The Sensible, Risky Option

(AP Photo/Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader)

In this picture released by an official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei attends a meeting with a group of religious performers in Tehran, Iran, Thursday, April 9, 2015. 

"There are only bad options. It's about finding the best one."

"You don't have a better bad idea than this?"

"This is the best bad idea we have, sir."

That snippet of dialogue is from the film Argo, set just after the Iranian revolution in 1979. It's the scene in which CIA Director Stansfield Turner is listening to the out-of-any-box scheme of two CIA men for smuggling six American diplomats out of Teheran. Turner is sensible. Since this is the best bad plan available, he approves it. Risky as it is, it even turns out to be a good plan.

Thirty-six years later, the same script would be appropriate for calmly discussing the framework agreement with Iran on limiting its nuclear program. Calm, though, has been in short supply. Since before the agreement was announced, before they knew what it would say, Republican politicians have been ranting against it. They, in turn, are singing back-up to the lead ranter, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose stream of press statements describe the accord as roughly the worst thing since the surrender of France in 1940. 

But if quiet deliberation were possible, the deal would be described as the best bad option available—or, in less dour terms, as a risky option, but less risky than the others, and more likely to succeed. In affairs of state, that's the option that sensible people choose.

To have the calm conversation about the accord, we have to tune out the noise from the GOP and Netanyahu. Both have picked their arguments to fit the conclusion they chose in advance. For Republicans, the intrinsic, unforgivable flaw is that the agreement was reached by Barack Obama, whom they will always see as a pretender to the presidency. As for Netanyahu, I've noted previously that he suffers from Agreement Anxiety Disorder (AAD): a reflexive certainty that any time an antagonist is willing to make an agreement to end or manage a conflict, the deal is a deception.

Netanyahu's proposals for an improved final accord are really aimed at preventing one from ever being reached. The best example is the linkage that he proposed (and that Senate Republicans tried to impose): conditioning a nuclear deal on Iran recognizing Israel and ceasing support for terror groups. Translated, this means that unless Iran bows out of regional proxy wars and makes peace with Israel, there’s no chance of a deal, and Iran will be able to continue developing the more terrible strategic weapons that it could use directly against Israel.

Historically, a similar linkage would have blocked any of the arms-reduction pacts that made the world marginally safer during the Cold War. Logically, the fact that Iran has been a loose cannon is precisely the reason to keep it from putting nukes in the cannon. The regional conflict between Iran on one side and Israel and much of the Arab world on the other isn't going to end this year. So it's a good idea to make that conflict less likely to progress toward mushroom clouds.

That's what the preliminary framework aims to do, if it can be translated into a final accord. "The most important point in the agreement," says Israeli expert Meir Litvak, is that it blocks production of plutonium at Iran's Arak facility. The limits on enriching uranium—the other path to weapons-grade fuel—slash the number of centrifuges that Iran can use, and bar the introduction of more advanced, more efficient centrifuges.

Litvak, head of the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University, is one of the calm voices in Israel easily drowned out by the shouting from the Prime Minister's Office. He belongs to the "best bad option we have" school. The agreement isn't a guarantee that Iran will never get the bomb, he says, but "in no small measure, it's better than the current situation," in which it would take Iran an estimated three months to build a nuclear weapon if it decided to do so. If Iran breaks the deal down the road, it will need a year to produce a bomb. It if keeps the agreement, the world gains 10 to 15 years in which Iran won't go nuclear.

In return, Iran gets a peace dividend: the end of sanctions, the chance to develop economically. Here's where two assumptions are built into the agreement. One, to cite Litvak again, is that over the lifetime of the provisions, Iran will become "bourgeois and comfortable," and tied to the Western world. Change is inevitable, Litvak says; "that's why [Iranian] conservatives fear" the agreement. The question is whether the social changes are fast enough to alter Iran's policy orientation before the accord reaches its expiration date.

The other question, I'll add, has to do with what happens if Iran breaks the deal before then. True: It will be hard to reimpose sanctions at today's levels. But economic pressure has more levels than "on" and "off."  The gamble is that losing even part of the peace dividend will be a price higher than Teheran wants to pay. Logically, it should be. But leaders (whether or not they are radical Islamists) don't always do the logical thing.

To the extent that a leak is reliable, Netanyahu's greatest concern is that Iran will keep the agreement. According to what two unnamed senior officials told Haaretz's diplomatic reporter, Barak Ravid, that's what the prime minister said at a top-level security consultation. Netanyahu's expressed fear was that 10 or 15 years from now, the world will have stopped paying attention to Iran, which will then be able to build a bomb. Allow me to suggest that he has another, unexpressed fear—that for 10 or 15 years, an Iranian bomb will not be Israel's central concern. That would undermine Netanyahu's political raison d'être and his fundamental perception that the Jews are perpetually an inch from destruction.

It would also require of him to decide what to do with Israel's own peace dividend. If Iran won't be able to renew a nuclear-weapons program for at least ten years, if in the worst case it would take Iran a year from breaking the agreement to building a bomb, Israel can divert more of its military, diplomatic and economic attention elsewhere. It can devote less of its military budget to preparing for an any-moment air campaign against Iran—one that would slow Teheran's nuclear program less than this agreement will. Israel could devote its diplomatic energies to reaching an agreement with the Palestinians, the price of admission to an alliance with Arab countries against Iran and its proxies. It could spend more money on its schools and hospitals and solving its housing shortage. It could, in short, deal with all the issues that Netanyahu has tried to avoid by saying, "But Iran!"

Instead, he is loudly standing up to Israel's allies, trying to prevent an agreement or even a sensible discussion of it. Enough has been said of the damage to relations with the United States. The potential damage to ties with another strategic ally have received very little attention.

So let me point out: Israel's fourth German-made submarine is undergoing final preparations to go operational. The first two were paid for entirely by the German government; the next two were built with German subsidies. A fifth is under construction, and a sixth on order, also partially paid for by the German government. According to foreign reports—the phrase always used in this context in Israel—the subs are capable of firing nuclear-armed missiles and provide Israel with second-strike capability.

Even so, relations between the two countries have occasionally been rocky. At least once in the past, Germany threatened not to deliver a submarine due to a dispute over Israeli policy in the occupied territories.

Germany also happens to be a partner to the agreement with Iran. A relentless public attack on the accord doesn't seem like a particularly good way to maintain relations with the country that (according to foreign reports) provides an essential part of Israel's nuclear deterrent.

Right now the best plan, risky as it is, for keeping Iran from getting the bomb is to complete the final agreement. Even if Netanyahu doesn't agree, his best bad option would be to express his criticism in closed meetings. But neither on Capitol Hill nor in Jerusalem do leaders always thinks sensibly about such things. 

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