Editor’s Note: This article is part of a debate about whether to stay in the Iran deal. Read the other entries here.
There’s a decent chance that tearing up the Iran deal, as Trump seems likely to do next week, will lead to escalating confrontation with Iran throughout the Middle East, diplomatic isolation of the United States, and military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities that would likely have to be repeated periodically in the absence of any nuclear agreement or verification regime. I respect Reuel Marc Gerecht’s honesty in his recent Atlantic pieces advocating withdrawal from the Iran deal, and his willingness to accept the logical consequences of his approach, or at least the serious risk that these could be the consequences.
Gerecht says one reason America must insist on additional demands of Iran is because otherwise we will never know “whether the clerical regime is cheating outside the surveilled sites.” I’ll admit that no inspection regime could ever be perfect. But the current one that provides for 24/7 surveillance cameras at declared sites and gives the International Atomic Energy Agency the right to go wherever else it needs to go—including to military bases, by the way—is not just good but a whole lot better than no inspection regime at all, which is where I fear Gerecht’s policy prescriptions would lead. Once America bombs Iranian facilities, and they kick all the inspectors out, how are we going to be sure they’re not cheating then? Iran is a big country with lots of scientists, engineers, labs, mountains, cities, and military bases. How will we know what they’re up to? Will we send in inspectors like the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) in Iraq, and then, if they refuse, invade to change the regime? It’s not as if we haven’t been in a similar situation before.
I also think Gerecht overestimates our ability to persuade America’s international partners— whose support is indispensable if in containing Iran—to join us in supporting an American list of nonnegotiable demands. I, too, would have liked to see a continuation of the international prohibition on Iranian ballistic missile activity that was codified in 2010 in UN Security Council Resolution 1929. But guess what? Beyond the sad reality that our international partners never really enforced it anyway, they only agreed to that ban in the first place to press Iran to accept a nuclear deal, and once the deal was agreed they were unwilling to support the Obama administration’s efforts to include the ban in a new resolution. So we should have walked away from the nuclear deal over that? Unless that somehow led the Russians, Chinese, and Europeans to cave, and Iran to agree, today Iran would be a whole lot closer to a nuclear-weapons capability, if not already there. America can and should continue to sanction Iran’s long-range missile activity and seek an agreement to constrain it—but if you’re willing to have the United States go to war over that you should understand we’ll be doing so almost alone, and probably for a long time.
I’m also puzzled by the assertion that the JCPOA prevents America from standing up to Iran in areas outside the nuclear realm. In fact, both at the talks and afterwards, we in the Obama administration specifically preserved the ability to do so, including by confronting Iran in the region and sanctioning it over terrorism, ballistic missile development, and human rights violations, and the United States has done all of those things both under Obama and Trump. Even since the deal, by the way, the United States does not invest in Iran, trade with Iran, or have diplomatic relations with Iran, while it gives and sells hundreds of billions of dollars of defense equipment to Iran’s regional rivals, and cooperates with them on intelligence and missile defense and military operations in places like Syria and Yemen. So the notion that the United States has somehow “tilted” to Iran since the JCPOA was concluded makes no sense.
Gerecht is right of course that Trump’s “new Iran strategy” announced in October wasn’t very new. It basically consisted of a lot of bombastic language and a designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps for sanctions under new authorities, even though it had already been designated multiple times over under other authorities—a mostly symbolic move. It appears that even people like Generals James Mattis and H.R. McMaster, not known for being soft on Iran, opposed even designating the IRCG as a Foreign Terrorist Organization; striking Iranian targets in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon; or re-imposing all the secondary economic sanctions that would have led to a major clash with all America’s international partners. Perhaps they had an appreciation of the costs of U.S. military action in the Middle East, or just realized that without international support, American economic sanctions are not very effective.
The Iran deal does not prevent America from “doing something serious” in Syria. Even consistent with the deal, the U.S. could, if it wanted, conduct airstrikes against regime or Iranian targets, provide unlimited military support to the anti-Assad opposition, and sanction a wide range of Iranian leaders or entities for propping up Assad. There are reasons the U.S. might not want to do all those things, but it’s not because the JCPOA proscribes them. And anyway who says arms control agreements and containing regional aggression are incompatible? Didn’t Ronald Reagan negotiate the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START 1) and sign the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Moscow, all while vigorously resisting it militarily, diplomatically, and ideologically around the world?
I disagree with former ambassador Fred Hof’s contention—so widely taken for granted—that it was Obama’s desire to reach a nuclear deal that prevented him from intervening in Syria. I have enormous respect for Hof, one of the most decent people in Washington. We worked closely together in government, including at the 2012 Geneva conference where we tried to negotiate an international agreement that would require Assad to step aside. But on this point Hof—like Gerecht and the many others who make this claim—is just wrong. The idea that Barack Obama needed some extracurricular motivation for wanting to avoid a U.S. military intervention in Syria is absurd. He also opposed putting U.S. troops into Libya and arming Ukraine—is the pursuit of an Iran deal the explanation for those policies as well? As I have noted elsewhere, while at the White House I went to hundreds of meetings on both Iran and Syria and never once heard anyone argue against intervention in Syria on the basis that it might interfere with negotiations with Iran. In fact, the Obama administration officials most focused on getting an Iran deal—including John Kerry, Bill Burns, Jake Sullivan, and Wendy Sherman—all thought we should do more in Syria and that doing so would bolster, not undermine, the U.S. negotiating position on Iran.
As for the notion that the JCPOA is responsible for fueling Iranian meddling in the region, Gerecht mocks the predictions by some of my former colleagues that most of the deal’s financial benefits would largely go to domestic spending. What about General Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who last year testified that, in fact, the “preponderance of the money [from sanctions relief] has gone to economic development and infrastructure” in Iran? Was that also just Obama administration propaganda? Personally I have always thought we should acknowledge that some of those revenues—Iran’s access to some of its own money that had been held in frozen foreign accounts—can and will be put to nefarious purposes. But the Iranian meddling in question is just not that costly, money is fungible, and available budgetary resources has never been the long pole in the tent. (If it were, by the way, we should be in a better situation now, since the big fall in oil prices since 2014 has hurt Iran’s budgetary picture more than the increased ability to sell oil has helped it.) Iran, whose influence in Iraq inevitably resulted from the toppling of Saddam Hussein, exploits the conflicts taking place in the region and benefits from real and perceived repression of Shiites in neighboring states. That’s a major problem, and the United States should work with its partners militarily and diplomatically to help contain it—but it wasn’t caused by the JCPOA and wouldn’t be fixed by abandoning it.
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 embargos 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.