Updated on July 14, 2015
Diplomats in Vienna reached an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program on Tuesday, and American lawmakers are now preparing for mandatory congressional review. As they decide whether to vote yes or no on a deal, they should remember the sage advice of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who observed that the “most common form of human stupidity is forgetting what one is trying to do.” I have a framed version of that quotation in my office and try to think about it every day.
In the case of Iran’s nuclear program, what is the United States trying to do? In a sentence: “Stop Iran verifiably and interruptibly short of a nuclear bomb.” No agreement, no airstrike, and no other option anyone has identified can give 100-percent assurance that Iran will not acquire a bomb. The U.S. does not have 100-percent confidence today that Iran has not already built a bomb, or bought a weapon from North Korea (from which it has certainly purchased missiles). The question members of Congress must answer is whether the deal that the United States and its P5+1 partners have negotiated is more likely to prevent Iran’s acquiring a bomb for the lifetime of the agreement than any feasible alternative.
As they do so, they must contend with critics who are already attacking the agreement that Secretary of State John Kerry and his team have delivered. In particular, members of Congress should be prepared for five familiar claims that have been argued vigorously in opposing previous arms-control agreements. Each sounds right. But if lawmakers review the record, they will find that history has proved each wrong. In one-liners, these arguments assert that “the U.S. cannot possibly reach an advantageous deal with Iran ...”
Claim #1: “Because negotiated agreements undercut America’s ability to use force.”
America’s history of negotiations and agreements over weapons of mass destruction with enemy powers since the end of World War II makes clear that deals to constrain nuclear weapons are not an alternative to military, economic, political, and covert instruments in geopolitical competition. Instead, they are one strand of a coherent, comprehensive strategy for protecting and advancing American national interests.
Ultimately, a negotiated agreement with Iran does not limit America’s ability to use force if Iran breaks the agreement—or after the agreement expires. Moreover, it does not reduce the effectiveness of such a military option.
This is not my conclusion only. It is the judgment of the individual who arguably knows the most about using military force to prevent states from acquiring nuclear weapons. As a young soldier in the Israeli Air Force, Amos Yadlin was one of the pilots who dropped the bombs that destroyed Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981. As Israel’s head of military intelligence, he designed the attack that destroyed Syria’s nuclear plant and developed capabilities and plans for attacking Iran’s nuclear program. Assessing the parameters of the framework agreement that Iran and world powers struck in April, Yadlin wrote, “[M]ilitary action against the Iranian nuclear program in 2025 would in all probability not be much more complicated or difficult than in 2015. … [T]he Iranian program will be reduced compared to what it is today, intelligence about it will be better, and it will be less immune than it is at present.”
Claim #2: “Because Iran is an evil regime.”
The use of “evil” in this claim is provocative—and even justified—but ultimately not relevant to the question. No 20th-century leader showed greater strategic clarity in calling out the evil of Nazi Germany than Winston Churchill. And no 20th-century leader demonstrated a clearer view of Stalin’s Communist Soviet Union than Winston Churchill. But that did not stop Churchill from allying with Stalin to defeat Hitler, whom he rightly regarded as the primary threat. When critics accused him of having made a deal with the devil, Churchill replied: “If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”
No American president was more determined to bury communism than Ronald Reagan. And yet no American president was more eager to negotiate and reach agreements with what he rightly called the Evil Empire than Ronald Reagan. As he noted in his autobiography, “I didn’t have much faith in communists or put much stock in their word. Still, it was dangerous to continue the East-West nuclear standoff forever, and I decided that if the Russians wouldn’t take the first step, I should.”
Claim #3: “Because Iran cannot be trusted.”
This is perhaps the opponents’ strongest claim. They rightfully point to Iran’s history of deception and obfuscation—its secret development of enrichment facilities, including one buried deep within a mountain; its possible clandestine nuclear-weapons research, about which it has never provided a full accounting; and its past attempts to deceive international inspectors about the true nature of its program. But instead of ruling out the possibility of a deal, this record of devious behavior underscores the need for specific provisions intended to reveal such deceptions.
Washington’s history with Moscow is again illustrative. The Soviet Union was not known for integrity in international relations. According to Lenin’s operational codes, it was the Soviet leader’s duty to deceive capitalists and outmaneuver them. True to character, Moscow cheated, for example, in placing radars in locations prohibited by the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. But in reviewing the history, it is hard to escape the conclusion that its cheating was marginal, not material. Where important, Washington discovered the cheating, called the Soviets out for it, and engaged in a process that produced compliance good enough to achieve U.S. objectives.
Claim #4: “Because Tehran is engaged in terrorism and military activities against the United States.”
Iran’s use of terrorism against Americans and their allies is well-documented. Iranian agents and proxies, such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and Shiite militias in Iraq, are directly responsible for killing American soldiers and those of our allies, such as Israel. It rightly pains Americans to negotiate with such an adversary. But the validity of Claim #4 as a reason not to strike a deal is undermined by the record. Where it has had overriding strategic imperatives, the U.S. government has demonstrated a capability to walk and chew gum at the same time. During the Vietnam War, for example, as Soviet-manned surface-to-air missiles were shooting down American pilots over Vietnam, and Americans were bombing Soviet air-defense units, President Richard Nixon negotiated and concluded the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I), imposing quantitative limits on the U.S.-Soviet missile buildup. In Henry Kissinger's words, this created “a platform of coexistence.”
Claim #5: “Because America seeks to contain, subvert, or even overthrow the Iranian regime.”
Some argue that signing an arms-control agreement is a distraction from Washington’s main objective, which should be to change the Iranian regime. In thinking about this claim, members of Congress should study the Reagan administration’s core national-security strategy. Now declassified, it states that “U.S. policy towards the Soviet Union will consist of three elements: external resistance to Soviet imperialism; internal pressure on the USSR to weaken the sources of Soviet imperialism;” and engaging “the Soviet Union in negotiations to attempt to reach agreements which protect and enhance U.S. interests and which are consistent with the principle of strict reciprocity and mutual interest.” Thus, at the same time that Reagan’s administration was negotiating and signing agreements, it was redoubling efforts to undermine the Soviet regime. And in 1991, the Soviet Union disappeared.
It is worth recalling that Reagan’s strategy caused considerable pain in some conservative quarters. Washington Post columnist George Will accused Reagan of “accelerating moral disarmament,” predicting that “actual disarmament will follow.” William F. Buckley’s National Review called Reagan’s Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty a “suicide pact.” As Reagan’s Secretary of State George Shultz noted in his memoirs, “Reagan believed in being strong enough to defend one’s interests, but he viewed that strength as a means, not an end in itself. He was ready to negotiate with his adversaries. In that readiness, he was sharply different from most of his conservative supporters, who advocated strength for America but who did not want to use that strength as a basis for the inevitable give-and-take of the negotiating process.”
Give-and-take with enemies is hard, which is why we are certain to hear savage criticism over the deal with Iran. When critics compare John Kerry to Neville Chamberlain, they act as if 1938 is the only year in history with useful lessons. The seven decades of the nuclear era also offer lessons, the most salient of which reinforces Nietzsche: Remember what America is trying to do.
This post has been adapted from testimony the author gave to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 24, 2015.