Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Is the Iran deal a good idea? Scholars argue pros and cons at University of Minnesota

REUTERS/US State Department
Secretary of State John Kerry speaking with Hossein Fereydoun, center, the brother of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, right, before the Secretary and Foreign Minister addressed an international press corps gathered at the Austria Center on July 14.

Four scholars debated the Iran deal Monday night at the U of M’s Humphrey School.

William Beeman
William Beeman

University of Minnesota Anthropologist William Beeman, who travels to Iran frequently, argued that Iran never was seeking nuclear weapons, so all of the concessions the United States and its negotiating partners have made have only induced Iran to give up something that it wasn’t doing anyway. He favored ratification of the agreement.

He said that many who oppose the agreement are motivated by a desire to humiliate Iran and embarrass President Obama. Those who believe it is possible to get, from where things stand now, back to negotiations to strengthen the deal are engaging in “magical thinking” because the other world powers that had imposed sanctions on Iran have already decided to approve the deal and have moved onto opening trade relations with Iran. Beeman also said that those who complain that Iran has not made concessions — not directly related to the nuclear issues but for things like the release of prisoners or the recognition of Israel — were taking a “Christmas tree approach” to the deal.

Oren Gross
Oren Gross

U of M Law Professor Oren Gross, who grew up in Israel and worked for the Israeli government, argued that Iran’s history of cheating in the past and the statements by its leaders that Israel should not exist and that the United States is a great Satan should alert the world not to trust Iran. Gross believes that it’s not too late to seek stronger provisions. He didn’t specify how the deal could be modified at this point and didn’t directly address Beeman’s assertion that it is too late for that, since the other nations of the P5+1 have decided to accept the deal.

Lance Armstrong analogy

Gross mocked some of the inspections provision with a reference to bicycle racer Lance Armstrong (who was found to be doping). If the inspection deal Iran has won was analogized to Armstrong’s efforts to be reinstated as a racer, it would amount to Armstrong saying that he will agree to have his urine tested but he needs 24 days advance notice before he provides any urine and that he must be allowed to urinate privately without the inspectors in the room (so presumably they have no assurance whose urine they are getting).

Tom Hanson
Tom Hanson

Gross also bemoaned what he called a “flattening” of the debate over the agreement so that anyone who was opposed was automatically accused of being a warmonger and anyone who favored the agreement doesn’t care about the security of Israel or the United States. In fact, Gross said, he is not among the critics who say this deal is so bad that “no deal” would be better. He just believes this deal can be improved.

Tom Hanson, a long-time U.S. diplomat who currently holds the title of “diplomat in residence” at the University of Minnesota Duluth, said the deal as negotiated was “far from perfect” and “not risk-free” but was nonetheless preferable to any of the available alternatives because it at least buys time for Iran to move toward a moderate position in world and regional affairs.

Hanson noted that Israel has a significant nuclear weapons capability, including a second-strike capability, which provides it with a substantial deterrent against any first strike against it by Iran.

Terrence Flower
Terrence Flower

Terrence Flower, an emeritus professor of physics and math from St. Catherine University in St. Paul, joined Gross on the “con” side and spoke about technical aspects of verification.

Clash of ideas

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison spoke before the debate began. Although he didn’t state a personal position Monday night and said he still had some work to do on the issue, Ellison suggested that enough House Democrats have already pledged to support the deal to basically ensure that opponents cannot override a presidential veto. If that number is correct and holds up, the deal cannot be defeated in Congress.

Speaking before the evening’s debate began, Ellison also offered a lovely quote that “the clash of ideas is the sound of freedom.” Assuming the Internet knows its stuff, that quote is attributable to Lady Bird Johnson.

The event was organized by the United Nations Association of Minnesota. Eric Schwartz, dean of the Humphrey School, moderated.

Comments (31)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 08/25/2015 - 11:16 am.


    Lawyers are very vulnerable to argument by analogy. It’s one of the weaknesses of a legal education.

    • Submitted by Steven Prince on 08/25/2015 - 01:27 pm.

      24 day meme

      The 24 day claim is a nice talking point but not very accurate.

      Under the agreement its constant monitoring and access to known sites and 24 hour access to new suspected sites.

      Yes, Iran can object to inspection of new sites, and it is theoretically possible that access could get delayed up to 24 days, but only if the US agreed. If Iran objects the US can force the issue to an international commission where the US and our European allies have a majority. If the commission orders inspection Iran has to comply or the sanctions snap back.

      Its explained in detail here:

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 08/25/2015 - 02:49 pm.


        Rather than referencing the spin from a partisan left-wing site, you should have provided a link to the actual agreement so we could read it from the horse’s mouth so to speak. has zero credibility in the real world.

        • Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 08/26/2015 - 09:44 am.

          Nothing stops you from reading it

          But it’s technical, so an explanation from experts makes more sense. Can you actually show an issue with the Vox article? Your distrust doesn’t do it. Just an assertion from neocons hardly cuts it given their record on honesty and accuracy.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/25/2015 - 12:08 pm.

    So what’s new?

    It’s still a batch of opinion statements from individuals with little -relevant- expertise on the issue.
    I’d lump mathematicians/physicists in with lawyers as people whose arguments are seldom grounded in real world facts. We’re not talking about how bombs work here — we’re talking about how people behave. High school students have been writing papers about how to build bombs for years now.

    Tom Hanson is the only one with an appropriate background whose opinion I really respect, and he takes the most reasonable position.

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 08/25/2015 - 12:50 pm.

    People have a strange idea as to how a diplomatic agreement can be made “better” after the negotiations are over.

    By what mechanism is this possible?

    Is a “do-over” a recognized part of negotiations beyond grade school?

    The better agreement could only be done with the help of the ‘way-back” machine–better agreements could have been made years ago when Iran had not spent so much time on the road to nuclear-land.

    And the idea that a negotiator from Iran would significantly impair their nation’s sovereignty and autonomy just to get an agreement sadly confuses the consequences of war and negotiation.

  4. Submitted by Doug Gray on 08/25/2015 - 01:03 pm.


    Producing weapons-grade material from radioactive ores is hardly likely to be covered up by the analogous process to buying and using a Whizzinator. The evidence lasts for much more than 24 days; try as many months. That being said, I’d have like to have heard more about what Prof. Flower thought about the technical aspects of verification, or whether Tom Hanson suggested Israel should put its undeclared nuclear weapons program under international safeguards.

  5. Submitted by Steven Prince on 08/25/2015 - 01:17 pm.

    If not this what

    If Professor Gross believes no deal is better than this deal did he also acknowledge that “no deal” is not the continuation of the status quo, but Iran unencumbered by the international sanction regime?

  6. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 08/25/2015 - 01:41 pm.

    One of the ways in which any deal can be criticized is that it should have been “better”, that your negotiator should have gotten more, and the other negotiator should have gotten less. In this case, the version of this criticism we get from Professor Gross was that the deal should be “improved”, something we can say about anything. At least here, sadly, the professor offers us no insight as to exactly how such an improved deal is possible. Maybe Lance Armstrong has something to do with it.

    All this prompts a whole set of further questions. We had deals with the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein. My understanding is that the inspection with the Iranian deal is better than the one we had with Iraq. No doubt those deals could have been improved too. Professor Gross might well have criticized them on that basis. But was the lack of improvement the reason why those deals failed, why our policy toward Iraq descended into war? The fact is, the inspection regime we had with regard to Iraq, unimproved though it was, told us accurately that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction. We simply chose not to believe it. The upshot was that it wasn’t the deal that failed us, the deal worked fine. It was our failure to respect the deal, to have confidence in our science and technology that led to the disastrous outcome of our Iraqi policy.

    Concerning warmongering, Professor Gross, like many politicians I know, is seeking to both have his cake and to eat it. Without providing a specific alternative policy, he is telling us the alternative to this deal isn’t war. Well, the alternative to this policy is Iran having nuclear weapons in short order and our policy choice at that point will be either to accept Iran as a nuclear power with an uninspected weapons program or war. That isn’t Professor Gross’s position, but it is the position to which it’s logic inextricably leads, the logic that cost us so much in the Iraq War.

  7. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 08/25/2015 - 02:38 pm.

    4 men

    I am trying to figure out just why, with the exception of Mr. Hanson, anyone thought that these men had any relevant authority on the subject. These are the credentials of the others:

    Dr. Beeman: Ph.D. in anthropology. From his page at the U, “He is an internationally known expert on the Middle East and the Islamic World, particularly Iran, the Gulf Region and Central Asia.” He’s written some books on the saber rattling between the US and Iran, focusing on language and culture. But there’s no evidence that he otherwise would have any clue about the nuclear capabilities of Iran. He’s a professor of anthropology. His specialty is culture, not military intelligence or nuclear engineering.

    Prof. Gross: Law professor hailing from Israel. From his page at the U, “He is also an expert on the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli conflict.” His specialty is international law and national security law. Again, this guy isn’t an expert on nuclear weapons, nor does he appear to have inside information on what Iran is doing with their nuclear capabilities. His most recent position that might have given him enhanced perspective was in 1991, when he served as a senior legal advisory officer in the international law branch of the Israeli Defense Forces’ Judge Advocate General’s Corps. I don’t know what that means, but it seems plausible he might have known something THEN. But then, it’s not like Israel is entirely neutral on the situation.

    Dr. Flower: Prof. Emeritus of Physics and Math. This guy might actually be able to speak to whether or not we can physically verify anything after 24 days…assuming any accuracy of the possibility of such a delay (as Mr. Prince points out above). However, as far as I can tell, he has zero credentials for anything else in the discussion.

    Personally, I don’t find much value in the debate reported here other than to understand that there are people in Minnesota who feel strongly one way or the other about the Iran deal. On the whole, it would seem that Mr. Hanson has the most credible insight, and therefore the most educated opinion on the subject.

  8. Submitted by frank watson on 08/25/2015 - 02:39 pm.

    Why ratify?

    Why ratify the deal if according to Beeman, Iran gave up “something that it wasn’t doing anyway”.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/25/2015 - 03:41 pm.


      ‘giving up’ can be functionally equivalent to ‘not doing it in the future’, which is essentially what Iran is promising.

  9. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 08/25/2015 - 03:46 pm.

    “diplomat in residence” – at the White House

    Obama called the opponents of this agreement “crazies.”

    So the radicals in Iran are “reasonable?”

  10. Submitted by joe smith on 08/25/2015 - 07:55 pm.

    I see where Russia is already openly selling arms to Iran. I’m sure Obama asked Putin very nicely not to, but unbelievably, Putin didn’t listen. Everyone with half a brain knows Russia has been selling arms to Iran the whole time of the so called embargo. This deal is relying on 3 countries that want to either destroy us (Iran), want to provoke us (Russia) and want to own us (China) to work together with us. They don’t listen to a thing we say now with sanctions in place, I’m sure once they are lifted they’ll become our bosom buddies. No wonder 60+% of Americans are not for this deal.

    • Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 08/26/2015 - 09:55 am.

      Well, if you’re “sure”

      I just want to know how anyone can be “sure” about a suspicion about what happened privately between Putin and Obama. If Russia wasn’t keeping sanctions in place, they wouldn’t have worked. Russia sells arms just like we do except not as much, but it’s against Russia’s interests for Iran to be nuclear armed. That’s why, while I won’t claim to know what was nicely asked, Russia is going to want this to work. It’s amazing to me how opponents of the agreement refuse to acknowledge that the sanctions worked, and worked because other countries were willing to keep them in place. If Iran gets get cheating, the sanctions go back into effect. I don’t even like the “could be worse” argument, because that implies this isn’t good. But this is a pretty tight agreement.

      • Submitted by joe smith on 08/26/2015 - 04:02 pm.

        So you think that when Russia invests money in the Iranian oil fields and Iran is caught cheating Russia will give up their money and interests? They could care less if America is upset with them, if they are making money and getting oil. Please don’t give me the answer that America will organize a group of countries that will force Russia out of Iran. Once Putin took Ukraine and no one did a thing to stop him,(didn’t even arm the Ukraine military for fear of upsetting Putin) he was off the chain. We need to go back to “leading from behind”, trying to actually lead is too hard for this administration.

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/26/2015 - 08:16 pm.

          Iran is not Ukraine

          I’d suggest that you look at a map.
          For example:
          If we invaded northern Mexico (equivalent to Russia invading Crimea), Russia would be woofing in the U.N. but not taking any actual action. Certainly not sending troops or arms.
          Now, if we dropped Donald Trump on Mexico, that might be a real provocation ;-).

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 08/26/2015 - 10:31 am.


      If those 60+% of Americans have only half a brain, I’m not sure I want to base my opinion on what they “know.” Speaking of which, on what basis do you found your expertise on the subject? The only sources that support your position are questionable, at best. Some of the more reliable news sources suggest that the opposite may be true–Russia might be the big loser in such a deal. Ultimately, allegations supporting your opinion appear to be politically motivated, and not based on a whole lot of fact. Regardless, I’m not sure that anyone without military intelligence “knows” anything about what Russia is doing with Iran right now, let alone what will happen between those two countries in the future, and even they might have to make some assumptions. And even if Russia is already openly selling arms to Iran, the relevant point is whether Iran can make, receive, or effectively hide NUCLEAR weapons in the face of this agreement. It’s probably a guarantee that they can do so (at least eventually) without an agreement.

      • Submitted by joe smith on 08/26/2015 - 04:18 pm.

        Of course it is not bad policy, it is the stupidity of those who oppose the deal. Glad to see that is still the “go to” line of liberals. As to the point of how I know the Russians are dealing with Iran in weapons, our Defense Dept sent out a statement stating how disappointed they are in Russia for doing so. Very similar to the statement saying how disappointed they were in Russia for invading Ukraine. Unfortunately Putin didn’t hear Obama tell the world we are in the 21st century and invasions are so 20th century when he was discussing world affairs or his line about “the 80’s calling wanting their policies back” when he booted the fact that Romney was correct on Russia being a geo political threat.

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/27/2015 - 09:07 am.

          How many Russian troops

          did you say were in Iran?

          And Putin (if you read the news) is self destructing, and taking Russia with him.
          The Russian oil boomlet is fading, and Russia has nothing else to sell except arms.

        • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 08/27/2015 - 09:35 am.


          You’re the one suggesting stupidity on the part of those who favor the deal. “Anyone with half a brain knows…” and then your opinion. Trust me, I’m not happy about Russia’s aggression. I’d love to visit the area many of my ancestors came from, but Russia has made that unlikely. But my negative feelings about Russia do not make your assertions true. You have no inside knowledge and your opinion is based on the pontification of people who have no inside knowledge either. In fact, every source I could find supporting your opinion was clearly…opinion. It’s not that 60+% of Americans are stupid, but not everything the majority thinks is intelligent. Many people lack the time, inclination, or capability to get further than what their favorite pundits tell them to think. That doesn’t make them right. It just suggests that their favorite pundits are doing their jobs well. Following the facts does not necessarily, or even logically, lead to your conclusion.

          By the way, I love that the “go to” line of the conservatives is “everyone else believes differently from you.” Well, I’ve never been bothered by doing my own thing or taking the time to think through things when others don’t. The whole peer pressure thing doesn’t work for me. Besides, aren’t independent thinking and common sense good things? Not that I’m even convinced that your 60+% (or whatever other majority conservatives pull out of their hats for whatever opinion they want to push) is even true. But the whole isolation thing is kind of a dirty trick to play on people who believe it.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/26/2015 - 03:55 pm.

      On the other hand

      many former generals, admirals and ambassadors like the deal
      But what do they know compared to ‘the great unwashed’?

  11. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 08/26/2015 - 06:15 am.


    Professor Gross insists we could have gotten a better as pretty much anyone can say about any deal. That’s in the nature of deals and their aftermath. But Joe raises a good point. The coalition arrayed against Iran was in itself the result of a remarkable process of diplomacy and highly unstable. If Professor Gross has reason to think that the coalition could meaningfully survive the rejection of a deal, he hasn’t shared it with us. As Iran’s currently uninspected nuclear program moves closer to obtaining nuclear weapons, the Iranian negotiating position gets stronger, not weaker. Since anyone can complain about any deal, I am sure there are Iranian equivalents of Professor Gross in Teheran who are arguing today that if this deal is rejected they can get a better deal, when they are closer to the bomb, and after the coalition has deteriorated.

  12. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 08/26/2015 - 09:50 am.

    Who do you trust…who is an expert…

    It’s hard to work without certainties but I think, I hope Kerry has negotiated well and will go down in history as a good man, a wise man who succeeded where others would have failed.

    If one starts with the idea that we are to be trusted with a belly full of nukes, that idea does not weigh in too well? Like a tribe of overfed nuke weapon eaters…how many is it now; and how carelessly we have secured those weapons…whom should we trust here? Who should trust us?

    Take my home town Minot as a prototype and go from there. Started out with a radar base; then air base. Then came the the nukes…jobs, money, growth boom town with a mission.

    Look back just a couple years; give or take a few near accidents and three change of command … then was a wee notice, strictly small note in the village paper about silos and boundaries and how close boundaries should separate drilling rights when mineral rights and oil became a pressing issue. Even farmer John wanted a bigger profit on his farm lands eh? Drill baby drill as the saying goes. Hope they pulled back on that ‘ development, like leave a little space for error , hey.

    With all our respectable position in the world stage, we may not necessarily be considered top dog in the matter of nuclear proliferation and care of same? Security begins at home too…

    I hope we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot so to speak while worrying about another’s weapon capability that doesn’t even exist yet?

    Leave it to the state experts?…I go with Kerry and hope for the best…’regional ‘experts’ are simple talking over the backyard fence.

    And if there is a greater master expert on this issue..if there is a god, he’s not telling…

  13. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 08/26/2015 - 10:27 am.

    The only “better deal” that a lot of the anti-treaty people

    would accept, apparently, is for the current Iranian government to step down, to be replaced by Iranian exiles who were friends of the Shah and now happen to be friends of prominent right-wing oil magnates, and to disband its military forces. Either that or a preemptive nuclear strike or invasion, which some of the hawks appear to be itching for.

    Ain’t gonna happen.

    We live in the real world, where the Iranians are a nearly homogeneous nation with a 3,000-year history and a much larger and better trained military than Iraq. The young Iranians don’t like the theocracy and like American pop culture, but they are also patriotic and would fight the U.S., as anyone would be if their country was invaded.

    They are also surrounded by U.S. military forces on all sides: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, the Persian Gulf, and even a supply base in Turkmenistan.

    As for a preemptive nuclear strike, that is horrible beyond imagining. The United States would become a pariah nation for nuking a country that had never attacked it or anyone else. The Iraq War did enough damage to America’s international reputation and made our country look like a bully. A nuclear strike on Iran, or even a conventional invasion, would make our country look like a mass murderer, which would be an accurate characterization in that case.

    And if, God forbid, it comes to that, the war hawks will not go to the battlefield but send other people’s children to die and be maimed. If past experience holds, they will send America’s non-college-bound youth to bear the burden of fighting while their own children go to expensive colleges and intern at political “think” tanks.

  14. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 08/26/2015 - 11:41 am.

    The deal

    It is useful to consider that these assorted agreements do not constitute the sum total of the entirety our policy towards Iran now and in the future. And as a practical matter, not one of them realistically constrain our freedom of action if we chose to act outside the agreements. Yes, we can still bomb them back to the stone age if want to.

    I think each side is buying itself some time. The status quo is that Iran is within months of acquiring a nuclear weapon right now. That’s pretty close to a worst case scenario, but the cool thing about worst case scenarios is that practically any option is an improvement. This deal has at the very least the possibility of delaying Iran’s nuclear weapons development for a time, and that too gives Iran to develop into a responsible regional power. There is lots of historical precedent for that happening, and sadly lots of historical precedent for it not happening. Senator Menendez says that hope is not a basis for foreign policy, preferring hopelessness, I guess. I disagree, I think hope, combined with a strong inspection program, can be a basis for foreign policy. Certainly, the alternative hasn’t worked out well for us or the region.

  15. Submitted by richard owens on 08/29/2015 - 12:44 pm.

    The retired head of Mossad supports this agreement.

    Given the nature and the reputation of the non-partisan, nationalist Mossad, that is a significant endorsement.

    It is entirely possible to read the text of the agreement, as the President asked people to do before they expressed their opinion. HERE

    Since we heard from the President’s usual opponents PRIOR to the public release of the final agreement, I can only conclude that 1) The haven’t read the agreement and 2) They oppose virtually everything the President has done for over 6 years and will continue to oppose everything he initiates.

    Opponents appear to be the same petulant bellicose Neocons that chose to invade Iraq over 911.

Leave a Reply