Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Should We Be Going Nuclear Over the Iran Deal?

About two years in the making and the deal with Iran has finally been struck (see full text here). I have heard opinions varying from "awesome deal" to "it's the end of the world as we know it," and everything in between. Iran has called for Israel's destruction, so I understandably would be worried if the Iran deal actually hastens Iran's nuclear capabilities. Short of developing clairvoyance, how big of a deal should we make out of it? Have we empowered Iran to build a nuclear bomb? Have we prevented any possibility of Iran gaining the ability to create nuclear weapons?

Before answering those questions, let's make one thing clear: deal or no deal, the Iranian government will still hate on the United States, Israel, and its Sunni neighbors. For me, it's annoying enough when there is an individual who intentionally and utterly shows disregards for others. It's even worse when it's a nation-state not only because of the magnitude, but also because of the lack of a decisive arbitrator. Short of a regime change, there is not much one can do to change the fact that Iran is going to continue with its lunacy. Diplomacy was a tool created to deal with these sort of schmucks. Diplomacy wasn't created so everyone loved each other; it exists to avoid military conflict. War is messy and costly, which is why it is preferable to try diplomatic solutions first. There is the question of whether the diplomatic solution in this case was adequate. At the end of the day, this deal could have one of three basic outcomes: hasten Iran's nuclear aspirations, reduce the possibility of Iran acquiring a nuclear bomb, or the deal will do nothing of value. What are the arguments for each?

"This is a good deal." The Iran deal reduces the number of Iranian centrifuges from 20,000 to 6,000. That is nowhere enough centrifuges for Iran to construct its own nuclear bomb. The amount of uranium it can have went from 10,000 kg to 300. Inspectors will be monitoring the only two mines where Iran can acquire uranium and the mills where it is processed. Blocking arms inspectors is a bad  idea. Saddam Hussein tried that in 1998 and was bombed shortly thereafter. Arms control and nuclear proliferation experts seem to find the nonproliferation aspects of the deal to be most redeeming. You also provide humanitarian relief to the citizens of Iran because the economic sanctions are lifted. The CIA predicts that the money that Iran would gain from the removal of sanctions would most probably fund the domestic economy. Given the reality of the Iranian government's policies and its domestic politics, this very well could have been the best deal possible.

"This is a bad deal." We could have gotten so much more out of this deal. The nuclear program was not in any way dismantled. If the IAEA inspectors come along, the Iranian government gets a 24-day notice, which will only encourage bad behavior. "Anytime, anywhere" inspections would have been preferable. Iran's defense minister is saying that Iran's military sites are off limits, which means that Iran could simply hide their nuclear weapons there. The deal also doesn't address Iran's ballistic missiles. Plus, if the West were looking to reinstate the sanctions, there is a lengthy review process. What kind of deal is that? The Western world could have upped sanctions or assisted proxy opponents in a Cold War-like "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" fashion. We just handed Iran economic relief so it can fund its terrorist activities throughout the Middle East, and it didn't have to provide anything tangible. Plus, if Iran's neighbors feel threatened, they might build up their nuclear capabilities or even strike Iran.

"Nothing is going to change in the grand scheme." There is a case for "more of the same." As a senior fellow from Brookings Institution pointed out, "Iran's regional troublemaking is likely to worsen, regardless of a deal." It was going to get worse whether we wanted it to or not. What's going on is neorealist balance of power realpolitik: Iran wants to assert regional power and hegemony. To keep balance of power, other nation-states are going to trust Iran about as far as they can throw Iran. People have enough of an incentive to keep Iran in check. Plus, if the Western world is that insulted, the powers that be can always reinstate the sanctions, or even double down. Iran has hidden entire nuclear facilities before, and unless we have a highly thorough inspection regime constantly monitoring Iran, that part isn't going to change. Iran has circumvented IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspectors, and it can do so again. Lifting sanctions and "normalizing" economic commerce with Iran is going to take time, which gives both sides to strategize and reconfigure its next move.

Iran has also developed the indigenous capacity to produce nuclear weapons, and a "tough on Iran" stance short of decimation is not going to alter that reality. Even if Iran does actually test a bomb (good luck hiding that!) and develops a second bomb for use, do you think that breakout capacity is going to matter? Deal or no deal, one would still have to take further measures to destabilize Iranian meddling in the Middle East. People have been clamoring about Iran as an imminent threat since 1979. To quote the Cato Institute's summary of the deal: "It [The real dilemma of "deal or no deal"] was between a nasty but weak regional power with little power-projection capability, closer or further away from a nuclear weapons capability," not between war and peace.

Postscript: At the end of the day, how you feel about the Obama administration, foreign interventionism, the effectiveness about the international inspectors from IAEA, or Iran will most probably shape the version that you are likely to accept. The funny thing is that all of these arguments have kernels of truth, and I'm sure the Iranian government's opaque decision-making process does not make it any easier to discern which version is most correct. Regardless of which version seems most fitting to the reality of the situation, let's not forget that Iran is a corrupt, theocratic, kleptocratic mess (see IMF reportTransparency InternationalEconomic Freedom IndexFreedom House). No deal is going to fix that, and no deal is going to make things in the Middle East all better. I still think trying to make a deal was better than going to war, even if the deal has flaws. Plus, it is still not over: Not only has the Iranian government not formally accepted the deal, but it still needs congressional approval and the IAEA. It will be interesting to see how it plays out, but in the meantime, we sit back and watch people continue to debate the details of the Iran deal.

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