The Single Most Important Question to Ask About the Iran Deal

Making sense of a morally dubious agreement that might be a practical necessity

Morteza Nikoubazl / Reuters

“Look, 20 years from now, I’m still going to be around, God willing. If Iran has a nuclear weapon, it’s my name on this.” – President Barack Obama, May 21, 2015

The theocratic regime that rules Iran—a regime that is a committed and proficient sponsor of terrorism, according to John Kerry’s State Department—will be more powerful tomorrow than it is today, thanks to the agreement it has just negotiated with the Obama administration, America’s European allies, and two U.S. adversaries as well.

This sad conclusion is unavoidable. The lifting of crippling sanctions, which will come about as part of the nuclear deal struck in Vienna, means that at least $150 billion, a sum Barack Obama first invoked in May, will soon enough flow to Tehran. With this very large pot of money, the regime will be able to fund both domestic works and foreign adventures in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, and elsewhere.

It is hard to imagine a scenario—at least in the short term—in which Hezbollah and other terror organizations on the Iranian payroll don’t see a windfall from the agreement. This is a bad development in particular for the people of Syria. Iran, as the Assad regime’s funder, protector, and supplier of weapons, foot soldiers, and strategists, is playing a crucial role in the destruction of Syria. Now Syrians will see their oppressor become wealthier and gain international legitimacy (legitimacy not just for Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, which this deal will leave in place). Here is a bit of what the State Department says about Iran’s role in what might be the world’s most awful war: “In 2014, Iran continued to provide arms, financing, training, and the facilitation of primarily Iraqi Shia and Afghan fighters to support the Asad regime’s brutal crackdown that has resulted in the deaths of at least 191,000 people in Syria.”

And yet the deal, though representing a morally dubious compromise with a terror-supporting theocracy, might be, from the perspective of U.S. national security, a practical necessity. I’m writing this just as the deal is being announced, and I think it is dangerous to make sweeping judgments about a complicated document I’ve only skimmed. (And, of course, there will be plenty of time in Washington over the next 60 days for sweeping judgments!) But here is the most important question to ask going forward: Does this deal significantly reduce the chance that Iran could, in the foreseeable future (20 years is the time period Obama mentioned in an interview with me in May), continue its nefarious activities under the protection of a nuclear umbrella? If the answer to this question is yes, then a deal, in theory, is worth supporting.

I have no doubt that this deal isn’t perfect. I’m worried, in particular, about the issue of intrusive inspections: How much visibility will the International Atomic Energy Agency (and, by the way, the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies) have into the Iranian nuclear program? How quickly will inspectors be able to visit sites they want to visit?  I’m also worried about the time-based, rather than condition-based, lifting of arms embargoes (the United States should never acquiesce to a flow of arms to a terror-sponsoring state), and about Iran’s ability to continue its research and development on ballistic missiles and other aspects of a nuclear program. I also believe that so-called “snapback” sanctions are a fiction: The U.S. could reimpose sanctions on Iran if Tehran cheats on the deal, but it would be reimposing these sanctions on what will be a much-richer country, one that could withstand such sanctions for quite a while.

Snapback is actually a person, not a mechanism. The 45th president of the United States will be America’s snapback. The Iranians will not find the next president to be as accommodating as the current president (unless, of course, Rand Paul wins the general election). All of today’s frontrunners—Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Hillary Clinton—would, as president, be watching Iranian behavior with jaundiced eyes. I don’t doubt that Hillary Clinton will support the current deal, but I also don’t doubt that she would push back hard against Iranian cheating, or Iranian adventurism, if she becomes president. (“I’ve always been in the camp that held that they did not have a right to enrichment,” she told me last year. “Contrary to their claim, there is no such thing as a right to enrich. This is absolutely unfounded.”)

The Iran drama is only beginning. Assuming that Obama can sell this deal to Congress—Chuck Schumer, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you—this will be a multi-year story of implementation. I wish I could believe what Obama seems to suspect, that this deal will set in motion a virtuous cycle in which moderates (relative moderates, of course) gain power in a liberalizing Iran. But I don’t think that this is happening soon. For now, I hope that Obama will study the reality of Iranian activity in the region, and begin to push back against Iran’s ambitions with more alacrity than he has done so far.

I mentioned Syria earlier as an example of a country that could suffer under this agreement. Other Arab states are, of course, under threat from an empowered, better-funded Iran. One country that I think could conceivably—conceivably—benefit from this deal is Israel. It will face acute conventional challenges from Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese proxy, but Hezbollah will be operating, for the time being at least, without the protection of an Iranian nuclear umbrella. If the plausible case can be made that this deal actually pushes Iran further away from the nuclear threshold—and we’ll have time, over the next 60 days, to test this case—then Israel will be better off with this deal than it would be without it. Unlike many proponents of this deal, I take the Iranian regime’s threats to exterminate Israel seriously. (I’m not sure, based on my last conversation with Obama, that he fully understands the depth of the regime’s anti-Semitism, in part because the regime’s anti-Semitism is so absurdly offensive and illogical that the hyper-rational Obama might not believe that serious people actually think the way certain Iranians think.)

If I thought that preventative war—air strikes against Iran’s three or four most important nuclear facilities—could have led to the permanent de-nuclearization of this anti-Semitic terror state, I might have considered supporting such a notion. But I suspect that war would have only accelerated Iran’s push for a bomb. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, played an absolutely crucial role in motivating the world, and the Obama administration, to oppose Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But he has become an impotent player in this drama in part because he seeks a perfect solution to the Iranian challenge. There is no perfect solution.

I worry that Obama’s negotiators might have given away too much to the Iranians. On the other hand, Netanyahu’s dream—of total Iranian capitulation—was never going to become a reality. The dirty little secret of this whole story is that it is very difficult to stop a large nation that possesses both natural resources and human talent, and a deep desire for power, from getting the bomb. We’ll see, in the coming days, if Obama and Kerry have devised an effective mechanism to keep Iran far away from the nuclear threshold.