Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Making history with Iran

The U.S. and Iran may be on the verge of making a historic deal on nukes. The possible compromise was revealed ahead of the next negotiating round on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference that starts Friday. Will it be historically good, or historically bad?

First, let’s get the easy stuff out of the way. Reagan famously said of the Soviet empire that one must, “Trust but verify.” It’s a Russian proverb, Доверяй, но проверяй (doveryai, no proveryai) and the Gipper used it to great effect in negotiating arms reductions with Gorbachev, or so they say.

Some people also say that we are in a “Trust but verify” situation with Iran. This is completely false. Trust must play no part in our dealings with Iran. They absolutely cannot be trusted to comply with any treaty obligations. The only thing they can be trusted to be is true to their nature. You can trust that they are an atavistic, apocalyptic, totalitarian theocracy, determined to destroy Israel, and that they have financed terror operations against Jewish targets in Argentina, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere.

As for their nuclear ambitions, trust that the Iranians will pursue weapons before, during and after these negotiations. The question on the table is whether or not sufficient obstacles can be placed in the way of an Iranian bomb. And by sufficient, I mean, sufficient to be certain that they won’t get a bomb that can be used in any way, including as a threat, or to arm a proxy.

The plan being floated about is that Iran will keep 10,000 centrifuges. That’s a lot – enough to build a bomb. However, the idea is that Iran will have to export all of its production, and there will be an inspection and regulation regime to regulate the inputs and outputs to prevent Iran from getting the capacity to build a bomb. Finally, the centrifuges will be modified to limit how much nuclear fuel produced. I haven’t heard that the grade of the uranium produced is subject to controls under the proposed agreement, but my gut tells me that it is.

This might be a good outcome but only if Iranian compliance can be verified. Can the U.N. International Atomic Agency be trusted with the responsibility of verifying Iranian compliance, as contemplated in the compromise? I trust the Iranians to try to skirt the regulations, avoid the inspections, and get away with breaching the agreement. And then what?

War is the obvious option. The problem is that it takes time it takes to recognize a breach of the agreement. And then it takes more time to act on that knowledge, even in the case of unilateral military action under the command of the Commander-in-chief. What if, in that time, Iran gets a nuke? Depending on the outcome of the negotiations, Iran might be as little as one month and as much as a year from having a nuclear bomb under the terms of the compromise.

The work-around for this little problem is that, at least in theory, the U.S can act upon less than certain knowledge. Maybe there is no will to go to war, but in the past, the U.S. has used sanctions to coerce Iran to behave better. The main sanction that the U.S. can impose is in the area of banking. By freezing bank accounts, the U.S. can more or less freeze the Iranian economy. As we shall see, this is a mixed blessing.

Before we dismiss the rumored agreement out of hand, we need also to see what else is rolled into it. Will Iran commit to no longer funding Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the PLO (or, rather, it’s successor, the PA) and other terrorists around the world? What about a promise to stop its mischief in Iraq? All of this would be good, but there’s a rub.

How would we enforce these collateral deals? Obviously, war is not an option because if it were, we would have gone to war a long time ago. Recall that the proposed deal depends upon Iran exporting all of its nuclear fuel. If, by a series of sanctions, we can prevent Iran from participating in international trade, that leaves them with no money, no food, and an excess of nuclear fuel. That’s not good. In other words, the problem is that the nuclear deal may reduce our leverage in non-nuclear arenas.

The devil is in the details. How certain can we be that we will be able to detect Iranian cheating when it occurs? How much time will we have to react once we detect evidence that Iran is cheating? What will be our options, once we confirm cheating? Without these details we won’t know if this is a historically good deal or the opposite.

We can be certain that this deal is not good enough for the Israelis, if for no other reason than that the current PM will go to any lengths to embarrass our President, especially if he thinks it will advance his chances of re-election. Bibi giving his hechsher to a deal negotiated by President Obama is not in the cards. I am concerned that this is the attitude of Republicans, especially the fundamentalist wing of the party. What a shame it would be if a good deal is scrapped for this reason. As has been said, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

There’s talk that the deal is not likely to be good enough for France. And I must confess that I was disappointed when I heard the number 10,000 both because it is a large number, and because it does not reflect any movement by the Iranians. I am a big supporter of Obama, but I need to be persuaded that this is both a good deal, and the best deal we could get. I guess, I trust Obama, but I want to verify.

In the last analysis, any deal with Iran must include the condition that a breach means a “shock and awe” style attack on the mullahs. And that has to be the outcome if no deal is reached, too. And that’s why I am not in favor of provisional sanctions.

Stay tuned.

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