Monday, July 20, 2015

Persian Tilt

“On the nuclear issue, the United States and European colonialist countries gathered and applied their entire efforts to bring the Islamic Republic to its knees but they could not and they will not.”
—Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, November 25 on his website

“Iran is going to receive a sure path to nuclear weapons. Many of the restrictions that were supposed to prevent it from getting there will be lifted.”
—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on July 13, as quoted by The Washington Post

“It does not give me pause that Mr. Assad or others in Tehran may be trying to spin the deal in a way that they think is favorable to what their constituencies want to hear. That’s what politicians do.”
—President Obama, answering a question from ABC News’s Jonathan Karl on July 15

Opponents of the arms deal with Iran—including, apparently, the entire Republican Party—have pretty much been dug in against it since long before it became public and any of us knew for sure exactly what was in it. Other people have had no trouble accepting President Obama’s formulation that the choice came down to one between signing a piece of paper or going to war—and they prefer not to go to war.

The fact is that, ultimately, the question of war and peace will not be determined by diplomatic talks or by a piece of paper—which is, after all, in this case not even a formal treaty—but by evolving facts on the ground. When you spend a lot of time listening to politicians and reporters, it is easy to start thinking that diplomacy somehow forms reality. But it’s actually the other way around. Diplomacy has always been a way to formalize facts already on the ground. Yes, diplomats can reduce or avert bloodshed but mainly when that bloodshed would have been unnecessary or pointless, e.g. when one side has no reasonable chance to win a military conflict.

There seems to a popular idea out there that the mere act of talking can avoid conflict, that deep-rooted differences can be overcome by pure power of persuasion or being reasonable. Unfortunately, it is difficult or impossible to find any examples of that actually happening. If, for example, the U.S. and the Soviet Union managed not to destroy each other and the rest of the planet during a half-century of the Cold War, it was not because of the rhetorical prowess of the arms negotiators. It was because the two sides’ arsenals were equivalent enough that neither side could perceive any advantage in engaging in a war. The contribution of the diplomats was essentially to avoid a miscalculation by the other side.

The negotiation with Iran was very different than the U.S.-Soviet situation. The goal was not to balance nuclear arsenals but to prevent one of the sides from building one. Did the U.S. and its partners succeed? Well, only in the short term. The agreement actually concedes Iran’s right to acquire a nuclear weapon after a ten-year waiting period. But more importantly, there is no precedent for a country absolutely determined to get a nuclear weapon not to get one sooner or later. And there is no reason to expect things to be any different with Iran. After all, the whole negotiation exercise has pretty much followed the same approach that was used with North Korea.

President Obama repeatedly framed the talks with Iran as the only alternative to military action. Only time will tell if armed conflict was actually avoided by the talks. Let us hope that it was. But it was dishonest to assert that there was no other approach to the problem, short of war.

It is hard not to think that the best route for preventing Iran from going nuclear was to continue—and even double-down—on the sanction regime. Instead, sanctions will now be lifted and Iran will have more resources free for the sorts of activities that have bedeviled major parts of the Arab world, not to mention the U.S. and Israel. President Obama’s rationale for trading away the sanctions was that the world’s will in maintaining them was inevitably slipping away. He also argued that the sanctions were not preventing Iran from going nuclear. If so, then maybe there was never any hope of avoiding an atomic arms race in the Middle East, which now seems all but inevitable.

But think about this. In the 1980s and 1990s, sanctions eventually convinced the regime in South Africa to end the apartheid system. Would people who cared deeply about that issue have been content to lift sanctions on the apartheid regime in exchange for an agreement that had no more than a ten-year life?

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