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Iran nuclear arms deal: better than bombing

REUTERS/Carolyn Kaster/Pool
Secretary of State John Kerry, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov chatting during the Iran nuclear talks in Geneva on Sunday.

Is it a good deal? Of course, we won’t really know for a long time, but that won’t stop us from trying to answer that question based on what little we know. It looks more good than bad to me because, for starters, it is a step away from starting another war. The alternative to a negotiated agreement seems likely to have been a decision, either by the United States or by Israel, to bomb Iran. By my lights, bombing someone is starting a war. With apologies in advance to John McCain and Benjamin Netanyahu, while sometimes (rarely) war is the only solution, it should generally be pretty close to the last resort. I’m not a pacifist, but I’m willfully simple-minded about the general principle that peace is better than war.

Another reasonable way to look at it the question is: Is this a good deal compared to some other better deal that might have been achieved with more time, tougher bargaining, louder threats, more brinkmanship? I certainly don’t know and I’m pretty sure that those who take the position that a better deal could have been achieved don’t know either. The trouble with a negotiated settlement is that you generally have to compromise with the other side, which means you don’t get everything you want. It’s likely that those in the middle of the negotiations had the most educated and realistic idea of what concessions could be extracted by means short of war. (By the way, the Minnesota angle on this deal is that Jake Sullivan, a young Minnesotan and graduate of Minneapolis Southwest High, currently a top aide to Vice President Joe Biden, was one of the front-line U.S. negotiators in the secret talks that made the deal possible.)

Here, in the interests of letting him speak for himself, is what McCain said in a written statement of his reaction: “I am concerned this agreement could be a dangerous step that degrades our pressure on the Iranian regime without demonstrable actions on Iran’s part to end its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability — a situation that would be reminiscent of our experience over two decades with North Korea.”

McCain might be correct. But given his track record, it becomes difficult not to believe that McCain generally believes that military action works better than compromise. Maybe he’s right, but that is not my reading of the overall benefit of U.S. military actions since 1945. Is it possible that McCain and others in his camp serve a useful function by reminding those on the other side of the bargaining table that there is a perpetual war party in America. Yes, it’s possible. If so, thank you, Sen. McCain.

Those (including your obedient ink-stained wretch) who generally prefer compromise to war must be humble about the unknowability of the outcome of compromise. There is always the Munich/Hitler/appeasement chapter on the other side of the story. I wish that those who frequently advocate military action would be likewise humble about the many instances in which military action has failed to deliver all of the promised benefits and outcomes and run up significant costs. Vietnam and Iraq come to mind.

Will Iran abide?

One more way to look at the good-deal question is to acknowledge that it depends on whether the Iranians really intend to abide by it and how effective the inspection measures in the deal might be at catching them if they cheat. I know it is beyond my technical capabilities to have an informed opinion on that. For us in the laity, we either trust the U.S. negotiators to understand that stuff, or we don’t. Given the sad current state of our politics and given that this deal is a potential accomplishment of the Obama administration, it seems likely that most Americans will trust the deal or not depending on their party affiliation. I’m reminded of the rule that the head animals in Orwell’s “Animal Farm” taught the dumber animals for telling the good from the bad. It went: “Four legs good. Two legs bad.”

Another big and perhaps valid criticism of the deal is that it lasts for only six months, freezes Iranian progress toward developing nuclear weapons but doesn’t do much to roll back the progress Iran has already made and is supposed to be followed by a bigger, longer-term deal, the terms of which we cannot yet evaluate. At the end of six months, if the bigger deal is elusive, the United States can reimpose the sanctions. Critics of the deal say that the sanctions rely on broad international cooperation. Perhaps some of the sanction partners will not agree to reimpose. I suppose so. But to the degree that the ultimate leverage is to bomb, the United States can do that without partners, although this is certainly not an optimistic prospect.

The United States has had a hostile to a non-existent relationship with Iran since the 1979 revolution that overthrew the U.S. Shah of Iran, led to the taking of the U.S. Embassy staff hostage, and to the creation of a system in which ultimate political power in Iran is held by unelected ayatollahs. It was Iran that introduced the world to the unflattering nickname for America as “the Great Satan.” Of course Iran had the honor of being included by President George W. Bush in the imaginary “Axis of Evil,” which was particularly ridiculous because it included both Iran and Iraq, which were enemies of one another but nonetheless were brothers in the “Axis.” Anyway, the point of this paragraph was going to be that after 34 years, Washington and Tehran are talking to each other and have a made deal. Iran is a large, important, oil-rich, strategically located and historically very significant country. (In case you don’t know, Iran is the place known in biblical times as “Persia.) It says here that it is better for the United States to be on speaking terms, and negotiating terms, with Iran, than not. It’s another part of the argument that something positive has occurred.

More radical thoughts

Up to here, my thoughts have been conventionally liberal. Here’s where I get a little more radical. The idea that there is some kind of meaningful, legal nuclear non-proliferation regime is to me laughable. The actual system seems to be that the United States has nominated itself to be in charge of deciding who is worthy of joining the nuclear club. It doesn’t always work, but if that’s not the system, what is? The Israel piece is pretty strange. It’s utterly reasonable that Israel thinks the current arrangement, in which it has the only nukes in the neighborhood, is ideal. But it’s strange for anyone to think that this arrangement would strike Israel neighbors as fair, reasonable, safe or legal. I’m not saying that it’s OK with me if Iran gets nuclear weapons. But I am saying that it’s unreasonable to expect those who want nukes and are told they can’t have them to have much sympathy for the system.

Here’s my last  argument which can be summarized in one word: Mosaddegh. If the name doesn’t mean much to you, that’s part of the point. The extension of the “system” I discussed in the previous section is that the division of the world into good guys and bad guys is pretty much up to the United States. It sounds hopelessly simplistic, but is it inaccurate?

One of the determinants is that democracies are good and dictatorships are bad, with the exception of democracies that piss off the United States and dictatorships that cooperate with the United States, including most our Mideast allies. Saudi Arabia is a big one. Anyway, one of the strongest elements of the good-guyness of the United States is the way it wants people everywhere to enjoy the blessings of democracies, like we do. Part of the bad-guyness of Iran is the (to me) absurd system of rule by ayatollahs, which (notwithstanding the fact that Iran does hold elections for other offices, including the office of president) means that Iran is not a democracy.

Iran, in its long, long history was a democracy only briefly, in the early 1950s, during the rule of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, a Western-educated liberal who thought the United States was his natural ally. But the United States, via the CIA, organized a coup that overthrew Mosaddegh and ended democracy in Iran and replaced Mosaddegh with the Shah of Iran, who reigned for the next 26 years as a U.S.-backed dictator. Calling us Great Satan and taking our diplomats hostage was a terrible criminal act by Iran against the United States, but can it compare with overthrowing the only democratic government Iran ever had?

I now fear that I’ve overstayed my welcome. I admit that the Mosaddegh tale doesn’t directly relate to the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. But it does relate. For a more detailed discussion of the Mosaddegh incident, please see this version I wrote for MinnPost a few years ago. I have to go drink a cup of tea and take a nice nap before the men come to take me away.

Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Mike Worcester on 11/26/2013 - 10:25 am.

    Three Books Worth Reading

    About the subject of Mosaddegh and Iran/U.S. relations:

    All the Shah’s Men, by Stephen Kinzer, tells how the U.S. was drawn into the Iran mess by the British, who were unhappy that their oil monopoly was being threatened.

    The Persian Puzzle, by Kenneth Pollack, gives a longer historical view of relations between the nations.

    Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S., and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, by Barbara Slavin, which tells about how decades of mistrust have led to missed opportunities to try and unfrost relations between Washington and Tehran.

    At the risk of sounding optimistic, perhaps future historians will be able to write about how this agreement was the first step in untangling a situation that never should have happened in the first place.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/26/2013 - 10:39 am.

    The only people

    who have a right to say whether or not this is a good deal are the Israelis.

    Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently described Israel as “the rabid dog of the region.”

    Israel and Saudi Arabia have both issued statements making it clear that they will not accept an Iranian bomb. And unlike Obama, they actually mean it.

    • Submitted by James Hamilton on 11/26/2013 - 01:12 pm.

      That’s a pretty myopic point of view,

      Mr. Tester. Many people and nations other than Israel have an interest in peace in the region and in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, including the people of the United States. They, too, have a voice in the matter.

  3. Submitted by Ken Wedding on 11/26/2013 - 10:39 am.

    Nukes, international relations, Iran, and history

    Once again, you seem to have read my mind and expressed the disorganized thoughts that were there in a skillful way. Thanks.

  4. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/26/2013 - 10:56 am.

    Iran is not North korea

    Senator McCain rightly remembers our disappointing experience with negotiating nuclear limitations with North Korea. That experience remains applicable only to North Korea. The Senator’s error is in assuming that foreign policy is a “one size fits all policy.”

    Iran has been suffering mightily under the sanctions imposed by the rest of the world. This suffering was its main impetus for agreeing to negotiate. It can also be seen as an incentive to continue talks, and to abide by any non-development agreement. Put another way, it is in Iran’s long-term and short-term interest to curry favor by not developing a bomb.

    Those factors were not (are not) in play in North Korea. North Korea has no particular interest in engaging the rest of the world. Their juche philosophy has taught them that they must try to go it alone in the world. While they may have the occasional incentive to play nice with the global community, they have no reason to continue that cooperation. Being excluded from the world community is not the hardship that it is in Iran.

    Interesting Iran tidbit: After 9/11, there were some very tentative steps towards improving Iranian relations with the US. The two countries coordinated intelligence on attacking the Taliban in Afghanistan. Then, President Bush made his “axis of evil” speech. For some reason, the Iranians lost interest in helping the US after that.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/26/2013 - 11:33 am.

    Truth is…

    If you look at the governments in the region the Iranian government is one of more stable regimes. If you set the crazy rhetoric aside you can easily understand their policies. In the last 5 decades the US has established a practice of only attacking weak countries that pose no threat whatsoever, and we’ve attacked many of them both directly and by proxy. The only countries we won’t consider attacking, are those with nuclear weapons. Bush put Iran on the list of “to be attacked” countries. Their response has been perfectly rational and predictable. If you don’t understand why they would threaten Israel you haven’t looked a map or read the papers for the last 60 years. You play the cards you have, its not a mystery.

    This is not a failed state, it’s not a irrational regime, and it’s not isolationist. This is a regime we can work with. Not only that, but if we do this right, we open up a whole nuther line of possibilities and can decrease our reliance on Pakistan. Again, look at the map, there’s a reason we thought it was strategically essential back in the 50s.

    As for McCain, his judgment and integrity left the building long ago when he actually thought it would be a good idea to put a whackadoo from Alaska in the office next to him at the White House. I’m not interested in anything he has to say about Iran.

  6. Submitted by Greg Gaut on 11/26/2013 - 11:43 am.

    Tip of the iceberg

    Eric, you don’t need to be shy about mentioning things about US relations with Iran which are common knowledge everywhere but here. The fact that Iran would be “trustful” enough to negotiate with the US is remarkable, given what the US has done to Iran. Not just completely derailing their indigenous path to democracy by overthrowing Mosaddech, but also by funding the Shah’s brutal security apparatus, and during the Reagan years, supporting Saddam Hussein, then a US ally, in his ten year war against Iran, even to the point of helping him with chemical weapons. Hopefully, this agreement will mark a positive turning point in US-Iranian relations.

  7. Submitted by ann klefstad on 11/26/2013 - 12:10 pm.

    Iran-Iraq war

    A more proximate example of Great-Satanish US behavior was the support of the US for Iraq in the horrific war that Iraq began soon after the revolution in Iran that overthrew the Shah. It was a brutal war of attrition that Saddam Hussein began with covert and overt U.S. support. This war, which dragged on for years, set Iran against nearly the whole of the Arab world, isolating it and setting in place the idea that nukes were necessary for national survival.

    And this was caused by heedless, foolish aggression on the part of the US through its proxy, Saddam Hussein– who we later attacked and defeated when he overreached his mandate, killing countless thousands to eradicate a problem that our own policies helped to create. Iran has reasons to be paranoid.

  8. Submitted by James Hamilton on 11/26/2013 - 01:14 pm.

    As I was told in Northen Ireland not long ago,

    “As long as we’re talking, we can’t be shooting.” While not literally true, it’s a point well worth considering.

    There is always time for war.

  9. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 11/27/2013 - 10:57 pm.

    Some thoughts

    There is no doubt that peace is better than war – but only if it is a good peace. The main thing is to see when it is good and when it is not. And obviously any peace that would lead to higher possibility of a worse war in the future is a bad peace. So in this case this “peace” will quite possibly lead to Iran’s obtaining nuclear weapon. The best case scenario is Iran’s open reneging on its obligations (which it is already doing - with the situation coming to where it was about half a year ago (provided the West has guts to throw he deal out). The worst case scenario is that Iran is not doing it that openly and plays for time and more negotiations and meanwhile does what it wants – prepare for building nukes. Then one day it kicks everyone out and, while the world is trying to figure out what to do which, considering how the world works, will take long time, will announce that it possesses nukes shortly thereafter.

    Now let’s talk about military option. First of all, I am not aware of instances when negotiations with really bad guys worked. On the other hand, examples of “bad” wars are not correct. Vietnam was a bad experience because America lost that war and it lost that war because of the internal opposition. And Iraq war was a total success: anti-American dictator was removed from power with minimal losses in a record short period of time. What happened after that (attempts to build democracy in Iraq) was not a part of the war – it was a separate monumental mistake which negated all the fruits of the victory. By the way, that victory also frightened Iran enough to make it interested in negotiations.

    Another question is: can we trust western negotiators. Unfortunately, the answer is no. The West seemed so eager for a deal that sometimes it looked like it suffered from sanctions more than Iran. Plus, of course, Obama needs a success now, any success, and this may look like one, at least for a short period of time. And even if all wishes of “peace” party come true and Iran does what it promised, it will never agree to anything less than it has right now (why would it if the sanction pressure has been reduced) and thus will build its bomb sooner or later.

    A few more thoughts. Putting Iran and Iraq into one “axis of evil” is similar to putting Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany in one category. Does anyone see a problem with that? As for Mosaddegh “who thought the United States was his natural ally”, how come he tried to nationalize oil industry and looked up to the Soviet Union? Was he so stupid that he thought that America would like it? The truth is: Shah’s policies were better for Iran than Mossaddegh’s (just because capitalism is better than socialism) and I wrote about that before.

    • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 11/28/2013 - 09:57 am.


      The Iraq war was a total success except for the after part? Um, yeah, that is part of the deal with war. You can’t just blow everything up and walk away and hope it turns out afterwards. Our enemies in World War II became our allies and successful democracies and economic powers because of the enormous post-war resources we poured into the Marshall Plan. When determining the success or failure of a war, you have to look at the whole picture and not just the actual combat.

      Whether Mosadegh’s policies were good for the U.S. is irrelevant – he was the democratically elected leader of Iran. Most Iranians were not that excited to have the U.S. destroy their democracy and re-install a brutal dictator. This manifested itself in getting is the current regime in Iran. How did that work out for the U.S.?

      The lesson is that you need to think of the long term consequences of any action. And in the long term, engagement is probably going to produce far better results than war. Israel may not like it now, but in the long term, engagement serves its interests as well.

    • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 11/28/2013 - 01:14 pm.

      Some facts

      “The best case scenario is Iran’s open reneging on its obligations (which it is already doing - with the situation coming to where it was about half a year ago (provided the West has guts to throw he deal out). ”

      Actually “The US has said Iran can take on some construction at the Arak nuclear facility after Tehran said work will continue at the site sparking international concern. ”

      “Then one day it kicks everyone out and, while the world is trying to figure out what to do which, considering how the world works, will take long time, will announce that it possesses nukes shortly thereafter.”

      Actually that would require enriching uranium beyond a certain percent. Easily detectable.

      ” By the way, that victory also frightened Iran enough to make it interested in negotiations.”

      The false war actually frightened Iran to hurry up its nuclear program.

      “Another question is: can we trust western negotiators. ”

      Can we trust Israel under Netenyahu ? He was once caught boasting on a video how he misled America

      “In a video from 2001, Netanyahu, reportedly unaware he was being recorded, said: “I know what America is. America is a thing you can move very easily, move it in the right direction. They won’t get in our way.” Netanyahu also bragged how he undercut the peace process when he was prime minister during the Clinton administration. “They asked me before the election if I’d honor [the Oslo accords],” he said. “I said I would, but … I’m going to interpret the accords in such a way that would allow me to put an end to this galloping forward to the ’67 borders. How did we do it? Nobody said what defined military zones were. Defined military zones are security zones; as far as I’m concerned, the entire Jordan Valley is a defined military zone. Go argue.””

      “A few more thoughts. Putting Iran and Iraq into one “axis of evil” is similar to putting Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany in one category. Does anyone see a problem with that?”

      Yes I do. You don’t see Iran invading its neighbors. Nor building settlements on land forcefully taken from indigenous people.

      “Shah’s policies were better for Iran than Mossaddegh’s ”

      If torture were a successful policy you are correct. Mossaddegh was not in power for time enough to pass such judgement

    • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 12/01/2013 - 08:56 am.


      You have no understanding of the Vietnam war, a civil war that we had no reason to become involved in. Over 50K American soldiers died because of the inability of the US military command to fight a guerilla war in the jungle. We also killed a incredible number of Vietnamese civilians with indiscriminate bombing of North and South Vietnam, including Agent Orange. Thanks to the opposition of most of the American people, we finally ended our 10 year failed mission. A horrible mistake based on the stupid and failed domino theory.

  10. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/29/2013 - 09:48 am.

    They have Ayatollas

    making the final decisions, we have corporations.
    Neither can be voted out of office.
    There are competing Ayatollas and competing corporations.
    Is one more democratic than the other?

  11. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 12/01/2013 - 10:26 pm.

    Let’s stick to facts

    It’s great to have a discussion. However, let’s stick to facts. Yes, our enemies in WWII became democracies and economic powers due to the Marshall plan. However, they did not try to kill as many American soldiers stationed on their territories as possible after the war ended. And if they tried, I doubt they would have received much help from America. So let’s be realistic: Iraq was not Germany or Japan in 1945.

    I never mentioned Mossaddegh’s policies towards America – it is irrelevant. I said that they were worse for Iran than the Shah’s. Under the Shah Iran made much more economic progress than it would have under Mossaddegh. Same with tortures: Multiple historical examples show that socialist leaders, even if elected democratically, turn into dictators rather quickly and kill a lot of its own people. As for ruined democracy, compare Chile and Cuba: A coup succeeded in the former and failed in the later. Where would one like to live?

    Of course, the State Department said that it would be OK for Iran to work on Arak – remember I questions if the West would have any guts? I guess it doesn’t. Sure nukes would require enriching to 90% (unless of course Iran buys material from North Korea) but the ease of detection is questionable. If Iran has enough centrifuges, it can enrich enough for one bomb relatively quickly, quicker than the world would decide what to do when the UN inspectors are kicked out. And now a FACT: Ahmadinejad sent a letter to Bush offering nuclear negotiations after quick victory in Iraq. Reason? Fear!

    Of course, Netanyahu’s words have nothing to do with what I was talking about. However, to certain degree it proves my point: Israel was interested in its security and if Western, and especially American, negotiators are interested in ANY agreement, will they negotiate seriously? And obviously, Iran’s non-invasions have nothing to do with my comparison of putting Iran and Iraq into one category with dong the same with USSR and Nazi Germany; it was a point to prove that two countries that are enemies of each other may both be bad.

    Yes it is very important to think of long term consequences of any action. That is why this agreement is so shortsighted. It may look great now but will it a year from now? Why don’t we learn anything from the North Korea debacle? Yes, there are differences but similarities are much more significant.

    Or, by the way, I did not make any judgment about the validity and reasons for the Vietnam War. I just said that it was an invalid example in the Iran discussion.

    • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 12/03/2013 - 02:27 pm.


      Were you being sarcastic when you started that comment by talking about sticking to facts? I really can’t tell.

      Iraq was not Japan or Germany post-war. It was also nothing like Japan or Germany pre-war. The fact that everyone except the Bush administration’s inept foreign policy team knew post-war would be a disaster doesn’t mean you skip the post-war clean up. It means you skip the war. You can ‘t simply bomb a country and ecpect the vacuum left behind to fix itself

      You can’t say that Iran under the Shah would have performed better because there is no track record to compare to. You can say for sure that a democratic Iran would have performed better than the theocracy of the last 30 years. That theocracy is a direct consequence of re-installing the shah. Again, you need to look at the big picture.

      Chile is a thriving democracy now, but it took decades to overcome the damage done by the coup and Allende ‘s murder. If you think that is a success story, you get an F in history. For the record, the socialists have been since in Chile, and then were defeated and gave up power. That’s how democracy works, even if you don’t like the people who got elected.

      I would love to see your list of “multiple examples” of democratically socialist leaders that turned into dictators.

  12. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 12/03/2013 - 10:56 pm.

    Yes, facts

    American government has an obligation to defend America and Americans, including going to war if necessary; it has no obligations to clean up another country after the war. At that time all intelligence agencies of the world believed that Saddam had WMD and so did Bush. As for his administration’s belief that Iraqis would be happy to be liberated from Saddam, it fits well into an idea that everyone is good, deserves help, and will use help wisely. I do not think so and history is on my side.

    Yes, there is a track record of Iran under Shah – 25 years. The shah used oil money wisely and significantly modernized his country and improved the lives of Iranians. And if clerics and socialists didn’t like him, it is not his fault. So Khomeini’s revolution was not a result of the shah’s actions but rather the result of his (and Carter’s) inaction when they didn’t want to be too hard on the future “revolutionaries.”

    In Chile, Pinochet prevented the country from becoming a Cuba’s double – that is already a huge accomplishment. Yes, there were socialist governments in Chile after that, just like in Western Europe. However, Allende was not that type of socialists – he was a Castro type socialist. Big difference.

    And finally, democratically elected socialist leaders becoming dictators? Not far from Chile – Chavez and now Maduro in Venezuela. And Saddam Hussein was from Baath Socialist party…

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