WASHINGTON – To understand why the Iran nuclear deal is such a triumph, consider the most likely alternative: war.
Imagine a U.S.-led military strike – not a pinprick but an extended bombing campaign robust enough to eliminate 98 percent of Iran’s enriched uranium, put two-thirds of the Islamic republic’s centrifuges out of action and erase any capability of producing plutonium. Imagine that the attack did so much damage that for the next 10 or 15 years it would be utterly impossible for Iran to build a nuclear bomb. Such an outcome would be hailed as a great success – achieved, however, at a terrible cost.
But I’m convinced such action would make Iran irrevocably determined to build a bomb – and that eventually the Iranians would achieve their goal. I’m also convinced that Iran would strike out at the West asymmetrically, through proxy groups and terrorism. And given the upheavals in the Middle East, any “limited” war has the potential to spread across borders.
The historic agreement announced Tuesday in Vienna accomplishes what an attack might, but without the toll in blood and treasure that war inevitably exacts. After the agreement expires, critics note, Iran could decide to race for a bomb. But the military option would still be available – and, after years of intrusive inspections, allied war planners would have a much better idea of where the nuclear facilities are and how best to destroy them.
Military action is not the only alternative to the deal that President Barack Obama vigorously defended at his news conference Wednesday. But the other possibilities are absurdly remote.
One is simply to acquiesce and invite Iran to become a nuclear power. Obama has ruled this out, as did his predecessors and as will his successors. It should be noted that Iran’s leaders have always denied seeking to make a bomb, though they have never explained why an oil-rich nation would need tens of thousands of enrichment centrifuges and a ballistic missile program to generate nuclear power.
None of the United States’ partners at the negotiating table – the European powers, China, Russia – is prepared to accept a nuclear-armed Iran. The government in Tehran, which is fanatical but not suicidal, probably would be satisfied to reach threshold status. Arguably this is already the case, given that Iran’s scientists have mastered the nuclear fuel cycle.
The other option – the one favored by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and most other critics of the agreement – is to negotiate “a better deal” that deprives Iran of even more nuclear capability. The problem is that negotiators could not make tougher demands on Iran than the Chinese, Russians and Europeans were prepared to support.
If Congress overrides Obama and squelches the deal, the sanctions regime that brought Iran to the table will quickly crumble. Economic pressure from the United States alone, it seems obvious, is not enough to compel Iran to give up more than it surrendered in Vienna. On the contrary: Hard-liners in Tehran, who argued all along against negotiating with the United States, would have their hand greatly strengthened.
Iran’s reaction to a defeat of the agreement in Congress might be to crank up the centrifuges in defiance. Perhaps the government would honor some elements of the deal in order to obtain sanctions relief from China, Russia and Europe. Either way, the United States would have lost leverage and Iran’s nuclear program would be less constrained.
Obviously, the United States didn’t get everything it wanted in Vienna. That’s the nature of any negotiation. The relevant question is whether the United States and its allies, including Israel, got what they needed.
“With this deal, we cut off every single one of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear program, a nuclear weapons program,” Obama said Wednesday. “Without a deal, those pathways remain open.”
The president added that “the alternative, no limits on Iran’s nuclear program, no inspections, an Iran that’s closer to a nuclear weapon, the risk of a regional nuclear arms race, and the greater risk of war – all that would endanger our security. That’s the choice that we face.”
The agreement with Iran is a landmark achievement. It’s not perfect – no deal is – but it makes the world a much safer place. Critics in Congress should have to explain to the American people why they believe war is a better idea.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.