Otherwise, what exactly is the alternative? A major U.S. military deployment, like in Iraq from 2003 to 2012? Backing an insurgency like in Syria since 2013 or Afghanistan in the 1980s? Or maybe to avoid ground forces, we could just bomb them from the air like the Saudis are doing in Yemen? Three years into that effort, the humanitarian situation is catastrophic, the Iran-backed Houthis are stronger than ever, al-Qaeda is benefiting from the chaos and civilian casualties, criticism of America’s Saudi ally is mounting in the United Nations and the U.S. Congress, and most important of all, Iran’s role in Yemen is growing, not weakening. There are no easy answers, but this method of confronting Iran is not doing the trick.
I’m always puzzled when critics of the Iran deal bring up North Korea as if it shows what happens when you have a nuclear-weapons deal, since it actually shows what happens when you don’t. The 1994 Agreed Framework provided modest economic benefits to North Korea in exchange for eliminating its means to produce nuclear weapons. Critics of that deal, including in a newly elected Republican Congress, objected to the provision of fuel oil and light-water reactors to Pyongyang, insisting, just as today regarding Iran, that its bad behavior should not be rewarded and we should insist on a “better deal.” Then, after years of North Korea’s foot-dragging, the incoming Bush administration said in 2001 that the Agreed Framework was no longer on the table and turned instead to isolation of a country already far more economically squeezed than Iran is today. The result is the nuclear-armed and ICBM-building North Korea that poses such a problem now.
There is, of course, no guarantee that any enduring deal could have been done with the insecure and unpredictable regime in Pyongyang, whose attempts to cheat on the Agreed Framework underscore the importance of the sort of verification that the JCPOA provides. But what is certain is that the absence of even an imperfect agreement resulted not in nuclear disarmament but in a dangerous and unstable nuclear-weapons state.
We should wish to see regime change in Iran, and we should be inspired by all those Iranians pushing for it. They may not overthrow the government anytime soon, but they are certainly getting its attention. It’s interesting that Rouhani acknowledged the legitimacy of the protesters’ economic grievances, and that he admitted that “one cannot force one’s lifestyle on future generations,” a tacit recognition of the need for social change. Gerecht mocks the notion that economic openness can lead to political change and democracy, but there’s actually a pretty good track record for its doing just that—at least as well as enduring embargoes and isolation have. I don’t know how or when the Iranian people are going to bring about change in Tehran, but I do like the fact that the JCPOA blocks Iran from getting anywhere close to a nuclear-weapons capability until at least 2030—at a minimum, it would seem to make sense to wait to assess the situation then rather than provoke a nuclear crisis now. Gerecht grants that in actively promoting regime change we will make some “stupid mistakes,” but I’d just as soon try to avoid them. Maybe in baseball hitting over .300 can get you in the Hall of Fame, but foreign-policy failures are more costly than strikeouts. We face enough crises as it is; I don’t think we need to add unnecessary ones of our own making.