If he did nothing else, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with his speech to a joint session of Congress, started a national conversation on the merits, or lack thereof, of a potential nuclear deal with Iran. Here are a few thoughts, after several days of intense, back and forth debate.
Thought No. 1: The defenders of the nuclear deal claim that Iranian compliance could be verified and that a one-year heads-up about Iranian non-compliance would be plenty of time for a robust American response. After all, we have considerable forces pre-positioned in the Persian Gulf region, ready to strike Iran if need be. However, I remain skeptical that either (a) the U.S. would necessarily detect a violation or (b) that if we did detect it, that we would do anything about it.
The U.S. intelligence community has a terrible track record of detecting nuclear work in other countries. We were caught off guard by the first Soviet nuclear test in 1949, the first Indian test in 1974, the first Pakistani test in 1998, the first North Korean test in 2006. Likewise, we were surprised by the extent of the Iraqi nuclear program in 1992.
Is there cause to hope that we would be better informed about the Iranian program? Only if we get truly intrusive inspection that allows international monitors to roam the country at will with no need to announce visits in advance. I am skeptical whether the mullahs will agree to that. The 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea shows how easily a state can cheat on a nuclear accord: The North agreed to shut down a plutonium reactor at Yongbyon but proceeded with the secret enrichment of uranium.
And even if we find out about Iranian nuclear cheating, what would we do about it? The Russians have been cheating on the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Agreement since at least 2007 but the Obama administration hesitated to publicize their breach, much less to do anything about it. Is there any reason to believe we would be more willing to go to war with Iran in a few years’ time than we are today?
Thought No. 2: While a nuclear agreement may or may not retard the Iranian development of an atomic bomb, it will have one undoubted consequence: it will provide the Iranian government with a lot more money by lifting or at least relaxing sanctions. Already, just by agreeing to talk to the U.S., Iran has received an estimated $11.9 billion in sanctions relief. That’s a lot of money that Iran can use to create considerable mischief. Given that the U.S. estimates that Iran provides $100 million to $200 million a year to Hezbollah, that’s enough funding right there to fund Hezbollah until the mid-21st century. It’s also money that can be used to fund Iranian-supported terrorist groups in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and other countries.
And it’s only a drop in the (oil) barrel that will fill up with cash if Iran signs a long-term nuclear deal. Iran is already at a peak of its regional power, and its power will only grow with all this money at its disposal. That will have catastrophic consequences for regional security because the stronger Iran gets, the more that Sunnis will take matters into their own hands. Saudi Arabia has the capability to acquire nuclear weapons in short order from Pakistan. It, and other Gulf states, will also likely wind up supporting the Al-Nusra Front, ISIS, and other Sunni terrorist groups as a bulwark against Iranian influence. Thus by helping Iran, we are also indirectly helping ISIS.
Thought No. 3: Beyond all these problems, the value of any agreement is vitiated if it includes a ten-year expiration date and if it allows Iran to keep tens of thousands of centrifuges intact–as appears to be the case if press leaks are to believed. This would not end the Iranian program and not even pause it: at most it might delay the moment when Iran goes from a nuclear-capable state to a state in possession of actual nukes. And it will ensure that when Iran does decide to produce nukes, it will have a lot of them, not just one or two.
It’s hard to know why the Obama administration thinks it’s OK to grant Iran the “right” to field nuclear weapons in 2025, aside from the obvious fact that Obama will no longer be in office and thus can’t be blamed for the outcome. Perhaps the White House hopes that, Ayatollah Khamenei presumably having died by then (there are reports he has prostate cancer), the Iranian regime might have reformed itself to become one that we can more easily live with. But hope isn’t a policy (except for this White House). If the U.S. does agree to this ten-year deal, it would be imperative to do what we could during this period to bring about peaceful regime change in Iran–a democratic Iran with a bomb would be a lot less threatening than a jihadist Iran with a bomb. But there is scant sign that the Obama administration is thinking along those lines. And even if it were, the U.S. ability to push regime change, never that strong to begin with, would be further weakened by the conclusion of a nuclear deal with Tehran which would be seen by Iranian dissidents (as well as by the entire region) as conferring Washington’s seal of approval on the existing regime.
Thought No. 4: The most common rebuttal from the administration and its defenders, against those who criticize the projected accord, is that critics offer no real alternative. Netanyahu’s claim that the alternative is a better deal is dismissed on the grounds that no better deal is possible. That may be true in the current atmosphere, with the White House patently telegraphing its eagerness to achieve a deal at all costs and having lost all leverage when it allowed the “red line” in Syria to be crossed with impunity. But what if the U.S. could present Iran with a credible threat of military action? Recall that the only time in recent decades when Iran interrupted its nuclear program was in 2003, because the mullahs were afraid that after the fall of Saddam Hussein, they would be next in the American military’s cross hairs. But when the U.S. got bogged down in Iraq, the Iranian leaders realized they had nothing to fear from George W. Bush, and of course now they have even less to fear from Barack Obama, who is obviously determined to start no new wars on his watch.
If there is one thing that could nudge Iran toward a serious agreement, it would be fear of whoever is in the White House. Recall how Eisenhower helped to end the Korean War in 1953, and a year later to end the French Indochina War on relatively favorable terms to the West, by dropping broad hints that he was contemplating the use of nuclear weapons. Likewise Nixon helped to achieve a peace accord in Vietnam by bombing North Vietnam with B-52s over Christmas 1952. He later said that it helped to be perceived as a “madman” who is capable of anything. And Ronald Reagan helped to revive arms control with the Soviet Union by projecting the image of a gun-toting cowboy. Alas there is no president of the last half century, with the possible exception of Jimmy Carter, who projects a weaker image than Obama. That is why he is not going to get a deal with Iran on any terms that should be acceptable to the U.S. or our allies.