In “King Lear,” William Shakespeare cautioned against “striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.” French philosopher Voltaire wrote that “perfect is the enemy of the good.” What each of these maxims tells us is that efficiency is a worthy objective. In striving to reach 100 percent perfection, though, we become less efficient than if we were to tolerate a lesser, imperfect threshold that gives us most of what we seek. Nowhere does this lesson deserve more consideration than in the negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program. The framework agreed upon by the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States last week affords a great opportunity to question if we should strive for that “perfect” deal. But before we do, let’s make several facts clear.
[ANOTHER TAKE: Cause for skepticism, concern and disappointment]
First, the deal that was proposed is far from perfect. Not only does it contain ambiguities that compromise its likelihood of success, but that very success also hinges upon trusting a regime that has failed to demonstrate it deserves to be trusted. The leaders of the Islamic Republic, from those we can identify to those whose machinations take place in the shadows, have not acted in good faith from the moment the world first learned of Iran’s secret nuclear development program, one that was operating in violation of the safeguards of Articles II and III of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Second, for as much as Iran has offered assurances that it seeks to comply with international laws pertaining to its nuclear program, and that it is eager to rejoin the international community upon the lifting of sanctions against it, the Islamic Republic remains the major state sponsor of terrorism in the Middle East, if not beyond. And it has pledged to continue this support irrespective of any nuclear deal.
Third, Iran’s leadership throughout the negotiations has maintained its apocalyptic anti-Israel rhetoric, threatening to back its words with deeds against the Jewish state it refuses to even identify by name, let alone recognize.
Any deal that would address two of the three issues above would be worth considering; to satisfy all three would be perfect; what we were presented with last week, at best, pays lip service to only one. Nevertheless, it remains a deal that can be made to work and must be given a chance to do so.
Despite Ali Khamenei’s public pronouncements that Iran is not seeking to build a nuclear weapon, the regime under his leadership operated a nuclear program in secret, even though Iran has the “inalienable right” to dabble in nuclear energy for “peaceful purposes” under the NPT. If nothing else, this reveals that Iran is committed to continuing its nuclear program no matter what. The question remains whether that program is in pursuit of a weapon or to reach the threshold of being able to produce a weapon. Whatever its purpose, absent any framework for intrusive inspections and strict monitoring, we will not know. Without this deal, Iran can continue to develop in secret, as it has for many years; with this deal, it becomes materially more difficult to do so.
Can Iran conduct a covert development program even with the strict inspections stipulated in the deal? Indeed, that is a possibility. Yet any such program would be extremely difficult not because nuclear inspectors will be everywhere and anywhere, but because the nuclear “supply chain,” as President Barack Obama describes it, will be disrupted. We cannot guarantee that the Iranians won’t open a secret underground facility somewhere in the desert, but we can guarantee that the resources they will need to do so — raw materials, industrial parts, machinery, workers — will not be readily available without detection. This is not perfect, but it is good enough for now.
What about the concessions offered by the P5+1, namely the lifting of sanctions and the unfreezing of assets? It’s time we face the truth about these sanctions: Their point of efficacy has been reached. The regime has demonstrated that it is willing to take down the entire country if need be, and drive its people into social ruin and economic collapse, in order to preserve its “nuclear rights.” You cannot seek a perfect deal in the face of an opponent that is willing to harm itself in order to protect its position; the regime’s pride will be the last thing to go. “You want to ‘sanction’ us to death,” they say, “then go ahead. But we will still continue uranium enrichment.” How does that make the United States or its allies any more secure?
Nothing at this point is guaranteed. Much can change between now and the extended June deadline, and additional steps can be taken to address the legitimate concerns of the deal’s most vociferous critics, namely Saudi Arabia and Israel. For starters, the agreement must include a degree of international oversight of Iran’s ballistic missile program. The Revolutionary Guard is known to be working on the development of a longer-range, surface-to-surface missile (one that can reach to the borders of Europe); such a weapon has only one intended use in the modern age: to deliver a nuclear payload. Iran’s missile program must be scaled back and monitored, and should be treated as an inseparable part of its nuclear program. Additionally, NATO should expand its existing Mediterranean Dialogue program to include the Gulf States along with Israel, and offer an ironclad guarantee of assistance in case of an Iranian attack. It is not enough for Obama to make verbal commitments to the security of its allies in the region: Put it in writing, and oblige the Europeans to do it as well. If Britain, France and Germany are confident in the deal, then they should have no reservations about offering a security guarantee.
But to discard what has been agreed upon sets back the prospects of regional security more than it may set back Iran’s nuclear program. If what we require from any deal is perfection — the complete and uncompromising compliance with all terms and conditions — we are only affording Iran more time to reach its own nuclear objectives until that perfection we seek is achieved. Let us take what we have now, not just because it is good enough, but because it can be improved as we move forward. A better deal most certainly exists, but it might not come until it is too late.
Benjamin Radd was born in Shiraz, Iran, and came to the United States as a refugee fleeing the 1979 revolution. He is a teaching associate at UCLA and a graduate fellow at the Center for Middle East Development at UCLA’s International Institute. He is a doctoral candidate in the department of political science and also holds a law degree from Stanford.