Iran: The Punditariat Weighs In

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Now that the negotiating endgame for a nuclear limitation agreement with Iran has been extended to July 7th, critics and kibitzers have had an extra seven days to push, prod and excoriate the Obama administration. It’s far easier to criticize an agreement-in-progress for not being good enough than to defend it – even when the outlines of the deal negotiated in early June were surprisingly good.

Critics and kibitzers fall into various camps. There are “friendlies,” “wary-ies,” and “hostiles.” The Washington Institute issued a public statement by an influential group of “friendlies” and “wary-ies” itemizing details where the Obama administration needed to be bucked up. One friendly, Bob Einhorn, subsequently amplified that none of these benchmarks were “poison pills.” But if they aren’t met, Bob could be wrong.

David Albright has suggested that the Congress underscore Tehran’s obligations under an agreement. This approach would hand over the interpretation of imprecise or purposeful diplomatic compromises to legislative opponents of an executive agreement. This happened after the 1972 SALT I Interim Agreement, when Republicans on Capitol Hill termed every Soviet action on every provision that the Nixon Administration was unable to nail down as a damning violation.

One veteran of these negotiations, Al Carnesale, has weighed in by suggesting a simple question when evaluating the final agreement: “Compared to what?” Advocates will certainly do this, but “wary-ies” and opponents will have different metrics of measurement.

There’s a slight groundswell on Capitol Hill, including Presidential candidate Lindsey Graham, in favor of the status quo rather than a negotiated deal – but this assumes that Tehran would be willing to continue a policy of weapon-related restraint absent the prospect of sanctions relief. The safest position for nay-sayers to take, as exemplified by Presidential candidate Marco Rubio and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is to advise the Obama Administration to “just walk away” while toughening up sanctions. But then what? No deal would satisfy critics who take their cues from Benjamin Netanyahu.

Which leads us to the non-negotiation-from-strength camp. This school of punditry argues that we wait for a regime’s collapse, or actively assist in its demise, or set conditions for a negotiated settlement that won’t happen, thereby holding the high ground and not being tainted by compromise. For much of its tenure, the George W. Bush administration adopted this stance, with minor variations, toward North Korea and Iran, while watching their nuclear capabilities grow.

Matt Kroenig, a member of the non-negotiation-from-strength camp dressed up as the negotiation-from-strength camp, has written that “the only way to prevent nuclear proliferation in Iran would be to eliminate its uranium enrichment capability.” I, too, would prefer this outcome, but I understand that it won’t happen. Since Matt is a very smart guy, I presume he does, too. This leaves three options: watching dangerous stockpiles grow, limiting Iran’s capabilities through a negotiated agreement, or bombing Iran’s nuclear production complex.

Matt and a few others from the non-negotiation-from-strength camp get high marks for candor in acknowledging support for the military option – a tough sell for a war-weary American public and overburdened U.S. military forces that have been tasked with tidying up messes made by elected officials in the Middle East while gearing up to counter a revanchist Russia and the rise of China.

Secretary of State Colin Powell once invoked, regrettably without much emphasis, the “Pottery Barn rule”: you break it, you own it. Powell was prescient but still wrong about Iraq. The George W. Bush Administration broke plenty of pottery, but never owned Iraq, despite spending a trillion or so dollars there. It rejected the possibility of a negotiated settlement that could assuage concerns over Iraq’s WMD programs after Saddam sent feelers out: The Bush Administration didn’t want to negotiate from strength; it wanted regime change.

Regime change by use of military force in Iran is out of the question. Waiting Iran out isn’t an option, either, leaving periodic aerial sorties to keep Iran from acquiring the means to make nuclear weapons. Tehran’s countermoves will place even more burdens on U.S. military forces, and are likely to include blowing past the nuclear constraints that opponents rail against as being insufficient. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates estimated the time bought by bombing runs as perhaps two to three years. Compare this to provisions the Obama Administration is negotiating that would extend limitations on Iran’s bomb-making capability from ten to twelve years and perhaps longer. Those calling for military strikes are, in effect, arguing that extending limits on Iran’s nuclear program for ten or more years is insufficient, while delaying it for two to three years is good enough.

Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Arms Control Wonk on July 5, 2015.

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