Agreement with Iran: What are the Alternatives?

If I were the Israeli Prime Minister or the Saudi king, I would have devoted as much of my time as possible to exerting pressure on the U.S., Russia, China, Germany, the UK and France to toughen their demands from Iran in negotiations about its nuclear project. At the same time, if I were Barak Obama, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Angela Merkel, David Cameron or Francois Hollande, I would make sure my foreign minister comes home in June with a signed agreement. That is not because it’s going to be a great agreement that would address all outstanding issues with the Islamic Republic, but because it is the most reasonable option in light of the alternatives.

The military option is strategically problematic. Based on the Iran-Iraq precedent, a large-scale war with Iran would’ve likely lasted many years and the regime would have tolerated the deaths of any number of its citizens. In any case, after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it’s hard to imagine a better outcome in a full-blown military campaign in Iran. With regards to a short and targeted military attack, it would likely paralyze the Iranian project for a couple of years, but then strengthen the notion in Iran that a nuclear bomb is essential for its defense. Compare the 15 years of a controlled Iranian nuclear project that an agreement is likely to produce with the two-three years of paralysis that a successful military strike may achieve, and there is the answer why – in the face of an agreement – a military option is not really an option.

How about adopting more sanctions for a longer time against Iran, the option favored by Prime Minister Netanyahu and his republican allies in the U.S.? Regrettably, extending or severing the sanctions regime is probably not on the table. Unlike the military option, a sanction regime requires cooperation of the entire international community. While most countries don’t want to see a nuclear Iran, they do want to trade and maintain other relations with it. Sanctioning Iran also stifles the economies of those enacting the sanctions. Without cooperation from Russia and China and other states that are now committed to the sanctions regime against Iran, American sanctions alone would hardly matter to the Iranian economy. Regardless of what the man in the White House thinks, the world powers need to see a genuine and reasonable attempt at solving this diplomatically, otherwise – why continue with the sanctions?

Furthermore, even if extending or severing the sanctions regime would have been easily attainable, it would not have necessarily yielded more than it did. Opponents of an agreement need to check for themselves how many operating centrifuges and enriched uranium there were in Iran prior to the sanctions, and how many there are in Iran right now. The sanctions were effective in getting the Iranians to agree to negotiate, as well as in maintaining international opposition to the Iranian nuclear project. They did not, however, hamper the Iranian nuclear project itself, which has grown in all measures.

A short-term war, as well as a long-term one, would probably rush the Iranians to finally produce a bomb and leave the NPT, while deepening or even just extending the sanctions would neither slow down the Iranian nuclear project nor provide better scrutiny. What therefore remains for Benjamin Netanyahu and the leaders of other interested countries to do until the June 30 deadline? They should continue pushing for a deal that would effectively minimize the option for Iran to develop a nuclear bomb. Admittedly, Netanyahu has been doing a good job at raising the bar for an agreement with Iran. However, he and his counterparts from the Emirates and the Saudi Kingdom should stop short of rejecting any deal a priori (or opposing it for irrelevant reasons, such as when Congressman Roskam criticizes the deal today for its “gross human rights violations”).

Critique should help improving the agreement, but it must not let it fall apart. An agreement has a lot of advantages compared to the current situation: it extends the notice the world would get about Iran moving towards a bomb from three months to one year, it decreases the amount of enriched uranium and operating centrifuges but at the same time it increases the scrutiny mechanism on Iran’s operations. Beyond those advantages, if Iran violates the agreement – there’ll be greater international legitimacy to enact worse sanctions on the regime and/or to attack it militarily. The great hope is that following the agreement with the six global powers, the camp which supports a nuclear program that is genuinely intended for peaceful purposes becomes stronger in Iran, against the more radical camp that supports nuclear armament.

Frustrating as it may be though, even though the agreement isn’t going to be perfect – it still seems to ultimately be the best alternative available right now. That is not because one should trust President Obama – who has admittedly failed on many foreign policy issues. That is not because the framework agreement suggests an ideal comprehensive agreement in less than three months from now. It is actually doubtful whether the leaders of the great six powers themselves believe it is going to be an ideal agreement. However, given the alternatives, it is hard to think of of any better option.

About the Author
Tal Harris is the spokesperson of MK Amir Peretz (the Zionist Union) and a PhD candidate in sociology on urban migration discourse, policy, and practice at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. Tal is also the former Executive Director of OneVoice Israel. As executive director, Tal expanded OneVoice's Youth Leadership Program in partnership with the National Union of Israeli Students. He has led several nation-wide media campaigns, and co-launched of the first-ever Caucus for the Two-State Solution in the Knesset (now the Caucus for Ending the Israeli-Arab Conflict), which engages more than 40 Members of Knesset across several factions. In 2012 Tal was elected as a member of the Steering Committee for the Israeli Peace NGOs Forum. Currently studying for his PhD in sociology at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Tal holds a Master's in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and a Bachelor's in Philosophy and Politics from the Open University. He regularly participates in international conferences, panel debates and assemblies including the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations in Qatar and Brazil; the House of Commons in the UK; and the Israeli Knesset. Tal regularly publishes articles about Israel, Palestine and the two-state solution in the Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, The Daily Beast, Times of Israel, Huffington Post, Israel-Palestine Journal and more. Opinions expressed are personal and do not reflect those of the Israeli Labor Party and MK Peretz.