Supporters of the Iran deal argue they have secured verifiable, significant reductions in Iran’s ability to make nuclear weapons. Opponents accuse the deal’s backers of wishful thinking. It’s fatuous, they argue, to think that Tehran is willing to forgo the bomb. Instead, the Iranian leadership will cheat on its obligations. Or wait patiently until constraints expire. And be even more trouble to Israel and other U.S. friends in the Middle East.
Let’s weigh these arguments against the possibility of another kind of wishful thinking: that a “better” deal can be achieved by walking away from this one. To achieve better terms, the current sanctions regime must hold as long as it takes to resume negotiations. Also, the next American president must be able to convince all of Washington’s negotiating partners to support better provisions than those rejected by the Congress. Plus, “tougher” sanctions must remain in place on all of Iran’s significant trading partners for as many years as it takes Tehran to cry “uncle.” All of these hopeful assumptions rest on the next President’s ability, moral standing and political backing — domestically and internationally — to negotiate a better deal.
Supporters argue that the deal doesn’t rely on trust; it relies on intrusive monitoring provisions, included at suspect sites, where timelines for access will prevent “break out” or “sneak out” from key limitations. Perhaps Tehran will abide by its obligations; if it doesn’t, President Obama and his successors will know about Iranian noncompliance in time to take remedial action. Such action may include, as a last resort, military strikes — an option that will remain after the terms of this deal lapse. As for Iran’s misbehavior in the region, the Obama administration is taking many steps to shore up friends, especially Israel, with military assistance. Subsequent administrations will do so, as well. Rather than engaging in wishful thinking, supporters of the deal have instead put in place prudent hedges against worst cases.
Now let’s examine the underlying assumptions behind the push for a “better” deal. Will existing sanctions hold between the time this deal is torpedoed by the Congress and the advent of the next administration? It is more likely that they will fray because Congress will be in no position to hold the line against every other trading partner of Iran, all of whom support this deal.
Will the next U.S. president have the standing to negotiate better terms, the way that Ronald Reagan was able to secure deeper cuts in nuclear forces than the strategic arms limitations that Jimmy Carter obtained? Reagan got a better deal because he wanted to eliminate nuclear weapons in both the United States and the Soviet Union. In the Iran deal, the United States (and Israel) accept no nuclear constraints; all of the limitations are on Tehran.
Ronald Reagan won’t win the next election. The next American president will have to operate in the same severely partisan circumstances as President Obama — except that he or she will have less standing because Republicans in Congress have sided with a hardline government in Israel against every other state that supports this deal.
Realistically speaking, the probability of sanctions eroding if Congress torpedoes this deal is greater than the prospect of tougher sanctions. Tehran has been willing to accept significant, long-term constraints on its enrichment program in return for the lifting of some sanctions. It won’t cry “uncle” as sanctions erode.
Sinking this deal is far more likely to result in no deal than a better deal. If Congress rejects this deal, if sanctions erode, and if Iran increases its enrichment capabilities — as opponents fully expect — an American president is left with basically two options. One is not to use military force. The other is to launch another war in the Middle East to prevent another country from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Although backers of a “better” deal rarely say so, their fallback plan is the same as that of the deal’s supporters: the use of military force. But there is a huge difference between making war against a country that violates the terms of an international agreement not to make nuclear weapons, and making war after rejecting an agreement could have avoided war in the first place.
Nothing will weaken America’s standing in the world or exhaust its armed forces and treasury more than fighting a second, unnecessary war in the Middle East to prevent a state from acquiring nuclear weapons. This deal provides an opportunity to prevent worst cases, while being prepared for them. Torpedoing this deal increases the odds of worst cases. It is wishful thinking to expect that a better deal will result from killing this one on Capitol Hill.