Commentary Magazine


The Slow-Motion Munich Agreement

In an interview with Robert Gates, posted on Friday, Hugh Hewitt asked the former defense secretary to respond to John Bolton’s characterization of the Iranian deal as another Munich (and Charles Krauthammer’s characterization of it as a catastrophe more cynical than Munich). Gates did not directly respond, but he set forth a procedure designed to prevent it from being one:

I think what’s really important is what happens in six months. And my view is that the administration ought to set a specific date. … [W]hat I would be arguing if I were in the Situation Room is okay, then the negotiations begin on whatever the date, January 25th or whatever. Exactly six months from then, the negotiations stop. Either they’re successful or they’re not, because the Iranians are perhaps the world’s best at slow rolling a negotiation … I don’t see why there is opposition to the Congress passing sanctions that would be triggered at that six month point, so that in essence, the message to the Iranians is if there is no successful negotiations, an agreement at the end of six months, you are going to be significantly worse off than you were when these negotiations began. It’s not going to be a return to the status quo before the negotiations.

Gates must be one of those people who want war rather than peace in our time.

In opposing even contingent sanctions, taking effect only if the Iranians violate their deal or if the deal does not dismantle the nuclear-weapons program, the administration has been making a fundamentally illogical argument: sanctions are what brought Iran to the table (they say), but contingent sanctions would make them leave it. Sanctions have been an effective tool (they say), but contingent ones would be counter-productive. Sanctions produced negotiations (they say), but contingent sanctions would end them. The administration’s former defense secretary apparently disagrees. 

In the interview, Gates set forth his view of what any sanctions-avoiding agreement six months from now must provide:

[F]rom my standpoint, the only agreement that we ought to be willing to sign up to is one that rolls back the Iranian program to the point where they are no longer a nuclear weapon threshold state, a state that could go to a nuclear weapon relatively quickly.

Under present circumstances, what is assured in six months is another six-month agreement, as even Obama’s former top arms-control adviser admits. In fact, it will be another eight-month agreement (the current six-month one took two extra months to determine when it would begin), since the six-month extension will itself probably take two-months to negotiate, as the parties discuss the additional sanctions relief necessary to keep Iran at the table. We are in for a rolling series of extensions, as the world’s best in slow-rolling negotiations keeps whirring its centrifuges, works on its missile technology, advances its off-site preparations for its plutonium facility, completes its secret sites, and perfects its breakout capacity.

It is part of a slow-motion Munich agreement. It might be avoided under the Gates plan–contingent sanctions and a six-month time limit–but this is an administration now functioning without a defense secretary in a policy-making position. If there is to be a Gates plan, it will have to come from Congress.