Trudy Rubin, in her column Monday, wrote “American politicians seem incapable of appraising nuclear talks with Tehran with a cool head” and, taking it upon herself to cut through the clutter, decided “Both opponents and proponents of the deal could benefit from a reality check.” It isn’t everyday one can find a writer who is willing to take a sane approach towards the US’s Iran policy and so I thought I’d dissect Rubin’s piece to see how her reality check holds up. Her critique isn’t particularly ambitious–she makes all of the same points that critics of the Kirk-Menendez bill have been making for weeks now—except when she included Kenneth Pollack’s most welcome recognition that “The real choice is between going to war and containing Iran.” Rubin notes “Pollack would choose containment” without also decidedly coming down in favor of it. But by concluding that “all options are risky” and “holding out for the perfect will eliminate any chance for a reasonable deal” her assessment is sounder than any politician in Washington.
That said, however, Rubin’s piece is in need of some tweaking—a check for the reality checker. Yes, she’s right that new sanctions “would kill the talks” but that is a half-truth. It would kill this round of talks, after which the P5 nations would punt the U.S. out of the coalition and negotiate with Iran their own way. Even assuming the worst case scenario where Iran refuses to talk anymore with the P5, the Islamic Republic is determined enough to convince its neighbors of the peaceful intent of its nuclear program that it would work with them instead. Peter Jenkins reminds us that “like the members of Euratom in the 1950s, the Gulf states, Iran and Turkey could agree on a mutual nuclear-monitoring arrangement or a sub-regional [nuclear] weapons-free zone.” She, like everyone else who is pro-diplomacy, unfortunately falls for the facile narrative that it was sanctions that brought Iran to the table (more on why that position is wrong later). And lastly there is a potential non-sequitur to address.
Rubin writes “The Iranians have made very clear that they will never totally give up their capacity to enrich, which they are entitled to if–a big if–they convince the world their program is peaceful.” Then in the next sentence she adds “There are many provisos that concerned senators could call for in a final agreement in order to delimit the Iranian program.” It doesn’t quite follow, for if the Iranians can convince the world that there never was a military dimension to their nuclear program, why does it need to be constricted? Once Iran completely comes clean about their past nuclear activities, their program should then be treated like any other nation’s program and be able to develop without suspicion. I suppose Rubin could be concerned about the Iranian program’s expansion from a non-proliferation standpoint or is worried about a future Fukushima disaster (Iran is prone to earthquakes). But I suspect it’s because she knows that after a final deal Iran would still require containing.
Other writers are joining Rubin as part of a growing trend of composing sober analyses of the matter in which it’s being realized that Iran will always have the bomb option. Jessica Matthews wrote “A negotiated agreement would be imperfect. Sustained vigilance would be required, and a degree of risk would remain, for an agreement would be a compromise, not a surrender.” Graham Allison hammered the point home, writing “No matter what agreement the current Iranian government signs, or what actions it takes, a future government will always have the option to reverse course.” They’re entirely right so what is to be done? Iran could be contained but Washington could also give Khameini no reason to ever feel the need for an arsenal. Professor Stephen Walt, a foreign policy realist, recommends we dissuade Iran by voluntarily de-escalating the decades-long tension:
“If we want Iran to forgo nuclear weapons, for example, we should try to convince Tehran we’re not going to bomb Iran and not going to try to overthrow the government. If we did that, the Iranians would feel less need for either an active deterrent or a short timeline breakout capability. Bombing won’t accomplish much and we probably couldn’t overthrow them if we tried, but we certainly have the capacity to attempt either one. So how can we convince Tehran that we won’t exercise either option? In theory, President Barack Obama could make an explicit statement to that effect, or the two states could even sign some sort of “nonaggression” pact… The United States could also draw down its forces in the Persian Gulf region as a sign of good faith, but that’s going to drive our other regional allies bonkers and would be quite imprudent in the short term. It’s a tricky problem, but isn’t it interesting that we seem to spend all our time thinking about how to make our threats credible, instead of thinking just as hard about how we could make our assurances equally convincing?”
In the end, détente with Iran is the surety that will keep them from the bomb and following Walt’s advice would be a helpful stepping-stone to eventually getting there. Détente will involve tackling all the other issues the U.S. has with Iran which is more formidable than it sounds. Iran already put all of these up for discussion back in 2003 so surely they would negotiate them again with a U.S. that has become increasingly more trustworthy after the final deal. This may take some time–the U.S. would have to calm down its distraught allies–but for now let’s keep listening to the realists and building on their insights so we can finally solve what Gareth Porter has dubbed a “manufactured crisis”.