israel, Iraq, and Syria have all invaded countries here in a big way since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. But Iran has not initiated one single invasion since this regime took power. Yes, it has used terrorism and non-state militia actors to further its interests, but so has pretty much every Middle Eastern country (including American allies like Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia) as well as the United States in recent decades. Iran has also cooperated with the U.S. against the Talbian, al-Qaeda, and, most recently, against ISIS. And Iran’s foreign policy record has been less the unpredictable, dangerous type and more like the Soviet Union’s, with Iran acting fairly predictably, rationally, and in its own interests. And this deal is most certainly in its own interests. Maybe Iran will break the deal, but the U.S. deals with countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Russia, so why not give Iran a chance?
“Iran sponsors terrorism with Hezbollah! Enough said!”
So do lots of other countries, but we still cooperate with them and get meaningful results. Yes, Iran sponsors Hezbollah, but today’s Hezbollah is not your father’s Hezbollah. Rather than a resistance terrorist movement against the Israeli invasions and occupation of Lebanon, invasions and occupation starting in 1981 and ending in 2000, Hezbollah is now one of the major coalition partners of the Lebanese government and concerns itself with more governing Lebanon for most of these recent years. Minor scuffles with Israel with a few rockets launched here and there have been all that has happened between Israel and Hezbollah since the 2006 flare-up. In general, Hezbollah has been quiet in its actions (if not words) when it comes to Israel, then, for most of the last decade. So a few isolated and sporadic rocket attacks do not characterize Israel’s interaction with Hezbollah since 2006 so much as an uneasy unofficial cease-fire. Besides, Hezbollah had been much more preoccupied the last few years with fighting on behalf of Bashar al-Assad’s Shiite Alawite regime. Hezbollah, Assad and his government, and Iran are all Shiites, and it is natural for them to stick together. Iran has always been the patron and protector of Shiites Muslims facing persecutions against Sunnis, and Iran’s support is pretty much the only major support in the world that Shiites have. We may not like this, but, frankly, Shiites populations have fared pretty poorly under Sunni rule all over the Muslim world, and they face a steady stream of oppressive attacks, which frequently occur in packed Shiite mosques in the middle of a prayers and involve suicide bombers. Shiite funerals, shrines, and religious processions have also been targeted by the likes of Sunni ISIS and Sunni al-Qaeda. Conversely, Iran’s proxy actors like Hezbollah and other Shiite militias, though far from angels, have generally avoided these much more extreme tactics against civilians and places of religious worship. If anything, Hezbollah and other Shiite groups that Iran helps like the Houthis are practicing much more normal military activities, albeit of the rebel and guerilla variety, rather than that which would more fairly be called terrorism these days.
The point here is that Sunni sponsorship of terrorism, particularly from the Gulf countries (including America’s biggest allies there, though not in an official capacity), is a far greater problem than Iran’s sponsorship of Hezbollah, and that Hezbollah, unlike al-Qaeda and ISIS, been pretty restrained in the last decade. So Iran’s relationship with Hezbollah should not make or break this nuclear deal. And, in general, Hezbollah has shied away from the type of terrorist attacks that earned it its notoriety in decades past. Sinn Fein/IRA was once a terrorist group, until it was no longer one at on point, and while Hezbollah still has some distance to travel to be like the next Sinn Fein, it is without question moving in the right direction compared to its earlier incarnation.
“An agreement will keep the U.S. and others from being able to use force to stop Iran’s program”
Not at all. Saddam Hussein agreed to terms to have his weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs disarmed to conclude the Gulf War (1990-1991), but when he violated them, that did not stop Bill Clinton from striking Saddam’s regime repeatedly, nor did it stop George W. Bush from taking the massive military action that he (incorrectly) felt was needed. No one cited an agreement that was clearly being violated, or which Saddam Hussein was clearly trying to publicly pretend to violate, as reason to hold back (though in 2003 there were certainly many other good reasons to hold back) at the time of these actions. In other words, it should be made clear that if Iran plays games and violates the agreement, there is nothing stopping the U.S. or other world powers from taking strong action to disarm Iran, an certainly the agreement itself would not stop anything. The agreement will only protect Iran, then, if Iran stays true to the terms.
“This agreement would threaten the very survival of the state of Israel.”
Why? The above is almost a direct quote from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, perhaps the master of short-term-at-the-expense-of-long-term thinking (in other words, a master politician). With no agreement, Iran is free continue its robust nuclear program. With an agreement, this program will be severely limited, reduced, and subjected to intense and powerful inspections by the West. Without an agreement, only military force could possibly succeed and that would be incredibly difficult and not guaranteed, by any means, to succeed. In fact, just about the last thing the Middle East needs right now is a major war in Iran, and whole other books and articles could be written about the spillover effects from such an event. Any war here would almost certainly involve Israel and that would be bad, not good, for Israel’s security. And if Iran and the West come to friendly terms, there will be far more willingness on Iran’s part to reign in Israel’s nuisance, Hezbollah, which I have already explained has been reigning itself in for quite some time anyway. With this agreement, it would be fifteen years before Iran would be able to develop a bomb if this agreement is observed, but this would very likely happen much, much sooner if there is no agreement. How is this bad, then for Israel? One wonders why anyone takes Netanyahu and those who think like him seriously on this point at all.
This is a fine diplomatic achievement of the Obama Administration, President Obama himself, and Sec. Kerry and their teams, but also of the other Western governments involved and of Iran’s government, as well. There is no guarantee that this will forever keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, but we have fifteen years of majorly slowing Iran down on this path and weakening its overall nuclear program, of having many sets of close eyes on the ground making sure that this is the situation, of preventing wars, and of increasing cooperation between Iran and the West. Just as Peter Beinart writes, it may very well be the thaw in diplomatic relations that might be the biggest achievement here.
And the alternatives to this agreement are very likely going to involve war, possibly carried out by the U.S. and the West, but there seems to be little appetite for that among Western governments or peoples. It is far more likely to be carried out by an Israel that is more and more isolated because of its positions on and treatment of the Palestinians, and because of the actions of Benjamin Netanyahu in general. The recent fighting in Gaza against non-state terrorist militia Hamas cost dozens of Israeli lives; a fight with Iran, a powerful country with a powerful and well equipped military, would very likely cost thousands of Israeli lives and could see serious destruction all across Israel major cities. There is no guarantee that war would end Iran’s nuclear program, either. Even if there is not a war or military action, the current situation—with very little formal cooperation with Iran and with Iran and the West working against each other on so many issues in the region, from Israel to Yemen to Syria, and with Sunnis in the region increasing their zones of conflict with Shiites—is in no way better than a shot at really working together on these issues and defusing tensions. But Republicans and Netanyahu and the others who seek to sabotage this very necessary deal fail to mention any of this, and provide no alternatives but cold war or hot war.
Time to stop listening to these irrational, impractical naysayers and give peace a chance. Yes, the many details still need to be worked out, but we should throw all out support behind making this framework turn into a lasting deal. This deal has a high probability or happening, because why agree to the major framework and then let it fall apart? That would be like announcing a party you are hosting, only not to show up to your own party; it makes you look really bad. War is always an option no matter what, but peace is much more difficult to reach and maintain. While skepticism about all this is understandable, as Obama recently noted, “We are powerful enough to be able to test these propositions without putting ourselves at risk.” Ultimately, there is much reason to hope this will work and that Iran—a country with a large chunk of it population that is very young, liberal, reform-minded, and pro-Western—and the U.S. could accomplish much good by working together. And with Iran, with which the U.S. has been at odds for so long, it is time to try peace and a normal relationship before we think of war, which should never be a “preferred” option.