A Deal With Iran Gives the US the Most Options

Last week brought President Obama what he hopes will be a definitive breakthrough in his foreign policy: a negotiated deal with Iran that would deny that country a nuclear weapon as well as the key elements necessary for building a nuclear weapon, all while avoiding yet another war in the Middle East.

The stakes, it should be clear, are dire. A nuclear-armed Iran might mean the end of Israel as a viable state, and would almost certainly lead to a nuclear arms race in a region that brings together political instability and vast resources – a readymade recipe for apocalyptic disaster.

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On the other hand, the only real alternative to allowing Iran to have a nuclear weapon or to negotiating a deal with Iran wherein Iran agrees not to pursue a nuclear weapon would be to go to war. The enemies of a negotiated settlement have been evasive on this point, so I would like to be clear: if Iran is committed to becoming a nuclear-armed state, nothing short of war is guaranteed to stop them. The West’s experience with North Korea should have already made that basic principle clear.

Unwilling to face that reality, many have found solace in the fact that the the United States and it’s allies have a variety of tools at their disposal that can be used to delay the development of Iran’s nuclear program. These range from targeted military attacks to assassinations to cyber-warfare and sabotage. Of course, the Iranians can and do try to counter these measures. At any given time, it is difficult to tell just how effective each side has been because it is difficult to to tell just how far along Iran’s program is. This mean that any effort to delay Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon, rather than eliminate their capacity or willingness to build one, is riskier than is typically appreciated.

As is so often the case in trying to respond to a threat, much of what you try to do is guided by intelligence. How reliable is our intelligence on Iran? The short answer is that it’s exceedingly hard for me to say. What I can say is this: the public record of American intelligence as it relates to assessing the WMD capacity of states in the Middle East does not inspire tremendous confidence. Israeli officials, on the other hand, have been warning that Iran is a handful of years away from the bomb for the last twenty years.

Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, explains in 1996 that the time to act is now. At the time, he feared Iran was "extremely close" to developing a nuclear weapon. The same, he warned at the time, was also true for Iraq.

Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, explains in 1996 that the time to act is now. At the time, he feared Iran was “extremely close” to developing a nuclear weapon. The same, he warned at the time, was also true for Iraq.

Make of that what you will.

So we come down to the following four options. First, we can allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon and try to contain that threat, while also trying to dampen the risk of proliferation that such a development would bring.

Second, we can go to war with Iran. Our force commitment would have to be sufficient to determine Iran’s nuclear capacity and destroy it, and to guarantee that we could do the same in the future as necessary.

Third, we can try to delay Iran’s nuclear development. This is the most obviously appealing option because it doesn’t depend on the good faith of Iran and it doesn’t require a full military engagement. It does, however, seem to ignore a very important question: what are we delaying for?

The hope seems to be that Iran’s Islamic government will fail and be replaced by a moderately pro-American government. That sounds nice, but not very likely. It also ignores the fact that if the Islamic Republic does fall in a decade, it is less likely to be replaced by a government that doesn’t see the US as a threat if we’ve spent the last ten years peppering them with bombing runs and sabotaging their programs. Any long-term strategy concerning Iran has to account for how that strategy is likely to shape the political landscape of the country. A full military conflict might provide the opportunity for advantageous regime change, though history should have taught us caution on this point; engagement might  reward moderates and engender trust. Alternatively, a policy of covert harassment and crippling sanctions is likelier to empower hardliners.

Also, and most concerning, there’s a huge risk of miscalculation. If the Iranians are capable of making undetected strides, a delay strategy can massively backfire.

In other words, the delay strategy seems at first reading like a conservative strategy that minimizes risk exposure and force commitment; it is, in fact, a highly optimistic strategy that depends on things going just right. If you’re going to delay, it makes more sense to do so because you’re waiting for the right moment to either negotiate or go to war, not because you’re hoping that the future will just make your problems evaporate.

Which brings us to the fourth and final option: a negotiated settlement. The benefits of an agreement should be clear to everyone. Done properly, an agreement avoids war while retaining the benefits of the delay strategy and improving our ability to gather intelligence. That’s why the key to any deal is weapons inspection: an agreement is basically a modified delay strategy, where you trade your ability to engage in sabotage for the ability to gain improved intelligence. (Of course, we always retain the right to defect from the deal and go to war.)

The basic calculus is therefore simple: do we think a sabotage and limited military strike strategy or a weapons inspection strategy would more meaningfully constrain Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear bomb?

We can briefly consider a handful of complicating factors. Under a regime of military deterrence, Iran will face incentives to harden targets. How effective should we expect those efforts to be? In this scenario, the United States will face political and diplomatic friction every time it choses to engage in overt military action. In other words, the US cannot just count on bombing Iran every few months without paying a considerable diplomatic cost. How much of a constraint should we expect such friction to be?

Under a regime of weapons inspection, Iran will face incentives to comply or risk the reimposition of sanctions. How strongly should we expect those incentives to influence Iran? If Iran choses to pursue a secret weapons program under a negotiated deal, how capable will Western intelligence be of discovering such efforts?

Lastly, we should note that a negotiated deal gives the West an opportunity to test a different strategy with Iran and gives Iran an opportunity to demonstrate good faith. These might be low-success propositions under this scenario, but they are zero-success propositions under alternative scenarios.

Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, explains in 2012 that the time to act is now. At the time, he feared Iran was less than year from being able to enrich weapons-level nuclear material.

Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, explains in 2012 that the time to act is now. At the time, he feared Iran was less than year from being able to enrich weapons-level nuclear material.

It should be clear by now that nothing in the logical structure of our options regarding Iran provides clarity on what we should do. But we can identify key questions that matter disproportionately. Can the West live with a nuclear Iran? This is the first question. But quickly behind it follows, how reliable is Western intelligence? The truth is that if Western intelligence is unreliable, then it should be clear that a delay strategy is a particularly bad bet precisely because we don’t know how big of a bet we’re taking.

On the other hand, I think it should be clear that a negotiated deal should be viewed as transactional: the primary benefit to the United States should be an improved intelligence landscape. Greater transparency can help constrain what Iran does, or it can help us decide what to do and when to do it. Either way, an agreement with Iran is not primarily, as it has been often presented, an agreement not to bomb them. It is an agreement not to bomb them right now. We can always bomb them tomorrow, and a good deal will give us a much better sense of where to bomb – if it comes to that.

Is the deal that the Obama administration is negotiating with Iran a good deal? I don’t know. Largely because I lack the expertise and largely because they’re nowhere near done negotiating it. It’s certainly not possible to decry it as a bad deal before it has been hammered out, though.

One of the most disturbing elements of the discussion surrounding the United States’ negotiations with Iran has been the abstract level that the criticism has taken. Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been particularly reprehensible in his vociferous condemnation of the very notion of dealmaking while being evasive about what the alternative might be.

The alternative, of course, is war. If that’s what Bibi wants, then he should say it.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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