Sometime in the next three weeks, the United States and its allies in the international community could sign a nuclear agreement with Iran. If they do, the deal will be unsatisfying. Iran will still likely be able to maintain its nuclear infrastructure; a sunset clause of 10 to 15 years would make it possible for Iran to reignite its nuclear ambitions; the lever of international sanctions would be lifted; and the success of the agreement would depend on adherence to it by a country that has been caught lying about its nuclear aspirations in the past.
Welcome to the fun-filled world of international diplomacy, where the choices facing policy makers are almost never between the best or worst possible deal, but rather a set of least worst options. That’s the choice facing President Obama, and it’s a lesson that critics of his approach to Iran have consistently missed.
Take, for example, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress earlier this week. After pointing out that Iran is a bad country and that Iran getting nuclear weapons would be bad (most people agree), Netanyahu said, “the alternative to this bad deal is a much better deal.”
Everyone likes a better deal over a bad deal. Getting one is a bit more difficult, especially since for Netanyahu, a better deal would mean the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure — something that would never be acceptable to the Iranians.
Netanyahu, predictably, failed to offer any explanation as to why Iran might accept an outcome that would be tantamount to surrender.
Indeed, the presence of Iran as an actor with actual agency in these talks is the fly in the ointment for vocal critics of the Obama administration’s non-proliferation strategy. Any agreement, by the very definition of the word, must be agreeable to all sides. What Iran will require to sign on the dotted line will, inevitably, be a challenge for the United States, the other members of the P5+1, and Israel to accept. Hence the need for compromise by all concerned.
If this sounds like a rudimentary explanation of how negotiations work, it’s because it is. And yet, this basic clarification seems to elude Iran deal critics.
The fact is, as easily as the United States and the international community can walk away from a bad deal, so too can Iran. We know the price of this kind of failure. In 2005, when the Bush administration helped to derail a potential agreement with Iran that failed to meet its maximalist goals, Tehran responded by ratcheting up its nuclear ambitions. The result is that today Iran is far closer to building a bomb.
The same thing would almost certainly occur if the current talks were to fail because of United States or Western intransigence. Iran will expand its nuclear capabilities and the international sanctions regime that has brought Tehran to the negotiating table will likely begin to crumble.
Critics argue that more sanctions will convince Iran to cry uncle. But, with no way out of crippling international pressure, what reason is there to expect that Iran won’t make the strategic decision that getting that much closer to becoming a nuclear power will give them more, not less, leverage. What other option would it have? And if Iran is as radical and ideologically dogmatic as Netanyahu argues, and as committed to Israel’s destruction as he claims, why would more sanctions make a difference? Iran cannot be both unbending in its goals in the region and malleable because of ramped-up economic pressure.
Others argue that military force should be used to destroy Iran’s program, but it’s hard to see how the unforeseen consequences of war (which may or may not be able to destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure) would be better than even an imperfect deal.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that the United States should give up the store to Iran (and there is precious little evidence that this is occurring). But make no mistake, concessions will be made, an imperfect deal will, hopefully, be struck, invasive monitoring will ensue, sanctions will gradually be lifted, and Iran’s nuclear ambitions will be thwarted (for now). That’s not the ideal outcome most of us want — but it sure as heck beats the alternative.
Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.