Is There a Viable Alternative to the Iran Deal?

Three Atlantic writers debate the merits of the nuclear agreement.

Morteza Nikoubazl / Reuters

How to make sense of the nuclear deal with Iran? Is it a necessary compromise that’s preferable to the alternatives and potentially beneficial for the Middle East? A feeble and indefensible sop to Iranian leaders bent on further destabilizing the region? A practically satisfying but morally troubling gamble, born of bad options? The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart, David Frum, and Jeffrey Goldberg debate the new agreement—and the swift and fierce reaction to it.

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Peter Beinart: David and Jeff, the thing that strikes me most about the reaction to the Iran deal is that proponents and opponents are judging it by radically different standards.

Opponents keep saying that this deal isn’t as good as the Obama administration promised it would be and that it violates previous U.S. red lines. That’s true. It allows Iran to keep some enriched uranium. It also doesn’t include anytime, anywhere, right-away inspections, which I think the Obama administration was foolish to promise (a kind of parallel to when they said no one would lose coverage as a result of Obamacare).

Proponents, like myself, compare it to the alternatives: which are doing nothing, war, or trying to increase sanctions in hopes of getting a better deal down the line. What frustrates me is how rarely I see opponents explaining in any detail how any of these alternatives would be preferable. A few years ago, one saw more hawks arguing for a military strike. (I detailed some of the folks who did last year.) But one rarely hears anyone these days arguing that a military strike makes sense. Some say that a “credible threat of force” would make Iran concede more. But Israel and America have been threatening force for a decade now. Why would more saber-rattling work now? Besides, to have your threat of force be credible, don’t you have to be willing to follow through—which requires explaining why military action would be effective in retarding the nuclear program and wouldn’t make the current regional conflict far worse? More often, deal opponents talk about increasing sanctions, which would supposedly force Iran into concessions. But I rarely hear them explain how that will work given the internal politics of Iran. Seems more likely to me that scuttling this deal, and passing more sanctions, would devastate [Iranian President] Rouhani and [Iranian Foreign Minister] Zarif politically. Rouhani was elected to improve the economy; torpedoing the deal would make him a failure. That would empower those hardline opponents who never wanted any deal. Beyond that, what basis is there to believe European and Asian countries, which have strong economic interests in Iran, will maintain sanctions indefinitely? The lesson of Iraq in the 1990s is that sanctions erode over time. British and German diplomats have warned that if the U.S. destroys the deal, sanctions could unravel. So why should we believe economic pressure will go up and lead to more Iranian concessions? Seems at least as likely to me that economic pressure will go down.

I also don’t feel that opponents of the deal—who waxed moralistic about Obama’s failure to be vocal enough in supporting the Green Revolution—have grappled much publicly with what appears to be the overwhelming support of Iranian dissidents for this deal. If we believe that ultimately the most important thing is the potential for political change in Iran, and the people who would make that change want this deal, doesn’t that carry real weight? (I’m not saying this deal will bring political change anytime soon. Obviously, nobody knows if it will.) Call me cynical, but seems to me that hawks like using the Iranian dissidents when it helps them argue for a cold-war posture. But the minute it doesn’t, they pretend those dissidents don’t exist.

David Frum: What did the Western world get from the nuclear deal just concluded with Iran?

According to deal proponents—and assuming Iran does not cheat—a delay of about eight months in Iran’s nuclear-breakout time, for a period of 10 years.

What did the Western world give?

1) It has rescued Iran from the extreme economic crisis into which it was pushed by the sanctions imposed in January 2012—sanctions opposed at the time by the Obama administration, lest anyone has forgotten.

2) It has relaxed the arms embargo on Iran. Iran will be able to buy conventional arms soon, ballistic-missile components later.

3) It has exempted Iranian groups and individuals from terrorist designations, freeing them to travel and do business around the world.

4) It has promised to protect the Iranian nuclear program from sabotage by outside parties—meaning, pretty obviously, Israel.

5) It has ended the regime’s isolation, conceding to the Iranian theocracy the legitimacy that the Iranian revolution has forfeited since 1979 by its consistent and repeated violations of the most elementary international norms—including, by the way, its current detention of four America hostages.

That seems one-sided. Deal proponents insist: With all its imperfections, this is the very best deal obtainable. The only practical alternative is war.

Is that true?

The United States did not negotiate the way people negotiate to get the best deal obtainable. It signaled from the start of the talks that it regarded the military option (supposedly always “on the table”) as in fact unthinkable. It collared Congress to prevent imposition of new sanctions when the Iranians acted balky. It was a mistake too to send the secretary of state to head the delegation, especially a secretary of state who had been a presidential nominee: Secretary Kerry was too big to be allowed to fail. His Iranian counterpart, by contrast, could easily be disavowed by a regime whose supreme authority always maintained a wide distance from the talks.

Nor is the administration enacting its agreement as if it felt confident of its merits. The administration invented an approval process that marginalizes Congress. The agreement becomes binding so long as just one-third of the members of either House support it. For an administration that has complained so much about the anti-democratic filibuster, that’s quite a bold departure from the normal constitutional rule.

The administration brought home a weak deal, having negotiated in a way that put a better deal out of reach. Now it challenges critics: Accept this weak agreement or fight a war. But it’s the deal’s authors who created a false and dangerous choice. As we think about what comes next, keep in mind how we arrived where we are.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Let me say at the outset that I agree with Peter.

Also, I agree with David.

Within the political and moral framework the Obama administration and its allies created for themselves, this deal has many positive features. As an arms-control initiative, it seems as if the Vienna agreement could keep Iran from reaching the nuclear threshold for many years (20 years is President Obama’s provisional measure of success, at least when I asked him in May). This deal could also prevent an eventual military confrontation between the U.S. and Iran, or Israel and Iran. I put great stock—sorry, David—in the argument that opponents of this deal should be forced to come up with a better alternative. I haven’t come up with anything. I do think, in the absence of a deal, we would be looking at an Iran soon at the threshold, or at a military operation to delay the moment when Iran could cross the threshold. (Delay, not defeat, because three things would happen in the event of an American military strike: Sanctions would crumble; Russia would become Iran’s partner; and the ayatollahs would have their predicate to justify a rush to the bomb. Only more bombing could stop them, and then, of course, we would be talking about a never-ending regional war.)

All that said, this agreement is morally troubling, and it may also lead to precisely the thing that arms-control agreements are meant to prevent: broad instability. It is morally unsatisfying because innocent people of the Middle East will most likely suffer its consequences. Certainly, an enriched Iran—sponsor of the world’s most bloodthirsty regime, in Syria, and sponsor, as well, of the world’s most potent anti-Semitic terrorist group—will be able to help its proxies in ways it couldn’t before. This is one of the principal reasons the Israeli opposition leader, Isaac Herzog, is joining his archrival, Benjamin Netanyahu, in raising the alarm about the deal, and it is the principal reason the people of Syria feel abandoned by the West. This agreement may also cause further instability across the region, not only because an empowered Hezbollah might decide that it is time for another rocket war with Israel, but because it might encourage the Iranian regime’s worst hegemonic, anti-Sunni impulses.

As an arms-control measure, this agreement has good qualities. I’m not discounting David’s specific critiques, not at all, but this agreement does represent the first successful attempt to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions. This deal, however, represents a huge gamble. If the unspoken, but widely understood, theory of Obama’s case turns out to be incorrect—that the Vienna accord will stimulate a virtuous cycle, one which sees Iran’s moderate, mercantilist, pro-American tendencies encouraged, and ultimately triumphant—then we’ve just empowered a group of theocratic fascists to feel as if there is an even bigger role for them to play in the Middle East, and we’ve laid out a pathway for this regime to eventually reach the nuclear threshold. We’ve certainly signaled to Iran’s leaders that they have a right—a previously unknown right in the vast catalogue of rights accorded to sovereign states—to enrich uranium, which is quite a thing to signal to a country designated by the United States as a committed and energetic sponsor of terror.

Beinart: Jeff, obviously, I agree with you on the nuclear part. On the regional part, I kept waiting to read the acronym “ISIS.” I agree that more money to Hezbollah and Hamas is bad. I think that’s the strongest objection to this deal, although somewhat mitigated by the fact that sanctions would likely have eroded anyway.

But we can’t talk about Iran’s position in the region without acknowledging that today, the group most likely to commit another 9/11 on U.S. soil is ISIS. And Iran wants very badly to destroy ISIS, which is, after all, a genocidally anti-Shia group near their border. There are problems with Iran’s fight against ISIS, of course. It alienates the Iraqi Sunnis who we need to turn against the jihadis in their midst. But on the ground, Iran is the most potent force fighting ISIS—and if it has more money to do so, that’s not all bad. What’s more, if this deal makes it possible for the U.S. and Iran to coordinate their fight against ISIS more effectively, that’s good for American national security. And morally, if we can liberate the people who’ve been living under ISIS hell for the last year, that’s good too.

To my mind, one of the biggest problems with much contemporary Beltway foreign-policy discourse is the refusal to prioritize, to accept that foreign policy sometimes requires working with the lesser evil, which is still really evil. From a national-security and moral perspective, ISIS is the greatest threat and Iran, like Stalin during World War II or China during the Cold War, is a highly problematic partner against it. But in terms of ability to project power, it’s the best partner we’ve got.

I also think that the history of the 20th century shows that cold wars produce regional wars that are brutal for the people whose countries become battlegrounds. Syria is a proxy war, partly between the Sunni powers and Iran, and partly between the U.S. and Iran and Russia. If there’s ever going to be a deal to end that nightmare, Iran is going to have been at the table, along with the U.S. If Iran doesn’t feel the U.S. is going to attack it, it becomes easier to imagine that Tehran could accept a deal where [Syrian President] Assad goes. I’m not saying this is going to happen anytime soon, but when the Cold War ended, proxy wars ended across the globe. And if the cold war between the U.S. and Iran thaws, it makes it easier to craft a solution in Syria. It also makes it somewhat easier to imagine a political solution in Afghanistan, a country where Iran has significant influence.

I’m not claiming this deal will produce wonders regionally. But I think it’s at least as likely to produce more stability as more instability, especially given, as you rightly note, that the alternative, sooner or later, is quite likely a U.S.-Iranian war.

Frum: There’s a curious two-step on display in defense of the deal.

Step One

Critic: “This deal leaves four Americans in Iranian detention … delivers tens of billions of dollars to Iran for aggression and terrorism … and generally empowers Iran to make mischief in the region and around the world.”

Defender: “This deal is not intended to solve all our problems with Iran. We accept that Iran is dangerous and hostile. The agreement is narrowly focused on solving one problem: the Iranian nuclear bomb. That’s our top priority.”

Step Two

Critic: “OK, but as an arms-control measure … this deal is very weak. Iran will retain a big nuclear-weapons capacity. It will continue to spin centrifuges. The inspection regime is weak. Reimposing sanctions if Iran cheats will be difficult.”

Defender: “Don’t be so narrowly focused on the deal’s technicalities! What we have here is a once-in-a-generation chance to reshape the Middle East, to recruit Iran as a security partner. This is a Nixon-goes-to-China strategic realignment!”

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The deal is being sold, in other words, as both a breath mint and a floor wax. Unsurprisingly, it succeeds at neither.

Remember Don Rumsfeld’s famous “Rules”? One of them was, “If you don’t know how to solve a problem, make it bigger.” I think Peter may be executing that rule right now. As the costs of the deal have risen—as its benefits have dwindled—the hopes attached to it by its advocates have inflated. If they can’t sell the deal on its arms-control merits, then they’ll promote it as the dawn of a new strategic rapprochement between the United States and Iran.

ISIS? ISIS should represent a much nearer and more immediate threat to Iran than for the United States. Iran should be making concessions to the U.S. for help against ISIS, not the other way around. If that’s not happening, it may be because the relationship between ISIS and Iran—and Iran’s Syrian client—is as much symbiotic as antagonistic.

Peter, I agree with you about the importance of priorities. A nuclear weapons-capable Iran is a priority-one threat to U.S. and Western interests in the Gulf area. That’s the thing we need to stop. It is the thing President Obama promised to stop. This agreement does not stop that outcome. At best, it delays the outcome for a decade, at the price of immediately enhancing Iran’s power in every other dimension. At worst, it offers Iran a Magna Carta for nuclear cheating on the way to an early nuclear-weapons breakout.

Goldberg: Let me respond to David’s cleverly rendered two-step, in particular his characterization of this deal as a weak arms-control measure. I am with him on other matters: I agree that ISIS poses a greater threat to Iran than it does to the U.S., and I would hope that the U.S. would communicate this notion to the Iranians. And, as I’ve said before, I agree with David—presumably, the “critic” in the two-step—that the release of funds to Iran is going to spark more aggression and terrorism (though, to be fair, Iran has used its limited terrorism dollars fairly effectively over the past couple of decades).

But on the matter at hand, the putative weakness of the current deal, well, I’m not so sure. No arms-control agreement is perfect—no arms-control agreement with the Soviet Union was perfect—but if this deal is properly implemented, it should keep Iran from reaching the nuclear threshold for at least 10, if not 20 years. I’m aware of the flaws, and I hope they get fixed. The lifting of the international arms embargo is a particularly unpleasant aspect of this deal. But I’m not going to judge this deal against a platonic ideal of deals; I’m judging it against the alternative. And the alternative is no deal at all because, let’s not kid ourselves here, neither Iran nor our negotiating partners in the P5+1 is going to agree to start over again should Congress reject this deal in September. What will happen, should Congress reject the deal, is that international sanctions will crumble and Iran will be free to pursue a nuclear weapon, and it would start this pursuit only two or three months away from the nuclear threshold. My main concern, throughout this long process, is that a formula be found that keeps nuclear weapons out of the hands of the mullahs without having to engage them in perpetual warfare—which, by the way, would not serve to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of the mullahs. War against Iran over its nuclear program would not guarantee that Iran is kept forever away from a bomb; it would pretty much guarantee that Iran unleashes its terrorist armies against American targets, however.

David writes that “this agreement does not stop” Iran from becoming a nuclear-capable state. “At best,” he says, “it delays the outcome for a decade, at the price of immediately enhancing Iran’s power in every other dimension."

Please, someone, show me an agreement that would prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons-capable state forever. Show me another path and I’d be happy to see the United States go down it, because I don’t want to see Iran become a regional superpower, and I don’t want the Assad regime, or Hezbollah, to become rich out of this deal. I wish I could believe, as some people do, that the Iranian regime will soon move toward moderation and responsibility. I’d be overjoyed to see it happen, and one day it will happen—Iran was once pro-U.S., and pro-Israel, and it will be again. I just don’t know when. In the meantime, I’d rather have weapons inspectors crawling all over the regime’s nuclear facilities, and in its uranium mines and mills, than not have them there. I’d rather have a deal in place that stands a good chance of keeping a country that seeks the annihilation of Israel from gaining control of a weapon it could use to bring about that annihilation.

Beinart: Not to pile on David, but your proverbial agreement “defender” doesn’t correspond to anyone I know of. Certainly not President Obama. The defenders of this deal don’t concede that it’s weak on nuclear controls and then move on to its supposed regional benefits. Whether or not we think there are regional benefits (I’m somewhat more optimistic than Jeff), we generally plant our flag on the claim that it’s better at curbing Iran’s nuclear program than any plausible alternative. And from what I’ve seen, it’s the regime critics who move on to the regional dangers without ever answering that challenge. They never present a plausible scenario—either economic or military—that leads to a better deal. The critics just vaguely suggest that if Obama had been more steadfast and less conciliatory, we could have bent Iran—and the other world powers—to our will and made Tehran capitulate entirely.

You, like Jeff and I, have been writing about foreign policy since 9/11. My core question is: What has happened in the last decade and a half that gives you reason to think the U.S. has the power to do that? It seems to me the lessons of our era cut sharply the other way: From Afghanistan to Iraq to Libya to North Korea to Russia, we’ve been reminded again and again that we cannot successfully impose our will on other countries through economic and military pressure. We’ve paid a terrible, terrible price for that delusion. I wonder what you’ve seen that leads you to a different conclusion.

Frum: I think we’ve just seen a perfect execution of the two-step. Having veered into the importance of recruiting Iran to stop ISIS, we’re now back in the territory of claiming there could be no better deal. But on its merits … it’s a weak deal. The delay in Iran’s nuclearization is short, temporary, and readily reversed by cheating. The infusion of financial and military strength to Iran is immediate and permanent.

As to Peter’s final question: Could we have done better with a tougher-minded negotiating team? I think so, but maybe I’m wrong. What is certain is that we had a negotiating team who wanted a deal more than the Iranians, even though the Iranians needed it … who feared the use of U.S. force more than the Iranians feared it … who were bedazzled by mirages of U.S.-Iranian regional cooperation … and who balked at any additional measure of economic pressure during the negotiations. Maybe we couldn’t have gotten more—or paid less—if the administration had been stronger and less naive. What we know for sure is what we got from a team that was weak and in thrall to illusions. To make a success of this unsatisfactory result, the West will need to put a very different kind of team in charge of implementation and enforcement.

Goldberg: I think Peter and David both raise interesting points in this last round. Peter’s question to David is particularly apt: What has happened over the past 14 years to suggest that the United States possesses the power to make the Iranians capitulate entirely? Like many Americans, and many Israelis, and many Arabs—and many Iranians—I would like to see this regime collapse on itself. One day it will. I don’t think, however, that we have the power to force this perfidious regime to capitulate. As I’ve argued before, I don’t even think that air strikes could force a total capitulation; quite the opposite: Nothing motivates a proud people—even a proud people intensely dissatisfied with the men who rule them—to do the thing you don’t want them to do quite like an extended bombing run.

I’m trying to be practical in my approach to this issue, and David raises important issues going forward about the quality and intensity of implementation and enforcement. I want to believe that the West, and the International Atomic Energy Agency, are ready for the task ahead; I’m not so sure about this, however. This should be a focus of the Obama administration’s efforts. Another focus should be a ramped-up program of conventional containment: The U.S. should do more than it’s been doing to check Iranian adventurism across the region. A strict enforcement regime, combined with an enthusiastic anti-Hezbollah, anti-Assad, anti-IRGC campaign—these could combine to make a success of what David believes to be an unsatisfactory result.