Speaking before a joint session of Congress in March, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that “the alternative to this bad deal” being negotiated with Iran “is a much better deal.”
The agreement he condemned was finalized yesterday, and many Republicans are echoing Netanyahu’s claim: we could have gotten something much better. The Obama administration, on the other hand, suggests that the only real alternative to this deal is war.
This dispute matters. Making deals requires compromise—we don’t get everything we want. And there are certainly unpleasant compromises in the current agreement. Iran gets to keep part of its nuclear infrastructure, gets to continue some of its nuclear research, and, in several years, starts being relieved of arms embargoes. In 15 years, a lot of the uranium enrichment restrictions come off.
We get a lot in return—the nuclear infrastructure is less extensive than it’s been, the nuclear stockpile is smaller and less risky, and inspectors will have better access than they’ve ever had before, including the ability (with European support and a delay of a bit under a month) to enter any suspicious facility. The sanctions will be relaxed and will lose much of their vigor, but they can essentially be reimposed unilaterally if we choose.
It’s probably a deal we can live with, especially for the next five to ten years, but it’s nothing to dance in the streets about.
Was anything better possible? Was the alternative war? Was it a better deal?
For starters, it’s difficult to see how these talks could have produced something categorically different from what they did. Remember, they’d been going on for more than two years. Were the Iranians going to radically change their tune if we’d kept the process going?
We know that the negotiators weren’t just filling air during that time—twice, reports the Boston Globe’s Matt Viser, the Iranians told us they were making their last and best offer. The Iranians also remained intransigent enough even in the last two weeks that Secretary of State John Kerry had to ask foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif if he even had the authority to make a deal. That doesn’t sound like desperation on Iran’s part, and neither does the months-long interlude they’ve accepted between yesterday’s deal and the beginning of sanctions relief.
But second, the broad elements of this final deal had already been agreed to for more than a year and a half. Early on in the talks, the two sides consented to a framework—the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA)—which described what the broad contours of the final agreement would look like. Many of yesterday’s compromises were merely the fulfillment of commitments made in the JPOA.
That document was itself the product of extensive negotiations. So if we want a categorically different nuclear deal—say, one that leaves in place most of the UN Security Council-level measures against Iran’s military and financial system—we’d have to think about exiting the JPOA and seeking new terms. But there’s a reason neither side felt comfortable threatening to break the JPOA, even as deadline after deadline flew past. The JPOA didn’t just outline the final deal—it set conditions to reduce tensions during the talks. Both sides lived with those conditions because the pre-JPOA crisis had gotten so dangerous.
And it’s that pre-JPOA crisis to which we’d be in danger of returning. Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity and its stockpile of enriched uranium were both expanding with no end in sight. Worse, Iran was enriching and stockpiling some uranium at near 20 percent purity. They’d need to get above 90 percent to make a decent bomb, but enriching from 20 percent to 90 percent is relatively much easier than getting from natural uranium to 20 percent. It was the danger of this 20 percent uranium stockpile that was being depicted in Benjamin Netanyahu’s famous cartoon bomb.
Iran would still have had to take other steps to have a usable bomb—testing it, mounting it on a delivery system, etc.—but there was a feeling that a decision point was approaching, that the most visible part of Iran’s nuclear program would soon pass a point of no return.
People forget just how possible war felt back then. As the Atlantic’s well-connected Jeffrey Goldberg reported last year, in both 2010 and 2012, U.S. officials “were convinced that Netanyahu and his then-defense minister…were readying a strike on Iran.” Goldberg writes that “the fear inside the White House…was real and palpable—as was the fear of dissenters inside Netanyahu’s Cabinet, and at Israel Defense Forces headquarters.” U.S. Central Command was even tracking the moon phase and weather over Iran, “trying to predict the exact night of the coming Israeli attack.”
That attack likely wouldn’t have produced a decisive result. Instead, as many analysts (myself included) argued at the time, there was a real danger that Iran would rebuild the nuclear program, albeit this time outside the confines of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Repeat wars might be necessary; each would come at great cost to regional stability and the international economy. War also would have further poisoned the Russians and Chinese against us, potentially fostering a belt of anti-American cooperation from the Baltic to the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea.
Getting out of the JPOA would thus have been a high-stakes gamble. It’s certainly possible that we could have eventually brought Iran back to the table under a tougher framework, although it’s hard to see how more stringent conditions could have still won Iranian acceptance. Iran’s economy has been stabilizing, and much of that isn’t because of sanctions relief. Further, we’ve tried walking away before, and the end result was that Iran came back to the negotiating table with more centrifuges—i.e. with more to defend, or at least more to bargain with.
The underlying problem here is that the Iranian nuclear issue was simply never going to end well. We were choosing between different unpleasant outcomes. This seems to be the least unpleasant.
It’s absolutely true that the Obama administration could have conducted the talks much better. Outreach to Congress and to Iran’s nervous neighbors should have been done much sooner and with more open minds. It would also be nice, all other things being equal, if the arms restrictions could come off later and centrifuge research be hindered more.
Yet such hypothetical deals differ from yesterday’s in degree, not in kind, and we simply won’t know how much was possible until the negotiators start writing their memoirs. To paraphrase Bibi Netanyahu, the alternative to this deal may only have been a marginally better deal.