Kicking the bomb down the road

Kicking the bomb down the road

Iran gains a lot and Israel a little from the nuclear deal.

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By David B. Kanin

The ongoing shouting match in Washington over the terms, context, and impact of the nuclear agreement (a funny term in this case) between Iran and a group of states (many of which have nuclear weapons) is much over-hyped. Neither side is making much sense. President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry and other American champions of the arrangement warn that the only alternative to it is war. In fact, the real question is what will be the relationship of the monitoring regime to the danger of war when the time comes for decision-makers in Washington to decide whether to use military force against an Iran found by international monitors to be in violation of the agreement.

Those seeking to scupper the deal offer even weaker arguments. Some say Iran will come back to the negotiating table if Obama’s Republican adversaries manage to override his veto of inevitable Congressional disapproval. Why would Tehran do that? The US may reject the deal, but if it does it will be isolated—European sanctions are going away and will not come back. Russia will sell arms to Iran no matter what the Americans say.

The more honest among those hostile to the deal already have called for the US to bomb Iran—they at least have articulated an alternative strategy. (An example is John R. Bolton, “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran,” New York Times, March 26, 2015.) They appear to believe bombing would do more than delay Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. It would not. Even if military action destroys all targeted sites, it also would unite a critical mass of the Iranian public behind their government’s inevitable response. This would include at least a redoubling of the weapons program and–depending on conditions in Lebanon and the former Iraq and Syria—some level of kinetic action by Hizballah against Israel.

The opponents’ assumption—and proponents’ fear—is that Iran will cheat on the deal. It is prudent to prepare for this contingency, which is why the monitoring regime will be so complicated. However, the government in Tehran, Supreme Leader, and Council of Elders likely will go through a series of internal debates as to whether to move ahead with the weapons program and, if so, how aggressively to push ahead. In my view, it is likely the Iranians will take a page from the Israeli book and attempt to maintain plausible denial for as long as possible while not permitting diplomatic considerations to prevent weapons development. Meanwhile, bureaucrats and business people will work hard to enmesh European companies and governments into trading relationships that will ensure Washington will have no international support if it attempts to slap sanctions back on Tehran.

This will not be a Cold War-type arms control regime. The United States and Soviet Union may have been adversaries but they also were assertively secular states with a sober understanding of the material ramifications of nuclear war. That is not the case regarding Iran. As we saw during the administration of former President Ahmedinejad, politically empowered mullahs are not the only people in Iran who believe they live in sacred time. The regime in Qom and Tehran acts out of the conviction they are doing God’s will with every act, large and small.

Iran will be the first nuclear power that believes nuclear war might motivate the emergence of the Hidden Imam. Such a war will be a practical possibility for religiously minded people in the same way that the Thirty Years War was contested by people on both sides (aside from the French and their worldly Cardinals) who were convinced its conduct and outcome were profoundly spiritual events. There is no question—as proponents of the agreement concede—that Tehran wins a major victory by restoring trade with the world and by gaining access to locked assets estimated at $100 billion. Adding these material resources to a spiritual sense of entitlement to commit mass violence sets the stage for real danger down the road.

This is exactly why the newly mined nuclear agreement might serve a constructive purpose, if one far more limited than its proponents claim. In the 1930s, Winston Churchill made speeches in the House of Commons railing against German rearmament. We count him a hero now, but at the time he annoyed a lot of people by telling them a country that had suffered enormous losses in a World War should get ready to go into another one. Churchill supported his argument with statistics purporting to demonstrate the scale of Hitler’s military buildup—and drove home the point that Germany clearly was in violation of the terms of the treaty of Versailles. Skeptical voices suggested Churchill was exaggerating German military production. Most people believed the skeptics—perhaps because they wanted to.

It turns out Churchill’s opponents sometimes were right—Churchill was misinformed on some numbers, even if he was right on the bigger picture. If there had been an arrangement in place in the mid-1930s similar to the deal that has been struck with Iran Churchill could have used reports from monitors as a basis for more credible criticism of the Government’s policies toward the Nazi menace. Make no mistake, such monitoring would not have prevented World War II.

The deal with Iran gives Israel the sort of tool Churchill could not bring to bear. The results from future monitoring efforts will form the basis of the next round of arguments over what to do about Iran’s nuclear program. As with so many arms control regimes, this one will enable multiple interpretations of Tehran’s performance and intentions. Israeli spokespeople will be able (if they choose) to replace their current rhetorical excesses with more persuasive analyses of whatever the monitors see, report on, and count. None of this will be definitive, of course, but the monitoring regime at least will provide a sounder basis for debate than has existed so far.

This will not prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Nothing short of military action can do that. One thing we have learned from the experience of the last 70 years is that no amount of diplomacy or sanctions can stop a state that is determined to develop nuclear weapons from doing so. South Africa, Brazil, and Egypt made their own choices to give up programs they decided were not worth the cost and effort. No matter its economic mess, North Korea developed nuclear weapons. Iran is likely to make a similar calculation from its perch in sacred time.

David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

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