Any Upside To No Iran Deal?

President Barack Obama and his administration made history by landing a deal on Iran’s nuclear program but now they’ll have to fight to ensure this history stays made. The pact has to get past Congress, where a sixty day review period for it is currently underway, and, as Senator Bob Corker notes, the White House is obliged “to come up here and convince us that our nation, the region, the world is better off with this deal than not.” That shouldn’t prove too difficult. It’s a no-brainer that this agreement will alleviate Mideast tensions for a time by kicking the can down the road, which would certainly leave the world better off to say the least. Nevertheless, I thought I’d explore if there would be any benefit to the deal not going through.

First, let’s assume the status quo won’t be the result and Tehran green-lights nukes.  Congress’s disapproval would ironically be the catalyst that paves the path for Iranian nukes because, as the administration admonishes, the U.S. will be unable to muster up a coalition for a military option to stop Tehran from rushing for them. Should the U.S. unilaterally attack anyway the international reaction would make the outcry against the Iraq war look like, “child’s play”, as an administration official told Chemi Shalev, “compared to the external challenges and internal upheaval that America could face in case of an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, carried out under such circumstances.” At that point, would the U.S. rather face those most unpleasant consequences or make its peace with an easily containable nuclear-armed Iran?

Every single politico in Washington would agree with Nancy Pelosi word for word when she said “A nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable to the United States, unacceptable to Israel, and unacceptable to the world.” Yet how come this wasn’t true of any of the other nations that have gone nuclear in the Post-WWII era? Why was the campaign waged against Iran not done against, say, Pakistan and North Korea? President Obama explained to Jeffrey Goldberg the thinking behind why Iran’s case was unique:

“The potential for escalation in those circumstances is profoundly dangerous, and in addition to just the potential human costs of a nuclear escalation like that in the Middle East, just imagine what would happen in terms of the world economy. The possibilities of the sort of energy disruptions that we’ve never seen before occurring, and the world economy basically coming to a halt, would be pretty profound. So when I say this is in the U.S. interest, I’m not saying this is something we’d like to solve. I’m saying this is something we have to solve.”

A nuclear arms race tanking the global economy would be the scariest of scenarios but one which can be remedied with the immediate implementation of a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone where Iran and Israel agree to disarm their arsenals. What is the real danger then? Like Israel, an Iranian nuke wouldn’t threaten the U.S.’s physical security but would have a game-changing impact on Washington’s position in the region. Andrew Krepinevich–in a Foreign Affairs article arguing for “A new strategic framework” for the U.S. that is much more dedicated to “preserving access to key regions and the global commons, which are essential to U.S. security and prosperity”–levels with us, writing “The challenges that China and Iran pose for U.S. security lie not in the threat of traditional cross-border invasions but in efforts to establish spheres of influence in, and ultimately to control access to, critically important regions.” A Department of Defense paper from 2012 saw “access denial” becoming more likely in the future and concluded that, “the United States must maintain the credible capability to project military force into any region of the world in support of [its] interests.” The U.S. would risk losing that “credible capability” in the Persian Gulf if Iran got its hands on the ultimate “access denial” weapons.

So what we have here is fear over the mother of all access denial scenarios—the expulsion of the U.S. from the Persian Gulf and the passing of control of the Gulf’s oil to Iran which would enable it to, in the words of a 1982 secret memo to the National Security Council, “have a very large political as well as economic influence in the world,” as the U.S. enjoys at present. At worst, Iran could use its nukes to give the US the boot but would they? It would certainly be tempting for Iran but it sounds like they’d prefer Washington stay around to help keep order in the vital waterway. Robert Kaplan comments that “the accord creates a better context for U.S.-Iranian cooperation throughout the Middle East where their interests overlap,” one of those mutual interests being that “they both want predictable maritime rules-of-engagement in the Persian Gulf.” Then again, I doubt Iranian nukes could oust the U.S. in the first place. Nuclear coercion doesn’t exactly have a stellar track record. The only advantage Iran would gain from nukes would be to deter nuclear strikes and conventional invasion.

So is there any benefit to there being no deal? Well, the world wouldn’t be any worse off seeing that an Iranian bomb wouldn’t be a nuclear nightmare unlike any other before it. The upside to this deal’s rejection by Congress lies in the correction there will be to U.S. foreign policy. For you see, the deal will become a reality regardless. The P5+1 will simply switch to being the P5-1 and the accord will continue to be honored. A precedent would then be set where major international issues are settled upon without the U.S.’s participation. To reverse the damage done to the U.S.’s stature as a global leader, there will be a fiery reaction against the Iran deal opponents’ mentality of permanent confrontation and overwhelming support going forward for international cooperation, peace-making, and shared global leadership roles.

Musing About Iranian Nukes

For the past week the internet has been hit with an advertising blitz by Secure America Now urging us to phone our senators and demand that they “Stop a bad deal that gives Iran nuclear weapons.” That’s some high-quality hysteria right there; as if this agreement is going to contain within it a permission slip from the P5+1 for Iran to get nukes. Though I guess in a loose sense there is truth in those daft ads in that Washington would be “giving” Iran the bomb if the deal doesn’t take away its nuclear breakout capability. Leaving aside the logic of the hawk’s eleventh-hour effort, their campaign got me to inquire if a nuclear-armed Iran would be an unacceptable threat to our security and that of our Middle Eastern allies as the conventional wisdom tells us. The candid answer from the man who once led the charge against Iran’s nuclear program, former Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, would be a most unwelcome jolt for the folks over at Secure America Now.

“Not on us and not on any other neighbor,” was Barak’s response to Haaretz’s question about if he thought Iran would drop the bomb on Israel. Barak is also on record as saying “I am not among those who believe Iran is an existential issue for Israel,” and “Israel is strong, I don’t see anyone who could pose an existential threat.” Other Israeli officials agree with him. So Israel has been playing up the doomsday scenario to avoid having to face the less apocalyptic but still great strategic challenges a nuclear Iran would bring. As Rob Prince and Ibrahim Kazerooni sketch out, “A strengthened Iran–nuclear or non … will force a revision of Israeli regional strategic thinking, undermine its regional hegemony some, and force Israel, sooner or later to make concessions–including on the Palestinian question.” Then there’s Iran’s possession of nukes totally foreclosing the possibility of regime change from within or without, as Ray Takeyh explains:

“The lessons of North Korea are instructive. It is beyond doubt that the possession of nuclear arms has helped keep the Kim dynasty in power. Every time one leader dies, the entire international community hopes for a smooth transition to another for the sake of maintaining central control of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Nervous foreign powers keep sending the fuel and food that are the rogue republic’s lifeblood, in the hope of keeping it stable. Even as a threshold nuclear state, Iran could count on similar forbearance. Whether or not it has a bomb in hand, the great powers are as likely to be concerned about its longevity and the status of its nuclear network as they are about North Korea’s. Any democratic opposition will probably be greeted with caution if not indifference. The Islamic Republic will be too dangerous to fail.”

An Islamic Republic that won’t be falling is one that will continue to bug Israel by championing the Palestinian cause.

Lastly, Richard Cohen addresses the brain drain angle:

“To understand Israel’s predicament, the book to read is “Start-up Nation” by Dan Senor and Saul Singer… Israel’s preeminent natural resource is brain power… If Israel is to keep its talent, it must provide a safe and secure environment. As long as Iran supports anti-Israel terrorist groups, Israel remains—to one degree or another—a dangerous place. An Iran with nuclear weapons becomes a more potent protector of its client terrorist groups—maybe bolder and more reckless as well. Life becomes less secure.”

But Cohen does not take into account the reason Iran is arming Hamas and Hezbollah in the first place, which is to be in prime position to retaliate if Israel strikes Iran’s nuclear facilities, as Gareth Porter has noted:

“Specialists on Iran and Hezbollah have long believed that the missiles Iran has supplied to Hezbollah were explicitly intended to deter an Israeli attack on Iran. Ephraim Kam, a specialist on Iran at Israel’s Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies, wrote in December 2004 that Hezbollah’s threat against northern Israel was a key element of Iran’s deterrent to a U.S. attack. Ali Ansari, an associate professor at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and author of a new book on the U.S. confrontation with Iran, was quoted in the Toronto Star July 30 as saying, “Hezbollah was always Iran’s deterrent force against Israel.”

So, contrary to Cohen’s case, a nuclear-armed Iran would no longer need to rely on Hamas and Hezbollah as proxies to punish an Israeli attack. With its newly acquired sense of security, Iran could potentially even lean on those groups to moderate as it was prepared to do in a 2003 grand bargain offer to Washington.

The last thing the world needs is more nuclear weapons but if Iran magically had them tomorrow the impact would be no different than it was when other nations gained them over the last few decades. It would be more of a whimper than a bang.