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The Worst Way to Defend Obama’s Iran Nuclear Deal

Those with even limited knowledge of Iran’s history of diplomatic duplicity, not to mention its present financing and direction of a variety of insurgent and terroristic campaigns across the Middle East, are justifiably wary of the terms of the nuclear accord revealed this week. Critics of the deal contend that the lax inspections regime, dramatic sanctions relief, and the lifting of arms and ballistic missile embargos, among other gifts to Tehran, will only reward Iran’s destabilizing behavior and guarantee more of the same. It seems that the accord’s self-evident deficiencies have reduced its supporters to a defensive crouch. One of the most cutting examples of the defensiveness of the deal’s backers, however, should not be dismissed offhand. In at least one case, the left is inadvertently making the conservative case against this deal. 

For many, the nuclear accord with the Islamic Republic, and not the elimination of the Iranian nuclear threat, is the true aim. The diplomatic process is an end in itself. A prototypical example of this self-affirmation masquerading as an argument was helpfully provided by The Guardian’s Trevor Timm who averred that only those hard-hearted enough to “love war” could be skeptical of this deal. “Republicans, who were always reflexively against any deal that would limit the Iranians’ nuclear program and may stave off war, seem downright furious diplomacy prevailed over the threat of more missiles,” Timm insisted. This contention does not deserve a response, but not everyone on the left has been reduced to this form of argumentum ad hominem.

Vox.com foreign affairs analyst Max Fisher took a not-entirely-unjustified swipe at former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush recently over his particular line of attack on the Iranian nuclear accord. “The nuclear agreement announced by the Obama Administration today is a dangerous, deeply flawed, and short sighted deal,” Bush wrote in a statement. “This isn’t diplomacy – it is appeasement.” Bush’s campaign later tweeted: “History is full of examples of when you enable people or regimes that don’t embrace democratic values, without any concessions, you get a bad result.” Fisher went on to accuse Bush of claiming that America should “never negotiate with dictators,” which has never been the policy of any American administration and does not resemble anything Bush said. But Fisher made a point that Republicans should welcome: He noted that both George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush inked nuclear accords with aggressive, anti-democratic regimes. That’s true. In fact, it serves conservatives who are opposed to the terms of Barack Obama’s deal with Iran to review the nuclear deals the 41st and 43rd Presidents were able to secure.

To begin, comparing a sweeping nuclear treaty with a revisionist, terror-sponsoring regional actor to the last of several arms reduction treaties with a superpower and the world’s preeminent nuclear power, the Soviet Union, is inherently flawed. Nevertheless, the comparison is instructive. The 1991 START treaty was one of several bilateral arms treaties, and it completed the process of ending the arms race that had been a policy objective of the last five presidents. START compelled the Soviet Union to join the United States in reducing long-range missile and bomber fleets to 1982 levels.

“The Soviet Union will be required to cut its ballistic missile warheads by more than 35 percent, to about 7,000 warheads from about 11,000, and the United States will have to trim its ballistic missile arsenal by about 25 percent, to roughly 9,000 warheads from about 12,000,” the New York Times reported at the time. “The Soviets will also have to destroy half of their heavy SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missiles; the United States has no weapons in that category, and under the treaty is not permitted to build any.” Building on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987, the START treaty included 12 different forms of inspection and allowed continuous monitoring of facilities in both countries that produced ballistic missiles. “This is far worse than the U.S.-Soviet arms agreements, in which the U.S. could protest directly to Moscow,” Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote of President Obama’s deal. “Iran now has an international bureaucratic guard to deflect and deter U.S. or IAEA concerns.”

But, as Fisher indicated, George W. Bush’s treaty with the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi provides perhaps the best model for how to draft a nuclear treaty with a rogue state. The world was stunned by the speed with which, in the immediate wake of Saddam Hussein’s ouster, Gaddafi surrendered his country’s nuclear weapons capabilities. When America was leading from behind in the skies over Libya in 2011, the New York Times reporter David Sanger offered belated praise for Bush’s 2003 accord with Libya noting that it had rendered the regime in Tripoli far less dangerous.

“The cache of nuclear technology that Libya turned over to the United States, Britain and international nuclear inspectors in early 2004 was large,” the New York Times reported, “far larger than American intelligence experts had predicted. There were more than 4,000 centrifuges for producing enriched uranium. There were blueprints for how to build a nuclear bomb – missing some critical components, but good enough to get the work started.” Libya, a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, had been subjected to an international inspections regime for years before it surrendered its unexpectedly sophisticated capabilities. The IAEA inspectors that tasked with verifying Tripoli’s compliance found their work surprisingly unimpeded and productive in the wake of Gaddafi’s about face.

In 2004, George W. Bush flew to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee where he was photographed touring the spoils of those centrifuges Libya surrendered. President Obama could only wish for a nuclear deal that also provided him with a victorious photo opportunity as he stood triumphantly over neutralized Iranian enrichment materials.

“The point is that, if you grew up in the Bush family, you are immediately related to some people who can tell you first-hand how awesome it is to negotiate nuclear deals with dictators, and have very strong track records to back that up,” Fisher rightly averred. That is undoubtedly correct, and a cursory review of the effect of those deals reveals how well-crafted they were. They stand in stark contrast to an arrangement many believe will leave Iran a much richer, better-armed, threshold (if not outright) nuclear state within a decade. Conservative opponents of the nuclear deal with Iran should be praising Fisher for citing splendid examples of how the work of nonproliferation and disarmament is done correctly.



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