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Iran nuclear arms deal: better than bombing

It looks more good than bad to me because, for starters, it is a step away from starting another war.

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.
REUTERS/Carolyn Kaster/Pool

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.

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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.