How I learned to stop worrying and love diplomacy

How do we know what we should do before the fact? Coaching a football game on Monday is much easier than coaching it on Sunday (MNF excepted), since what was uncertain before the game seems obvious afterwards. The only thing we can do is weigh the evidence at our disposal in order to make the best decisions we can. That is how sound policy is conducted—make due with the information you have at the time. So what should we think about the recent multilateral deal with Iran? Ordinarily we’d like to construct a large dataset with lots of observations in order to determine whether these sorts of agreements work out. But there are not sufficiently many parallels to do that here. Given the information we do have, I think we have reasons to believe that the recent multilateral deal to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities is prudent. Here are five.

1. Iran has made significant progress despite sanctions.

Though the United States has imposed sanctions both through the executive branch and Congress, Iran is closer than ever to building nuclear weapons. Just last week a senior analyst with AIPAC argued that the United States oughtn’t ease sanctions on Iran, even though Iran has accelerated progress of its weapons program in recent months. This concedes the point, though. Even if sanctions are working, they are not working fast enough to prevent a nuclear Iran. If that’s the case, there is good reason to test diplomatic alternatives.

2. The terms of the deal do not enhance Iran’s ability to obtain nuclear weapons.

The deal requires Iran to dilute its nuclear stockpile of Uranium enriched to greater than 20% in exchange for roughly $7 billion of sanctions relief. While it is possible that Iran will not comply with the arrangement, the alternative is that Iran would have just stayed its course over the same period. In order for this deal to be truly detrimental, it would need to be the case that these $7 billion are necessary or sufficient to allow Iran to procure nuclear weapons, but that’s not very likely. After all, Iran has been working for more than thirty years on its nuclear program with a combined GDP which dwarfs that figure.

3. Iran is not North Korea.

The United States has come to many similar agreements with North Korea, none of which have ultimately been successful. But Iran is different from North Korea in many ways. Unlike the Korean case, Iran it not propped up by a local hegemon like China. More importantly, however, Iran has a vibrant and well-educated middle class that would not countenance the level of depravity that international isolation has wrought in North Korea. Given this live domestic opposition, it is likely that the rulers of Iran are interested in placating the moderates, thereby diminishing the strength of the regime’s opponents.

4. Israel does not truly believe that Iran poses an existential threat.

The seventeenth-century philosopher Blaise Pascal made a wager. He bet that you should believe in God, even if you are uncertain. If you don’t believe in God you get earthly happiness, but lose out on eternal reward. If you believe in God, though you might lose out on some worldly pleasures you will receive infinite reward in the next life. The funny thing about infinity is that it’s infectious. Even if there is only a small probability that an event will occur, if the incentive is infinite the payoff is also infinity. You’d think the threat of a nuclear Iran jeopardizing the existence of Israel would be such an infinite calamity from the perspective of the Likud government. But PM Netanyahu has not expended epic resources or taken drastic risks to prevent Iran from going nuclear. Instead his government has operated by totally conventional means—speeches at the United Nations, diplomatic efforts abroad, sabre rattling, covert military operations. Given that the Likud government hasn’t taken any rash steps, there is no indication that it believes that the threat is as substantial as it otherwise claims.

5. If Iran were to give up its nuclear program, this would be the time.

There is a history of countries giving up their nuclear programs. Brazil and Argentina did so in the nineties. Having nuclear weapons is clearly efficacious for creating a military deterrent, and so one reason to build nuclear weapons is to obtain nuclear weapons. However, a country also stands to receive significant aid upon abandoning its nuclear program. If a country were to go this route, the best strategy would be to disarm right before it reaches its goal. Given that intelligence estimates put Iran at two months away from acquiring nuclear capabilities, this would be the precise time they should agree to abandon their program in order to maximize their payoff.

As an academic I don’t have any knock-down arguments that this agreement is good or bad for global security. I only have limited evidence. And the evidence indicates that this deal won’t accelerate Iran’s nuclear program, nor will it provide the necessary resources for Iran to go nuclear. Though sanctions have put pressure on a regime that is concerned with political instability, they haven’t succeeded in adequately slowing Iran’s capabilities. And I am heartened by the observation that even the Likud government isn’t behaving as if Iran is bent on destroying Israel. Finally, the timing of the agreement is exactly what one would expect if indeed Iran is milking its nuclear program for all it’s worth. So while I doubt this agreement will bring peace in our time, there doesn’t seem to be strong evidence that it will be calamitous either. It’s reasonable, and that’s all one can expect.

About the Author
Zev Berger is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Michigan.
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