November 13, 2018

The Iran deal gamble

Here’s what you need to know in order to make up your mind about the Iranian nuclear deal: No one knows.

The people who have opposed the deal from the beginning, most prominently Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have no idea whether the deal announced July 14 will allow Iran to destroy Israel and take over the world, as he confidently predicted before the deal’s contents were even revealed.

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The people who have pushed for the deal, most prominently President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, cannot offer any guarantees that in dealing with a truly awful regime, they have not been morally compromised and out-played.

The people who have tenuously backed the idea of a deal but have been withholding final judgment until the details are announced will need some time to digest who gets what. And even then, there are too many “known unknowns” to know, for sure, who wins and who loses.

Our generation learned the hard way in Iraq that wars have unintended consequences. I suspect we will now learn that peace does, too. That’s not to say the deal shouldn’t be signed, if and when it clears the congressional hurdle in 60 days.  It just means: No one knows.

The truest statement came just before the deal was announced in a tweet from journalist Max Fisher. “Remember,” he wrote, “whatever happens in the next 24 hours, it definitely confirms all of your pre-existing opinions and biases.”

What we will see now in the immediate aftermath of the deal is confirmation of Fisher’s prediction. Opponents will hate the deal. Supporters, even though they may not love it, will defend it.

My own bias is this:  I want a deal that increases the odds the world won’t blow up.

I understand there are no guarantees — that’s the nature of reality, especially in the Middle East. I also understand there will be things in the deal I really don’t like. That’s the nature of negotiation.

There is a loud, unrelenting chorus — the No-Way Sayers, I call them — saying Obama gave away the store and the Iranians should have left Vienna with nothing they wanted. When you ask the deal’s opponents — and I have — what to do when an Iran without a deal inevitably races toward developing nuclear weapons, their answer is, “Bomb them.” Never mind that Israeli and American defense experts have weighed and dismissed that option numerous times over the past decade — that’s the No-Way Sayers’ inevitable, and only logical, answer. 

Maybe history will prove these people right, and we will all regret not heeding their warnings, just as we all now wish we had paid more attention to their counterparts — most of them on the other side of the political spectrum — who warned against the Iraq war.   

But there is a group of analysts — call them the Dour Realists — who accept that a decent deal is the best of bad options. These are the people who signed a bipartisan monograph organized by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy outlining what, in their estimation, any sound deal must contain in order to increase the odds of long-term success.  

So, as the deal gets dissected over the next few weeks, I suggest you ignore the people who opposed it from the start and those who stuck by it from the start. Instead, pay attention to what the a bipartisan group of American diplomats, legislators, policymakers and experts wrote in its “Public Statement on U.S. Policy Toward the Iran Nuclear Negotiations.” That is, pay attention to: Is the verification regime stringent, accessible and transparent? Does the agreement stringently limit advanced centrifuges? Is sanctions relief tied to Iran’s performance of its obligations? Are there clear consequences for violations of the agreement? And, will the agreement keep Iran from developing its ballistic missile capability?

If the answer is yes to all these questions, and there is significant agreement among these experts that the deal meets their criteria for stringency, the onus will be on the opponents to offer a better alternative.

If not, the deal might still buy the world 10 years in which to move forward and improve upon it.  That’s what this is all about — not Obama burnishing his legacy, or America drifting from Israel, or Iran hoodwinking naïve America. It’s about finding the best of many bad ways out of a terrible dilemma that has been decades in the making.

“The administration seems to believe economic advantages would gradually lead to a more moderate Iran in a 10-to-15-year window.  Iran would be a different Iran,” UCLA professor Steven L.  Spiegel, director of the Center for Middle East Development, told me on the eve of the deal announcement. “Or you can say this is all a big fake, and the regime will cheat and get around this.  No matter how you go, it’s a gamble. It’s a matter of faith — which makes it so contentious.”

 

I look forward to hearing what the nonpartisan experts say about the deal.  Because I do know this: In the not-so-distant past we have listened to the naysayers and put our faith in war — and lost big. 

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism