The Obama administration’s decision to pursue and sign an agreement with Iran on halting their development of nuclear weapons capability has not been popular in Israel. In addition to the government pronouncements, the news (and my Facebook feed) has been full of comparisons to British PM Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Nazi Germany in 1938. It seems to me that there is a much closer historical analogy to our current situation than Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler. In the 1980s, US President Ronald Reagan referred to the former Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire.” Nevertheless, he engaged in talks with them to reduce the size of the world’s nuclear arsenal. When asked how he could trust those he had labelled as evil, he would often quote the Russian proverb: “Trust, but verify.”
I, like all Israelis and most of the Western world, am very concerned about Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. An extremist regime that has declared publicly its desire to wipe my country off the map should not be allowed the weapons needed to do so. The question is what is the best way to prevent it?
Yossi Klein Halevi argues in the New Republic that the deal undermines the two key ways the Iranians were being prevented from nuclear capability: sanctions and threat of attack. I have a different take.
First of all, I have never believed that an Israeli or American attack on Iran would do anything but guarantee that they develop a nuclear bomb. When we think through the scenario carefully, anything short of an attack that precipitates regime change (which would require more than just an air attack) would just entrench the Iranian leadership and populace’s perception that they need a bomb to secure their place in the world. If we try for a moment to stand in their shoes, we would see that an attack would strengthen their hardliners. They would bury the installations deeper, increase their air defenses, and stop at nothing short of nuclear capability. In the meantime, we would have risked a regional war, the international fallout (justified or not) for Israel if it attacked on its own would be terrible, and we would have gained nothing but a short delay.
A more thorough attack that would force regime change is simply not in the cards. Israel is not capable of it, and America is not in a political position where it is feasible (even if it were desirable). As former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said a couple of years ago: “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the President to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”
That leaves sanctions. Israel, with the help of the US, has been very successful in implementing a network of international sanctions against Iran. This seems to be the main factor that brought Iran to the negotiating table at this time. The whole point of sanctions is to change the Iranian government’s behaviour. It is not realistic to expect sanctions to bring about regime change. The end game has to be to get Iran to agree to stop their nuclear weapons program.
One way for that to happen is to keep squeezing until Iran says, “Enough!” and completely gives up any nuclear capability altogether. This would be great if successful, but is a very risky strategy. Iran could conclude that the world is against them no matter what and decide that they will build the nuclear weapon, since they have nothing to lose anyway. Their isolation would fuel paranoia, and the hardliners would be strengthened.
This seems to be what happened with North Korea. Over close to a decade in the 90s, the US and international community played a game of “carrots and sticks”, through sanctions, with North Korea. It was distasteful to be negotiating with such a repressive regime, but the incentives, positive and negative, kept the rogue nation from developing weapons. When the US under President George W. Bush, decided to take a hard line, it was only a few years before North Korea decided they had nothing to gain from working with the international community and developed their bomb.
The deal with Iran reached last week is not perfect, but I am not hearing Obama, Kerry or anyone in the international community saying it is. I have not heard a Chamberlain-like declaration of “Peace for Our Time.” Rather, it has been described as a cautious first step in implementing what will be a long process of back and forth with Iran to get them to back away from their nuclear ambitions. The steps Iran is taking are not large enough, but the sanctions relief is also commensurably small, and reversible if the Iranians do not comply with the terms. In the meantime, the process of uranium enrichment beyond 5% will be halted, as the verification regime is put in place. That makes us all much safer.
In the longer term, if we can create a situation where Iran “plays” the international community to get more sanctions relief by refraining from building nuclear weapons, while keeping their long-term plans ambiguous, we are in a much better position than today. It is a long-term management problem that will need to be watched carefully, but can keep them from fully developing the weapons of mass destruction we want to avoid.
That said, I think that Israel’s government’s public hard-line position is the correct one. Since we are not direct parties to the talks, tactically, we should be doing everything to give the US and international community the strongest backbone possible. It is good if, during the negotiations, the Iranians believe that the US can only go so far before a treaty would not pass a very Israel-friendly Congress. What is essential however, is that the public posturing not spill over to cause real damage to the US-Israel relationship which is of so much strategic value to us. I also think it is important that the populace understand that this agreement fundamentally makes us safer (if not perfectly safe – a condition that is not achievable in this world), and the government’s pronouncements, echoed and amplified through the media is undermining that right now.
It may not be “Peace for Our Time” but with the right “Trust, but verify” strategy, the international agreement with Iran last week makes us all a bit safer.