November 20, 2019

What if there’s no Iran nuclear deal?

If you oppose the Iran deal, you have to ask yourself one question: So then what?

Saying the deal stinks without offering an alternative is not a thoughtful position, it’s an empty slogan.

Until now, the debate has really just been a piling-on against the deal.  Supporters are against the ropes and opponents, Ronda Rousey-like, are throwing everything they have against it. And make no mistake, they have a lot.  

But as August recess begins and the countdown to the congressional vote draws closer, it is time to push deal opponents on the hard reality of their preferred alternative. What might happen if Congress is able to override the president’s veto? How will Iran react? What will our partners in this deal do? In short, what happens if you get what you want?

Case in point: AIPAC. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee plans to devote millions of dollars and much of its political capital to defeating the deal. Its website offers thousands of words dissecting every weakness in the deal.  What is AIPAC offering instead? It all boils down to three sentences. This is how AIPAC describes the world we will face the day the deal collapses:

“We strongly believe that the alternative to this bad deal is a better deal. Congress should reject this agreement, and urge the administration to work with our allies to maintain economic pressure on Iran while offering to negotiate a better deal that will truly close off all Iranian paths to a nuclear weapon. Congress should insist on a better deal.”

Let me summarize: Instead of the current deal, America will keep sanctions and negotiate a better one. That’s the plan. So, my question is, is that a good plan? And how does it compare to the current deal?

I spent a good part of my week researching this question. Here’s what I found: AIPAC’s alternative lies somewhere between unlikely and impossible.  

For one thing, it is unlikely that the United States can maintain economic pressure. Iran could agree to comply with the deal in accordance with our partners, thus isolating the United States and making it difficult for the U.S. to convince the world to re-impose sanctions. By removing its centrifuges, sealing over its plutonium reactor and allowing inspectors, Iran would trigger the unfreezing of assets, only a small portion of which is held by the United States.  We would end up with an Iran with money and no constraints.

It’s unclear at that point whether the United States could wield its enormous economic leverage to get other countries to continue sanctions. Even if, say, France went along, would Russia? Would China? Or would these countries find ways to get around sanctions, including developing their own alternative to the SWIFT banking network that Iran had been successfully excluded from?

Rep. Adam Schiff, a staunchly pro-Israel Democrat from Los Angeles who announced he would support the deal this week, addressed in some detail what the deal’s opponents have thus far avoided.  

“It is only prudent to expect that if Congress rejects a deal agreed to by the Administration and much of the world,” Schiff wrote in a position paper, “the sanctions regime will — if not collapse — almost certainly erode. Even if we could miraculously keep Europe on board with sanctions, it is hard to imagine Russia, China, India or other nations starved for oil or commerce, agreeing to cut off business with Iran. The use of American financial sanctions is a powerful and coercive force, but relies upon at least the tacit acceptance of our objectives, something that would be lacking if we reject a deal agreed to by the other major powers.”  

If maintaining sanctions is not a given, what about AIPAC’s call to renegotiate “a better deal”? Back in mid-July, Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote what is still the only extended think piece on the alternative to the deal and, with varying degrees, the experts I spoke with seem to share his opinion. 

“We shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that we can just go back to square one with negotiations,” Satloff concluded,  “or that we can keep the current sanctions regime in place as if the past two years of diplomacy never happened. We will be in a different place, much grayer than before.”

Into this murky future, let’s consider what will happen in Iran itself.    

“Iran’s pyromania-style foreign policy will only deepen, internal repression will grow, and the role of Russia and China in entrenching the crisis vis-à-vis the West will become clearer,” Iranian journalist Ahmad Rafat wrote in the Israeli paper Local Call. “It would be safe to assume that the Iranian regime will become Russia’s main ally and form a new bloc against the West and the United States.”

Opponents of this deal raise many good points. President Barack Obama would be wise, if he wants to sell it, to come up with firm proposals to mitigate the deal’s downsides.   

But let’s stop pretending that the deal’s opponents are offering a way forward that is any more certain, or any less dangerous.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.