Sunday, August 16, 2015

Assessing the Deal with Iran

Is the Iran deal good or bad?

As best I can tell it's good, though obviously imperfect.

A friend, an Israeli political scientist, put it well: “I think it's better than any of the alternatives. Sometimes instead of thinking about what's good and what's bad, you have to think about what's bad and what's worst. This was the least bad option in an unappetizing set.”

Others note that we won't really know if it's good or bad for many years.

Republican commentator (and adviser to four Presidents) David Gergen provides a reasonable view based on knowledge. Gergen has discussed the deal with many generals and to everyone from Hillary Clinton's young national security adviser to Henry Kissinger.

In essence, we were on course either to bomb Iran or to live with Iran getting nuclear weapons – and most generals preferred living with the latter, as we did with the Soviets, rather than war. Although it was an international deal, Gergen credits Obama for attempting diplomacy. He calls the resulting deal John Kerry's “crowning achievement.” The deal's not perfect; but “we bought ten years.” (By contrast, Gergen criticizes the planlessness of the Administration's handling of ISIS and Syria.)

Although Iran is theoretically committed to never developing nuclear weaponry, many of this deal's provisions expire in ten or fifteen years. IF AT THAT TIME Iran remains determined to develop nuclear weapons, we may face a choice like the one we have now: bomb Iran (violating international law and prevailing international opinion) or live with a nuclear-armed Iran.

Meanwhile there's a fair basis for guarded optimism. Younger Iranians are modern and mostly positive toward the U.S. At one anti-U.S. rally at which an Iranian loudly shouting the obligatory “Death to America” paused to lean over and ask a U.S. reporter “How'd the Yankees do today?” The mullahs may ultimately go, or become mere figureheads. Iran may well prefer economic improvement to sophisticated weaponry. Many Iranians would prefer being less isolated and more a part of the modern world, although there's no guarantee that they'll have their way.

From Iran's side, the deal is tough. Yes, Iran gets back frozen funds; but only after huge decreases in Iran's centrifuges, enriched uranium, and permitted research activities. Recently a friend who knows a lot about these things repeatedly exclaimed, “Wow, Iran didn't get anything!” as he looked at the centrifuge and uranium numbers reported in The Economist.

Arguing that this agreement somehow helps Iran develop nuclear weapons is absurd. The agreement should significantly delay a nuclear-armed Iran and could help forestall that completely.

Relying on inspections, not on trust, the deal would destroy Iran's ability to develop a nuclear capability in the short term.

The nay-sayers offer no credible alternative. “Maintain economic sanctions!” they shout; but if the U.S. torpedoes the agreement, the rest of the world won't continue the sanctions; and U.S. sanctions alone aren't powerful enough. “Bomb Iran!” some urge. At this point in history there are too many things wrong with that idea to fit 'em into a column. Yet that's the only real alternative.

This is not a U.S.-Iran deal. It's between Iran and essentially the rest of the world, represented by a coalition of divergent interests we could not easily reassemble. Many top international leaders see this deal as a positive step. If we renege now, our partners won't support us.

Bottom line: in a tough situation Western diplomats seem to have negotiated – carefully and laboriously – a workable deal (159 loophole-closing pages) that improves the prospect for avoiding a nuclear-armed Iran.

Most criticism reduces to “I don't like or trust Iran.” Who does?
[The column above appeared this morning, Sunday, 16 August 2015, in the Las Cruces Sun-News and will appear shortly on KRWG-TV's website as well.  The Commmonwealth Club interview with David Gergen is well worth a listen.  I'd earlier read a lot of writings for and against the agreement with Iran, and had written a draft of this column, but I thought Gergen's comments were particularly clear and cogent.]
[A few days after sending in the column I also read an open letter to the Washington Post from three-dozen former generals calling the deal "technically sound, stringent, and innovative"  and a news story on same.
I recommend reading that letter, but a key paragraph reads:
"There is no better option to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon.  Military action would be less effective than the deal, assuming it is fully implemented.  If the Iranians cheat, our advanced technology, intelligence, and the inspections will reveal it, and U.S. military options remain on the table.  And if the deal is rejected by America, the Iranians could have a nuclear weapon within a year.  The choice is that stark."
No, this doesn't mean they're right; but I'd want something more than an incompetent Congress, with no significant arguments and such a deep hatred of Obama that it can't think straight, to outweigh the opinions of our national security folks and Secretary of State, the similar personnel of many other significant nations, these generals, and a lot of national-security experts, before I'd jump in opposing this thing!]

[Opponents are screaming about the potential 24-day delay in inspections; but as our scientists have pointed out, the places in question don't just melt away, we do have satellites monitoring them, and when you store or work with nuclear materials somewhere, it ain't like a bush and some dish-water soap will erase all signs.  As one observer put it:
"The system for verifying Iran's commitments is unprecedented. Iran may be able to break the rules of the deal, but it can't break the rules of physics. I have met with our experts at the Departments of State and Energy, including those at Los Alamos and Sandia National Labs. Nuclear materials give off telltale signatures, and combined with unprecedented access to facilities, Iran will be unable to hide any breaches in the agreement. The agreement requires continuous monitoring, including tamper-proof electronic seals and dedicated facilities to inspect the Iranian nuclear program. I may not trust Iran, but I do trust the science and our national labs."]


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