The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the Iran Nuclear Deal

July 14, 2015 § 7 Comments

There are two huge pieces of news today that interest me, and while the one I really want to write about is the New Horizons spacecraft reaching Pluto and sending back amazing pictures and data on Pluto and Charon (which everyone refers to as one of Pluto’s moons but isn’t technically an accurate description since Charon doesn’t orbit Pluto and the system’s center of gravity lies in between them, but don’t get me started), for some reason people seem to want to know what I think about the Iran deal rather than what I think about the Plutonian atmosphere. So after spending some time reading through all 159 pages (except for the lists of companies and individuals on which sanctions will be lifted, which I skimmed), here is my initial take on where I think this deal works and the myriad ways in which I fear it won’t.

Starting with the good, there are some really good elements in this deal when it comes to keeping the wraps on Iran’s nuclear activity that we currently know about. The sections dealing with preventing a break out are pretty strong in terms of absolutely limiting Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium beyond a 3.67% level for fifteen years and turning Fordow into what is essentially a centrifuge museum. The only centrifuges that will actually be spinning uranium for the first ten years are 5,060 first generation centrifuges, and despite what sounds like a high number, nobody is actually worried about these. Any uranium in excess of 300 kilograms gets down blended and all spent fuel from reactors gets shipped out of the country The IAEA monitoring system in place for these centrifuges and the more advanced ones that Iran has developed also seems very strong to me, with full IAEA access, control, or electronic monitoring in various ways. Iran also has to address IAEA questions about its past activities, which should provide some additional clarity for preventing illicit Iranian activity going forward. Based on the provisions of this deal, I think it very unlikely that Iran will produce a nuclear weapon at any of its known facilities or with any of its current centrifuges in the next decade.

But even giving credit to the P5+1 negotiators for doing a good job on knocking out the break out option in the short term, this deal is indicative of the absurdly short attention span we Americans seem to have, where we think that ten years is a long time when in the context of international relations it is the blink of an eye. While it is true that Iran cannot enrich uranium in a worrisome manner over the first ten years of the deal, the agreement basically lets Iran do all the prep work during this ten year period to accomplish the higher uranium enrichment later on in advanced centrifuges without actually doing so during this initial decade. Once the ten year limit expires, Iran is in a position to break out really quickly if it so chooses, since while it commits to 3.67% enrichment for fifteen years, after ten years it can enrich uranium in more advanced centrifuges and install the advanced IR-8 centrifuge infrastructure in Natanz  and manufacture new complete advanced centrifuges. So while it will still only be enriching uranium at low levels for fifteen years, it will have five years of testing and manufacturing more advanced machinery before the deal’s restrictions on enrichment levels expire. Despite the fact that the NPT and the Additional Protocol will still apply in perpetuity, Iran has quite clearly violated the NPT in the past and I see no reason to assume that it won’t do so again, so I do not assume that the break out provisions are going to operative past fifteen years.

When it comes to sneak out, I am less satisfied. The agreement provides for only 150 IAEA inspectors to monitor the entire country, which frankly is a joke in a country the size of Iran. The prevention of a sneak out path to a bomb is predicated on Iran having to declare all of its existing facilities before the deal is implemented and having to inform inspectors ahead of time if it decides to build any new facilities, since otherwise detecting secret centrifuge facilities – as opposed to plutonium facilities – is not easy (see Fordow for a relevant and recent example). Furthermore, if inspectors request access to a suspected undeclared location, Iran has two weeks from the time that access is requested to think about it, and if it decides to keep inspectors out, a majority of the Joint Commission (P5+1, EU representative, and Iran) has to vote to force Iran to resolve the situation, at which point Iran has another ten days to negotiate and implement whatever solution the Joint Commission ultimately imposes. This is certainly not the “anytime, anywhere” inspections that were going to make deal skeptics comfortable and that would be required for true, absolute verification of Iranian compliance. Aaron Stein, who is my guru on the technical issues, is far more sanguine on the arms control provisions of the deal, and I am told by those who know these issues much better than I that three and a half weeks is not nearly enough time to dismantle a covert enrichment facility and scrub all evidence of the centrifuges, tubing, etc. so perhaps the two weeks plus ten days is not as disastrous as it seems to my admittedly amateur eyes. But ultimately, your comfort level here has to rest on trust. If you assume that Iran is not going to hold anything back or try to cheat the system, then you’re probably ok with the measures that this deal puts in place. But as President Obama himself said earlier today, the deal is predicated verification rather than trust, and assuming that Iran has nothing that they won’t tell us about appears to me to be a big hole in the deal when you don’t really have a good way of detecting secret facilities. Given that much sanctions relief and embargo relief can expire earlier than the designated eight year period if the IAEA certifies that all nuclear material in Iran remains in peaceful activities, and that the additional requirements on top of this deal imposed by the NPT and the Additional Protocol rely on eternal Iranian compliance, I wouldn’t bet very much money that Iran is going to remain in its nuclear box in perpetuity.

The other big element that I have an issue with is the question of Iran’s conventional weapons and lifting the current arms embargo. It was widely reported in the last couple of days that the deal was stuck on this point, and Obama’s statement today portrayed this as a win since the weapons embargo will last another five year and the ballistic missile ban another eight years. Why this wasn’t set as an absolute red line related to Iran’s non-nuclear behavior is mystifying to me, since it is Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism worldwide, rather than its nuclear program, that create an impetus for a general arms embargo. I understand why the compromises on Arak and Fordow are smart, since they hand Iran a pyrrhic victory by allowing it to save face and claim that it keeps all of its facilities while at the same time rendering those two facilities more or less harmless given the monitoring regime that has been set up for known nuclear sites. The conventional arms and ballistic missiles would have been a red line for me, and that we are essentially denying Iran nuclear weapons – which it would have been highly unlikely to actually use anyway and which are historically defensive weapons – and in return allowing it to arm to the teeth with stuff that it will use to create trouble around the Middle East is worrisome to say the least.

Which brings me to my next point, which is that it is difficult to see how this deal advances conventional peace and stability in the Middle East over the next decade even as it pushes a nuclear Iran farther away. Contra the president’s assumptions, Iran is almost certainly going to use the money in sanctions relief to continue fighting proxy wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and continuing its general covert war with the Sunni world, not to mention its sponsorship of terrorism against Israeli and Western targets. By all means celebrate a temporary victory on the nuclear front, but the idea that this will bring peace in our time or stability to the Middle East is ridiculous. The impetus for the deal from the administration’s perspective has clearly been a conviction that Iran is changing socially and politically and that the regime cannot go on forever, and that a nuclear deal will empower moderates, create pressure from below for change, etc. This view is hubristic; I know of nobody who can accurately predict with any type of certainty or accuracy whether and when regimes will collapse, or how social trends will impact a deeply authoritarian state’s political trajectory (and yes, Iran is a deeply authoritarian state, liberalizing society and elected parliament or not). Certainly providing the regime with an influx of cash, cooperation on regional issues, and better access to arms is not going to hasten the end of the mullahs’ rule, so much as I find it hard to condemn the deal entirely because of some clear positives on the nuclear issue, I find it just as hard to celebrate this as some clear and celebratory foreign policy victory.

That does not mean that everything on the regional front will be doom and gloom. Think about Iran before sanctions were imposed in 2006. Was Iran considered to be an existential threat to U.S. security? To work security? In a position to be a regional hegemon that was going to imminently dominate the Middle East? Certainly Iran was a real foreign policy problem, but nobody worried that the era of Iranian domination was nigh. This deal basically restores the status quo ante in that regard – with the one very large exception that Iran’s reliable Syrian ally Bashar al-Assad is in a much worse position than he was – and so the question is whether Iran has been so successful under sanctions that the lifting of sanctions is now going to automatically mean a regional apocalypse. My bet is that the answer to this question is that it has not. Israel has obviously been the country most concerned about Iran, and Bibi Netanyahu has not in any way tried to hide his anger over the deal since its conclusion was announced, but in some ways I think this deal actually benefits Israel more than it does the U.S. As I have emphasized, the pure nuclear component is the strongest element here, and so I truly believe that Israel can breathe more easily about a nuclear Iran for at least a decade, which is more than it would be able to do were there no deal at all. If Iran is spending its energies and new conventional capabilities and wealth on propping up Bashar al-Assad, fighting ISIS, reinforcing the Houthis in Yemen, providing security for the government in Iraq, and all of the other things it is doing around the region, then Israel is better off than it would otherwise be. Iranian backing for Hizballah is still an enormous problem that should not be underemphasized, and once the Syrian civil war is over it will primarily be a problem for Israel, but faced with a choice between a nuclear Iran vs. an Iran that can better arm and train Hizballah, most Israeli leaders would choose the latter option, even if it is a terrible one. A nuclear Iran was always a bigger problem for Israel than for the U.S., whereas an Iran that has more conventional capabilities to cause trouble for American allies and harass shipping in the Gulf is a bigger problem for the U.S. than Israel. Obviously these are not mutually exclusive, but to the extent that this deal makes the nuclear aspect less problematic and the regional adventurism more problematic, Israel benefits more. As one might guess, I do not think Israel’s initial reaction to the deal was particularly smart, but I’ll save that for another post later in the week.

The bottom line for me is that there are elements of this deal to like and elements of this deal to detest. Ceteris paribus on the sole question of nuclear weapons in the short term, this is certainly better than no deal, but the problem is that the deal cannot be judged solely on the nuclear question given everything else involved. It is tough for me to see how this agreement permanently prevents proliferation in the region in the long term and I certainly do not think it will transform the Middle East in a markedly good way. Ultimately, the whole thing really hinges on Obama’s bet on the future direction of Iran as opposed to Iranian compliance with the deal’s provisions, and as I have elaborated upon before at some length, I am on the opposite side of the president’s bet.

Is Israel’s Maximalist Negotiating and Rhetorical Approach Helpful or Harmful?

July 9, 2015 § 5 Comments

I have a piece out in Politico in which I argue that Israel’s tendency to take the most extreme position available on an issue is hurting it in tangible ways. The two areas that I point to – although there are others – are Israel’s influence on the Iran negotiations and Israel’s defense of its actions in Gaza. In both situations, Israel is largely in the right, but this fact gets obscured by the Israeli government setting a bar so high for itself that everything else it says tends to get ignored and it puts itself unnecessarily on the defensive. To my mind, it betrays a sense of Israeli insecurity that shouldn’t actually be there, and I wish that the Israeli government would take a step back and reassess its strategy for dealing with threats of all sorts. Here is the opening of the piece:

With the latest deadline for nuclear talks with Iran looming at the end of the week, we can already predict the biggest loser in the event of a deal: Israel. An agreement along the lines of what has been reported is not what Israel wanted. It was never going to be. But the shortsighted, take-no-prisoners stance of the Israeli government has guaranteed that its concerns got shorter shrift than was absolutely necessary.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s incessant calls to prohibit any Iranian enrichment of uranium—when it was clear very early on that the P5+1 was not going to proceed along such lines—did not serve to set a negotiating baseline. Instead, it ended up marginalizing Israel and created a situation in which the American negotiating team became even more indifferent to Israeli interests. By making what was an unrealistic goal the centerpiece of his opposition strategy rather than focusing on attainable elements, such as thorough inspections or limits on ballistic missiles, Netanyahu damaged his own cause. The perception that he, not Iran, was the unreasonable party marginalized Netanyahu and assured that negotiators would not take anything else he said seriously, irrespective of the underlying truth at the heart of his position, namely that Iran is a bad actor that has spent decades fighting Israel and the West and destabilizing the Middle East.

The arena of Iranian negotiations is not the only one in which Israel’s tendency to take an extreme position has obscured the justice of an underlying issue. While Iran is the threat that looms largest in the eyes of the Netanyahu government, another major one is diplomatic isolation, a multi-tentacled menace that requires a coordinated response if Israel is to defeat it. The danger is embodied by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which seeks to isolate Israel economically and culturally, but the larger risk lies with a growing perception among mass audiences that Israel deserves extra opprobrium for actions that are depicted as extraordinarily beyond the pale. Recognizing the danger of this development, the Israeli government has attacked it with guns blazing, but often in a way that leads to Israel shooting itself in the foot.
Read the rest at:

Does the Outcome of the Election Even Matter for Israeli Foreign Policy?

March 17, 2015 § 3 Comments

I have a piece in Foreign Affairs today in which I argue that on foreign and security issues – Iran, the peace process, settlements, fighting with Hamas, etc. – a Herzog prime ministership will look very much like Netanyahu’s prime ministership has. Here is the setup to my argument:

These days, Israeli opposition leader Yitzhak “Buji” Herzog is on everyone’s mind, and for good reason. Herzog’s Zionist Camp electoral bloc is the clear leader in the last polls allowed to be published before Tuesday’s election, raising the prospect of an opposition candidate unseating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—who is coming off two consecutive terms following his first term nearly two decades ago.

Herzog’s electoral prospects are not the only thing creating buzz, however. For those opposed to Netanyahu’s hawkish positions on Iran and the Palestinians—and his general worldview of an Israel beset on all sides by enemies (including, in some iterations, the Obama administration and the European Union), Herzog seems to represent the possibility of genuine change. He has been described as Netanyahu’s “polar opposite” and would be Israel’s first truly left-wing prime minister since Ehud Barak in 1999. Many thus hope that his election could bring a significant turn in Israeli foreign and defense policies, including an end to Israeli opposition to a nuclear deal with Iran and a renewed push toward Palestinian statehood.

Those hoping to see a momentous shift in Israeli foreign policy, however, will be disappointed. No matter who emerges as the prime minister following the election and the inevitable weeks of haggling and horse-trading that go into forming a coalition, Israel’s foreign policy on the big issues will be marked by consistency rather than transformation. Although no one should casually dismiss Herzog’s markedly different tone and approach to the world, his and Netanyahu’s areas of disagreement are not as large as one might think. Further, in office, both would be similarly boxed in by circumstances beyond their control.

It is no accident that Herzog’s campaign, like the previous Labor campaign in 2013, has been largely run on domestic issues. Not only are economic and social issues the most pressing items on voters’ minds, the space between Likud and Labor on foreign policy can be measured in inches rather than miles. The big foreign policy matter that Herzog has seized upon is the faltering relationship between the Untied States and Israel, which he vows to improve. There is no doubt that the White House would immediately warm to a Prime Minister Herzog, given that he is far less abrasive than Netanyahu and would work to ease tensions, but that would be the case with nearly any other candidate. The personal relationship between Obama and Netanyahu is so cold that an improvement in bilateral ties will be more about Netanyahu’s absence than about his replacement.

On the biggest policy issue dividing the United States and Israel, however, Netanyahu and Herzog speak with the same voice. Herzog’s denouncement of Netanyahu’s speech to Congress should not obscure the fact that, like Netanyahu, Herzog would never accept a nuclear Iran as a fait accompli and that Herzog’s perception of the Iranian threat is far more acute than Obama’s. The likelihood that Herzog would certainly work to keep his disagreements with the White House behind closed doors does not mean that there would be no disagreements and that Herzog would clear the path for a nuclear deal. In fact, he would not bring about a change in Israel’s fear of Iranian nuclear ambitions or the country’s correspondingly hawkish stance.

To read the rest of the price, please head over to Foreign Affairs.

My Quick Takeaway from Bibi’s Speech

March 4, 2015 § 10 Comments

I doubt there’s anyone reading this who didn’t watch (or at least read the transcript of) Bibi Netanyahu’s speech themselves yesterday, and everyone has their own well-informed opinions by now so I don’t feel the need to comment too extensively. I did want to flag just a few things though that I found interesting or significant.

1. Coming into the speech, the conventional wisdom on the right was that Netanyahu was going to inform Congress and the world of all the worrisome details in the emerging Iran nuclear deal that the administration has been withholding, and the conventional wisdom on the left was that Netanyahu was going to bash the administration and argue that nothing short of military action will halt Iran’s inevitable march to a bomb. Netanyahu actually did neither of those things, and I found his speech to be relatively tame. As I expected (which you know if you were following me on Twitter yesterday morning), he was conciliatory toward Obama and the Democrats and clearly realized that there was no further benefit to stoking the fire, and he didn’t say anything new in his speech that he hasn’t said before. I found the first half that catalogued Iran’s various sins somewhat unnecessary, as nobody to be taken seriously is arguing that Iran is a positive actor or a force for good in the world, but I also happen to agree with Bibi’s characterization of Iran as a revisionist state engaged in all sorts of unsavory and troublesome behavior around the world, so perhaps there are some who needed the reminder. I do not think that he hit a home run as nothing he said will convince anyone on the fence to change their views, but I also do not think that he struck out since predictions of a confrontational, bombastic, offensive Netanyahu were wrong.

2. I wrote yesterday that I was listening for a viable alternative to the administration’s current approach, and Netanyahu did not offer that exactly. His prescription was to negotiate a better deal, but the details of how one goes about doing that were non-existent. Is it replacing John Kerry and Wendy Sherman with negotiators more inclined to yell and throw a chair or two? Is it passing a sanctions bill now, before negotiations have concluded, to put more pressure on the Iranian side? Is it to pull out of negotiations unless Iran drops any demands that cross certain red lines, like a sunset clause (which if I were negotiating things on the U.S. side would be a deal breaker for me)? Natan Sachs makes a great point in Ha’aretz, which is that trying to torpedo this deal before things have run their course makes it much likelier that the administration will rush to sign an agreement even if it isn’t an ideal one, and that is obviously a very suboptimal outcome. I wish Netanyahu had been specific about how he thinks a better deal can be achieved, since it’s very easy to tear something down but far harder to do so constructively.

3. While I don’t think the speech will move the needle at all in terms of whether individual congressmen are in favor or opposed to talks, more sanctions, etc. I think it’s likely to have motivated more members to approve the Menendez-Corker bill in the works that will require congressional approval of any agreement. This is a good development, not a bad one. Even leaving aside that the executive branch has steadily gobbled up more and more power for decades and destroyed nearly any balance between the branches – a development sorely in need of a corrective – tacking on explicit legislative approval creates the two-level game that is required to get the better deal that Netanyahu believes is out there. If Obama or Kerry can turn to the Iranians and make the case that there are certain elements that simply will not pass Congress and that including those elements will scuttle any negotiated deal, it gives them more leverage in the negotiations since it convincingly self-binds them within a demarcated framework of what is and is not acceptable. It lets the U.S. negotiating team play good cop to Congress’s bad cop, and it can only create a better outcome for the U.S. side (assuming that Iran is serious about negotiating).

4. Far and away the most significant element to the speech is not anything that Netanyahu said, but what he left out, and I am baffled as to why this hasn’t been picked up on more widely. For the first time in awhile, Netanyahu did not insist on his oft-repeated demand that Iran be left with zero enrichment capability, and I assume that this was intentional. If Netanyahu is resigned to a deal happening and wants to make sure that it is one that Israel can live with, dropping the zero enrichment demand is the biggest and most important concession he can make since it creates a space that allows U.S. expectations and Israeli expectations to overlap, not to mention the fact that zero enrichment was a fantasy that was simply never going to happen. So long as Netanyahu was demanding no enrichment at any level, there was not going to be an outcome that he could live with. The fact that he did not repeat it suggests to me that he is taking a more realistic and more reasonable view of things, particularly since low level enrichment was always a red herring – the only number that matters is 20% and higher for breakout purposes – and for the first time, he is actually helping a deal along. I give him lots of credit for this, and I don’t particularly care whether he did it because he realized that demanding zero enrichment made no sense from a technical perspective or whether he did it because he realized that it was just not a realistic demand and hence decided to be pragmatic about things. Either way, people should take this for the positive development that it is, and hope that the aftermath of this speech is that it has created the necessary space for a better deal by enlarging the part of the Venn diagram where the U.S. and Israel overlap.

What To Listen For In Netanyahu’s Speech Today

March 3, 2015 § Leave a comment

This morning’s Bibi Netanyahu speech to Congress is must-see tv if for no other reason than to observe the culmination of all the histrionics of the past month, but there is also one key thing in my view to keep an eye out for. Netanyahu’s goal is to make the case that the Obama administration is moving down a dangerous path with the Iran nuclear negotiations (although there are signs today that Iran may be looking for excuses not to sign a deal anyway) since allowing Iran to retain any nuclear capability or the ability to enrich uranium means that a nuclear breakout is inevitable, and that the world cannot and should not tolerate a nuclear Iran. We know that Netanyahu believes that a nuclear deal will not avert this result, and that it may even hasten it by confirming Iran’s right to enrich uranium and easing sanctions that make it harder for Iran to build a bomb, but we haven’t yet heard from him what his alternative is. I agree that a nuclear Iran is a terrible outcome, and a deal with a sunset clause that imposes no restrictions on Iran past the cessation of an agreement in the hopes that a new government will be lodged in Tehran is dangerously naive, but the alternatives bandied about do not accomplish the stated goal either. I’ve written about why I think the right deal is the best shot for preventing an Iranian bomb, but for those who disagree, I haven’t yet heard a convincing argument about what should happen instead.

If negotiations break down or Iran rejects a deal, then the options left are a) do nothing; b) impose harsher sanctions and wait for Iran to come back to the table or for the regime to fall; or c) bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities and/or wage a wider air and ground campaign. The first option of doing nothing may end up what happens given the difficulty of rallying already-reluctant countries for a different and more confrontational course of action, and this would certainly be a disaster, as it would allow Iran to proceed with its nuclear program uninhibited. The third option – military action – is also not going to prevent a bomb. Destroying Iranian nuclear facilities is a band-aid rather a permanent solution as they can – and will – easily be rebuilt, and it would unquestionably harden Iranian resolve to put facilities underground and go full out for a bomb as quickly as possible on the logic that the only way to deter future attacks is to become a nuclear power. There is very little chance that it will make Iran rethink its desire to gain weaponized nuclear capability, and unless the U.S., Israel, or some broader coalition is willing to make bombing runs every two years like clockwork, I can think of no more reliable way to ensure an Iranian bomb in the future. This is without even mentioning that sustained military action against Iran every few years would cause an inconceivable mess to U.S. interests and power in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria…the list goes on. As for the option of reenacting the Gulf War but this time in Iran, that is a pipe dream and will never happen; there’s no political support for it and even less military support for it.

This leaves the option that I think most deal opponents have in mind, which is harsher sanctions in an effort to get Iran to either voluntarily stop its program, force Iran into coming back to the negotiating table with a more conciliatory stance, or bring down the regime. While this sounds great in theory, I don’t see how to realistically connect the dots and turn this from theory into reality. Harsher sanctions are more likely to have the same effect as a limited bombing run given that Iran has abided by the interim deal so far according to all of the available evidence, and following up its compliance with an interim deal by imposing harsher sanctions will lead to the logical conclusion on the Iranians’ part that the only way to break the impasse is not through more concessions – as doing so may lead to yet more sanctions based on recent history – but to dash for a bomb. In other words, Iran is going to look at its expected payoffs and reasonably conclude that surviving sanctions and going nuclear yields a more certain benefit than making more concessions. Again, this may be satisfying to the U.S. and Israel in the interim as Iran’s economy crumbles even more, but it won’t achieve the ultimate outcome of preventing a nuclear Iran. The other big problem is that harsher sanctions only work with a buy-in from Europe, Russia, and China, and if the perception is that the U.S. is the unreasonable party, then a more crippling sanctions regime will be an impossible sell. This is why I still think a deal – and a good deal, rather than any deal – has to be pursued, and I don’t see that the other options on the table actually accomplish the ultimate goal.

So this is all a long way of saying that if Netanyahu gets up before Congress in an hour and gives a stemwinder trashing the deal – which I expect him to do – but does not then move to the necessary coda, which is what should come in place of a deal and what plausible and enactable ideas he has to prevent a nuclear Iran, then he will not have accomplished his objectives. It isn’t enough to say what you don’t like if you have no solution for what to do instead. There’s no question that an Iranian bomb is a disastrous outcome; there’s no question that reports about the status of the negotiations are worrisome. A serious speech from Netanyahu will suggest a way forward that is more to his liking rather than offering up a hope and a prayer.

Losing The Forest Of Iran Policy For The Trees Of A Nuclear Deal

February 10, 2015 § 10 Comments

There has been tons of discussion over the past week about Mike Doran’s recent voluminous piece in Mosaic in which he argues that President Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East – his approach to Syria, ISIS, Israel, Iraq, Sunni allies, etc. – can be explained through the prism of a desired rapprochement with Iran and a goal of building a new regional order in which Iran plays an integral role. According to Doran, Obama sees the U.S. and Iran as natural allies and believes that blame for enmity between the two countries rests with the U.S., and thus the president’s strategy has been to accommodate rather than confront Iran in the hopes that a nuclear deal will lead to a larger grand bargain. In other words, the nuclear deal itself is a means rather than an end, which makes the particulars of any negotiated deal less important to the White House than the fact that a deal gets done in some form or another, as a deal on Iran’s nuclear program is the only pathway to a new Middle East in which the U.S. and Iran cooperate on a set of shared interests. Doran has long and detailed sections on how American inaction in Syria and bad relations between Obama and Bibi Netanyahu were impacted by this overarching goal, and he also spends a lot of time building a case that the U.S. has made permanent concessions to Iran in return for short term and easily reversible Iranian restraint. The result, according to Doran, is that the U.S. has given Iran all of the leverage and guaranteed that any emerging nuclear deal will be a disaster. I have quibbles with some of the details and sub-arguments (more on this below), but I find the overarching thesis convincing: that the White House’s ultimate goal is to turn Iran into an ally based on the view that the U.S. and Iran are natural partners with a set of common interests.

Building off Doran’s piece and off a Washington Post editorial that takes Obama to task over the nuclear negotiations, Walter Russell Mead lays out a list of problems with a nuclear deal that he sees the White House needing to address in order to gain real support for its Iran policy. These include enhancing Iranian power in the Middle East at the expense of a regional balance, assuming that a more powerful Iran will be less hostile to the U.S., linking more engagement with Iran to eventual regime liberalization and transition, and selling out a set of current allies without any guarantee of an adequate replacement. Even more so than Doran’s, Mead’s piece resonates because he is completely focused on the end game and on challenging the assumptions underlying the Obama administration’s view of a post-deal world. I agree with Doran that the administration’s strategy on nuclear negotiations is animated by wanting a grand bargain rather than wanting to deal with Iran’s nuclear program qua nuclear program, but I part ways with him when he focuses his ire on the nuclear deal itself. Not only am I not convinced that a nuclear deal is inherently a bad thing, I think that focusing on the nuclear aspect of Iran policy is a bad tactic. Those worried about Iranian intentions and Iranian power as a force of destabilization in the Middle East – and you can firmly include me in that camp – should assume that a deal is going to happen and should start thinking now about how to then contain a nuclear Iran in every way possible instead of wasting time trying to prevent what may be a fait accompli.

Why do I think that a nuclear deal is itself not a disaster? I’ll stipulate up front that I have no expertise in the science component of this or in knowing precisely how much enriched uranium constitutes a significant quantity, a.k.a. the point of no return in terms of preventing a usable bomb. But friends and colleagues who are experts in this stuff claim that the fighting about number of centrifuges is a red herring because the real issue is the 20% enrichment level, and nobody disputes that the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action successfully diluted the enriched uranium, which is what lengthens the breakout time. The ten thousand centrifuges that Iran already has are IR-1 centrifuges, but those are not the efficient ones that will allow a quick nuclear breakout, and the more efficient IR-8 centrifuges are the ones that the JPOA addressed. So any deal that preserves this status quo, meaning continued dilution of 20% enriched uranium and a cap on IR-8 centrifuges, makes a breakout period long enough to be easily detectable in time to verify it and take required action, military or otherwise.

Let’s assume for a moment though that this is wrong, and that somehow the Iranians will figure out a way to use the old centrifuges with greater efficiency and increase their stock of 20% enriched uranium. Let’s further – and much more concretely – assume that Iran is going to do everything it can to game the system and violate nuclear agreements, since all evidence suggests that it has tried to do so with degrees of success for years (see Fordow for the most prominent example). Let’s also assume that Iran sees a nuclear deal as nothing more than a way to lift sanctions and has no intention of genuinely freezing its nuclear program. Even in this situation – and to be clear, I am not playing devil’s advocate on these last two assumptions; I presume that this is precisely what will occur – isn’t a deal that creates an inspections regime the best way of preventing Iran’s attempts at cheating from being successful? If Iran wants a nuclear bomb, I’d much rather have as many roadblocks in place as possible than having no roadblocks at all. If a deal is not reached next month and further sanctions are slapped on Iran, that’s all fine and good, but sanctions alone are not going to stop a determined wannabe nuclear state from achieving that status. The most punishing sanctions conceivable will make it harder, but will not foreclose the eventual result. North Korea has no economy to speak of and is as isolated from the rest of the world as if the country exists in a different galaxy, and somehow it managed the trick. Put more simply, option one is to allow Iran to resume its nuclear program in a hellbent manner and with no inspections or safeguards in place, and option two is to put inspections and safeguards in place to try and frustrate Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Isn’t the logical choice here option two, even if it is a less than perfect solution? Isn’t something in this case much better than nothing if the actual ambition is to stop an Iranian bomb (as opposed to regime change)?

The argument against a deal at this point rests on the implicit assumption that military action will be used to stop Iran’s nuclear program (and perhaps overthrow the regime), and I don’t see that happening. It’s pretty clear to me that the Obama administration won’t do it, and anything short of an Iraq War-style ground invasion (as opposed to some targeted strikes against nuclear facilities) would be a band-aid solution anyway, whether such a limited strike is carried out by the U.S. or Israel. Regular inspections and continued dilution of 20% uranium are the only possible ways of preventing a nuclear Iran given current realities, so why not just strike a deal and watch Iran like a hawk for the next few decades? I agree that the administration has been too sanguine about Iran and its nuclear ambitions, but arguing about what could have been done better in the past is pointless. If your absolute and most pressing goal is to prevent Iran from going nuclear, and you recognize that a long and sustained military campaign is just not in the cards even if you think such a move would be wise (and I don’t), then the best way of doing so is a deal that puts intrusive inspections and limits in place, as it provides the highest chance of detecting Iran’s attempts at a surreptitious breakout.

The real action right now should not be on preventing a deal, but on preventing a larger policy of trying to turn Iran into a partner and ally. To call such a policy foolhardy would be charitable, as the regime’s very legitimacy is derived from its demonization of the West generally and the U.S. in particular. I wrote about this in September so there’s no need to extensively harp on it again now, but the Iranian regime cannot and will not risk its own domestic standing by significantly decreasing its public hostility to the U.S. To do so would put its entire rule in danger, as ideological states that allow their central governing political ideology to be delegitimized end up dealing a fatal blow to their own legitimacy and ultimately to their own survival by making themselves vulnerable to challenges from the opposition. The Iranian state’s rule and political institutions are structured around a revolutionary ideology that assumes opposition to the U.S. and the West as a raison d’être and thus betraying the revolution in such a blatant manner as openly reconciling, let alone partnering, with the U.S. is not a realistic or even rational move for the Supreme Leader and his cadre. In Iran’s case, this is magnified by the fact that the first generation of ideological and revolutionary true believers are still around, and to the extent that ideological states become post-ideological, it only happens once the originators of the ideology are off the scene, as they can be expected to have a deeper and more personal connection to the ideology than successive generations of leaders who have had the ideology instilled in them but were not present at the creation.

Hoping for a change in regime and a more friendly government to come to power and embrace the U.S. is barely more likely than the current regime changing its tune. As the past four years in the Middle East have demonstrated, revolutions frequently do not lead to regime change, and in the event that they do, there should not be any reasonable expectation of a liberal or pro-American government coming to power, no matter how educated/wealthy/enlightened/secular/fill-in-your-favorite-adjective the population is. Nobody likes to remember this, but the leaders of the Green Movement in 2009 were not opposed to Iran’s nuclear program, and in fact embraced it. Assuming that engagement with Iran will quickly lead to greater liberalization, political pressure from the masses, splits among ruling elites, and eventually a transition to democratic government is destined to end with dashed hopes. Political change in this manner is glacial in its pace, and the link between economic liberalization and political liberalization is dubious. Look at China for the best datapoint, which has economically liberalized relatively rapidly in the scheme of things (and by relatively rapidly, I mean over 20 or 30 years), but has moved far more slowly on political liberalization. The point here is that anyone assuming a grand bargain with Iran leading to cooperation on a variety of fronts and a new regional order anchored by a pro-American Iranian government is taking so many leaps of faith that are contradicted by theory and evidence as to make a serious argument in its favor crumble on sight.

For as much as Obama’s critics like to paint him as a slave to reflexive liberal ideology, when it comes to foreign policy the White House focuses on interests rather than ideology to the exclusion of all other factors. Obama behaves like an ideal type of a theoretical realist, and in nearly every situation assumes that states act according to their pure rational utility maximizing interests. It has led to a miscalculation of Russian behavior, and it is leading to what will be an even costlier miscalculation of Iranian behavior. What should be happening now is preparation for a full court press to see Iran completely bottled up in the aftermath of a nuclear deal, and a plan for reassuring our allies in the region – assuming that we still want to have any – with explicit security guarantees and large public demonstrations of military cooperation. A nuclear deal is only a bad thing if it means ceding the region to Iran in the aftermath of an agreement, and that does not have to happen. Separating out the nuclear deal from Iran policy writ large is difficult as the two are obviously connected, but it’s not impossible. To paraphrase Leon Wieseltier on a different topic, we should be working toward a deal as if there is no larger reason to contain and hinder Iran, and containing and hindering Iran as if there is no nuclear deal.

The Politics of the Anti-ISIS Coalition

September 23, 2014 § 4 Comments

Now that U.S.-led airstrikes – or according to the UAE’s press release, UAE-led airstrikes – have begun against ISIS positions in Syria, it seems we have an actual coalition to size up. Participating in one way or another were the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE, with Qatar the only one of the six to not actually drop bombs or shoot cruise missiles. One of these things is obviously not like the others, and that is Qatar. Aside from the fact that Qatar’s participation is going to remain limited to logistics and support, Qatar’s inclusion in this group is striking given that the four other Arab states represent one distinct camp in the Middle East, while Qatar represents another. There has been lots of talk the past few years about a Middle Eastern cold war taking place between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but there is a separate battle taking place between what I’ll call status quo Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, etc. and revisionist Sunni states Qatar and Turkey. The latter are trying to upend the current regional order, and have thus spent lots of capital – both actual and rhetorical – supporting Muslim Brotherhood groups and other actors opposed to the current regional configuration. It is interesting to see Qatar openly participating in the anti-ISIS coalition, and it is likely a response to the charges that Qatar is tied to terrorism and has been funding shady jihadi and Islamist rebels. Qatar wants to demonstrate that it is not aiding ISIS, and this is the best way of going about that.

Far more intriguing is who is not part of this coalition, and that would be the other member of the Sunni revisionist camp. Along with Jordan, Turkey is the country most threatened by ISIS given its long border with Syria and the growing number of Turks being recruited as ISIS fighters. Turkey’s hostages have just been released by ISIS, so the biggest reason for Turkey’s hesitation has been removed, and yet Turkey is adamantly not joining the coalition. Aaron Stein has a good rundown today of what Turkey is doing behind the scenes to help out, but there are still reasons why Turkey is not going to publicly join the fight. The big one is that Turkey isn’t actually for a particular outcome; it only knows what it doesn’t want. It does not want Bashar al-Assad to benefit from any moves taken to degrade ISIS, but it also does not want ISIS to permanently control territory in Syria, but it also does not want the Kurds to benefit from ISIS being rolled back. Where Turkey runs into trouble is that not one of these outcomes can be realized in its entirety without limiting the success of the other outcomes. Eliminating ISIS will benefit Assad and the Kurds, while removing Assad creates a vacuum that will be filled by ISIS and/or the Kurds, and limiting any gains by the Kurds necessarily means that ISIS is maintaining its strength in northern Syria. Turkey wants a combination of goals that cannot be filled simultaneously, and yet it does not want to or cannot choose between which ones should be shunted aside.

The irony here is that by not throwing the full force of its weight behind getting rid of ISIS, it is risking a bigger domestic problem with Turkey’s Kurds, some of whom are crossing the border to fight with Kurdish forces against ISIS. Turkish Kurds blame Ankara for allowing ISIS to fester and even empowering the group with its previous see-no-evil-hear-no-evil border policy, and thus the more half-hearted the Turkish government behaves with regard to getting rid of ISIS, the harder any Kurdish peace process and any effort to fully integrate Kurds into Turkey will become. In trying to appease ISIS by not taking a public role in the fight against the group – and thereby attempting to head off any jihadi terrorism inside of Turkey’s borders – Turkey is going to reignite an entirely different type of domestic problem. It is also foolhardy to believe that ISIS is a fire that won’t burn Turkey if the country steps away from the issue. At some point, ISIS violence is bound to come to Turkey whether Ankara participates as a full in open partner in the fight against the group or not, and when that happens, the vendetta against Assad and the worries about Kurdish nationalism are going to seem myopic.

The other regional player absent – although this is altogether unsurprising – is Iran. John Kerry and others have expressed hopes that the U.S. and Iran can cooperate together against ISIS given that the group presents a common threat. While I don’t rule out an eventual U.S.-Iran nuclear agreement (although I am skeptical), there is never going to be open Iranian cooperation with the U.S. on any shared goal such as the fight against ISIS, despite the optimism running rampant today following Hassan Rouhani’s charm offensive in New York. Iran is an ideological state, meaning that it references explicitly ideological claims or a programmatic mission in justifying political action and allows those claims or mission to constrain its range of actions. Ideological states behave very differently from non-ideological states because ideology is used as a source of regime legitimacy, and so fealty to the state ideology is crucial for the regime to maintain its rule. To the extent that the ideology is institutionalized, its protection becomes vital, as a blow to the ideology is a blow to the state’s legitimacy among its citizens. The ideology also becomes the most important feature of the regime’s legacy, and no true guardians of the state ideology want to be responsible for its downfall or delegitimization. A large element of the Iranian regime’s ideology is opposition to the U.S.; it is the reason that the regime has harped on this point for decades on end. When you base your legitimacy and appeal in large part on resisting American imperial power, turning on a dime and openly helping the U.S. achieve an active military victory carries far-reaching consequences domestically. It harms your legitimacy and raison d’être, and thus puts your continued rule in peril. Iran wants to see ISIS gone as badly as we do, if not more so, and ISIS presents a more proximate threat to Iran than to us. Despite this, Iran cannot be seen as helping the U.S. in any way on this, and simply lining up interests in this case is an analytical mistake as ideological considerations trump all when you are dealing with highly ideological regimes. The same way that the U.S. would never have cooperated with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War to defeat a common enemy – despite being able to come to agreement on arms control negotiations – because of an ideological commitment to being anti-Communist, Iran will not cooperate with the U.S. against ISIS. Those naively hoping that ISIS is going to create a bond between the U.S. and Iran are mistaken.

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