Monday, July 20, 2015

What Is A "Good" Iran Nuclear Deal?

In his March 3rd speech to Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu expressed support for "A better [Iran nuclear] deal that Israel and its neighbors may not like, but with which we could live." Yesterday, he urged Congress to "hold out for a better deal."

Israel is not opposed to a diplomatic solution in principle, a position which will give it leverage in Washington. But its talking points, and those of its more conservative supporters, are making arguments that conflate this deal with any deal. Separating the two would improve the credibility of Israel's bargaining position. In general, analysts should recognize the difference between the argument "this is a bad deal" and the argument "deals are bad."

For example, some opponents argue the deal is flawed because Iran might engage in covert enrichment. There is no mechanism in the 159-page deal that guarantees Iran will not "cheat" and covertly enrich nuclear material. This is problematic because any "snapback" of sanctions requires the P5+1 to actually know that a violation of the deal is occurring. The argument has been compounded by confusion over the lack of an "anywhere, anytime" provision for inspections. But while it's true the P5+1 can't prevent covert enrichment, the argument ignores the underlying issue: Even if the P5+1 had total access to any site it wanted, it would still have imperfect information about which sites should be inspected. This imperfect information is not because of this current deal. It's systemic - a direct effect of the anarchic nature of the international system. Since there is no global police than can make countries tell the truth 100% of the time, there will always be a danger that a given state is cheating and lying about it. Iran may very well violate the terms of a nuclear deal, but the risk exists in any deal concluded in the existing state system. This argument isn't against this deal, its against deals more broadly.

Opponents also argue that the deal "appeases" Iran by taking the military option off the table. Some opponents of the deal argue that it removes a credible US military option from the table while Iran consistently makes military threats. The argument often takes the form of a quirky comparison between President Obama and Neville Chamberlain, whose treaty with Hitler proved meaningless, except for signalling Britain's intention not to instigate war. The problem with this argument is that the threat from Hitler had nothing to do with rhetoric, and everything to do with material capabilities and the domestic support to use them. Any realist scholar would point out that treaties always carry a risk of cheating, and that military capabilities are more important. The US is aware of this fact, having ramped up its military presence in the Gulf region, increased support for regional allies, and reiterating yesterday that the military option remains on the table. The argument that Iran might cheat is an argument against deals more broadly, and also ignores the material superiority of the United States and its allies in the region.

There are aspects of the Iran nuclear deal that are specific to the current agreement. The mechanics of "snapback" provisions, release of funds to the IRGC, and procedure for inspections are all areas of legitimate debate among those who oppose the deal and those who support it. But it's important to differentiate between these issues, and more general critiques of the diplomatic versus military approach. And if Israel does in fact support a deal, a focused message is the best way to ensure its long-term security.


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