A Step Back From War

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On November 24, an interim agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions was reached between the P5+1 powers (Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, and the US) and the Islamic Republic. Under the agreement Iran is obligated to:

  • stop enriching uranium beyond the 5% level, and take steps to downgrade its stockpile of uranium already enriched to the 20% level (at 20% it can be quickly converted to weapons-grade material)
  • allow inspectors better access to its nuclear sites, including daily inspections of the important facilities at Natanz and Fordo
  • halt development of the Arak heavy water plant, which upon completion would be capable of producing plutonium
  • build no new enrichment facilities
  • install no new centrifuges at its current facilities, or start up any centrifuges not currently in operation

Iran will be allowed to enrich uranium to the 3.5% level, as is its right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (the US interprets the NPT differently, but apparently has agreed to disagree with Iran on this, in effect conceding de facto that Iran has this right). Under the agreement Iran is also allowed to keep all of its existing centrifuges.

In return Iran will receive limited relief from the international sanctions regime which has crippled its economy. Some $6–7 billion worth of sanctions will be eased or lifted. Over $4 billion of this will come from the unfreezing of oil revenues currently held in foreign banks. No new sanctions will be imposed on Iran during the next six months (the lifetime of the interim agreement), so long as the Islamic Republic adheres to the terms of the agreement. The most crippling sanctions affecting Iran’s oil and financial sectors remain in place under the interim agreement.

There can be no question that ultimately the only alternative to negotiations is war. And war would be a catastrophe for both sides.

The US sanctions that will be removed can be lifted by presidential action — a key point, given that majorities in Congress remain suspicious of Iran. (Or, to put it another way, Israel and Saudi Arabia wield considerable influence over American legislators, while Iran has none.)

Is it a good deal? Yes, assuming that both sides are acting in good faith. The deal is an interim one with a six-month lifespan. Lacking progress on a comprehensive agreement, the US and the international community as a whole will quite likely ratchet up the sanctions pressure once more. We have not witnessed a “new Munich,” as some Israeli and neocon commentators have averred. It is quite simply the beginning of a badly needed dialogue between Iran and the West, one in which the interests of both sides may perhaps be found to dovetail. There can be no question that ultimately the only alternative to negotiations is war. And war would be a catastrophe for both sides.

This analyst feels certain that the P5+1 want to settle the Iranian nuclear issue peacefully, with Iran’s nuclear program at least frozen if not rolled back. Iran, it would seem, has been brought to the table by sanctions, particularly the very tough ones imposed since 2010. Self-interest rather than goodwill has brought the parties together, and self-interest is a much better foundation than goodwill to build a comprehensive agreement upon. Goodwill may follow in time.

There is little doubt that Iran has long sought, if not an actual nuclear weapon, at least the capability to produce one relatively quickly. Given the hostility that Iran has faced from the US, Israel, and the major Sunni Arab countries since 1979, its desire to become a nuclear power is understandable. Israel’s possession of a formidable nuclear arsenal (probably 200 or perhaps even 300 weapons) makes Iran’s effort seem puny by comparison. But again, it is Israel and not Iran that has widespread influence over the US Congress and American public opinion. On this issue the American viewpoint has been badly slanted in favor of both Israel and Saudi Arabia (two nations which are, in effect, allies when it comes to Iran), irrespective of US national interests. With this interim agreement the Obama administration has made a small beginning in redressing that dangerous imbalance.

In fact, it really isn’t the terms of this agreement that have disturbed the Israelis and the Saudis, but the very fact that an agreement was reached at all. The fear in both Tel Aviv and Riyadh is that an American-Iranian détente will follow, diminishing their influence over Washington. Would that it prove so! These two “friends” of ours have done considerable damage to America over the years. Our unconditional support for Israel has warped our relationship with the Islamic world, to our cost both economically and in terms of our national security. Saudi Arabia, by exporting radical Wahhabism (in an effort, so far largely successful, to deflect the fanaticism and violence of that movement away from the House of Saud), cost us dearly at 9/11 (15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis) and thereafter. It is not too much to say that our interaction with these two countries laid the groundwork for the disasters of 9/11 and the Second Iraq War, and much else besides. The time is long overdue for a rebalancing of US policy toward the Middle East.

A truly national American policy would involve a radical break with the past, and a turn toward Iran and Shia Islam. The Iranian people, unlike the majority of Arabs (and particularly Sunni Arabs), are actually pro-Western to a great degree. This is quite evident to anyone who actually studies the country and its people, rather than relying on soundbites provided by cable news. It is true that the Islamic regime in Tehran has supported terrorist acts against the US in places such as Iraq and Lebanon. But it is equally true that this terrorism was motivated by raisons d’état, rather than religious fanaticism and anti-Occidentalism. A reorientation of US policy would bring such acts to a halt, whereas our frenemy Saudi Arabia is unable to prevent (indeed, has at times even secretly encouraged) Sunni terrorism against the US.

The US, under the leadership of President George W. Bush, put the Shia majority in power in Iraq, by means of war. Having embarked upon such a policy, we should, logically, extend it by demanding majority (i.e., Shia) rule in Bahrain. The next step, from the perspective of realpolitik, would be a US-Iranian condominium over the Shia-majority Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, which coincidentally is where almost all of the Saudi oil is located. But of course we lack the statesmen or women capable of charting such a course.

A truly national American policy would involve a radical break with the past, and a turn toward Iran and Shia Islam.

To return then to the real world. This interim agreement opens the possibility of preventing a nuclear Iran without war. A US war against Iran would be a difficult proposition under any circumstances. Given the strain of a dozen years of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is a real danger of the US military cracking during an operation that, to be successful, would entail the commitment of considerably more resources than those devoted to the Iraq war. The economic consequences of such a war (including a major increase in the price of oil, and the choice between borrowing money or raising taxes to pay the war costs) would be devastating.And an attack on Iran, as former Sec. of Defense Bob Gates commented during the Bush administration, would create a wave of terrorism that might persist for decades. There is in fact no alternative to a diplomatic solution.

Will diplomacy succeed? As already mentioned, both sides appear committed to reaching an agreement. The West needs peace and quiet in the Persian Gulf; Iran desperately needs relief from sanctions. Therefore it would seem this interim agreement will be succeeded by a more comprehensive one. Even so, it may be that in the end we will find ourselves containing an Iran that retains a “breakout capability.” But if we could contain a Soviet Union bristling with nukes, then surely we can contain a power that may have the capacity to produce one or two or even a dozen bombs. The alternative, war, is a far bleaker prospect.

Its logic aside, I regard a successful diplomatic outcome as a 50-50 proposition at best. Very powerful forces, both inside the US and beyond our borders, are committed to keeping the US and Iran apart. They are prepared to do almost anything to prevent a US-Iranian détente. And I fear they will.




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Comments

Thomas L. Knapp

"There is little doubt, among those who have failed to notice the complete absence of evidence for the proposition and who have ignored the huge pile of evidence to the contrary, that Iran has long sought, if not an actual nuclear weapon, at least the capability to produce one relatively quickly."

There, fixed that for ya.

Luther Jett

I would be interested to learn what "evidence to the contrary" you have to support this assertion.

Jon Harrison

Thanks for commenting, Tom. Always a pleasure to hear from you. As you probably know, I'm a fan of Rational Review. I urge any of our readers who might not be aware of the site to visit it -- often.

I must add that anyone who thinks Iran's nuclear program is strictly for peaceful purposes is being naïve. Of course they want at least the capability to build a bomb -- and why wouldn't they, given their particular circumstances?

Personally, I don't care whether they get the bomb or not. And if it were up to me, I would never go to war to prevent it. Unfortunately, the political realities are that the US must either negotiate a plausible deal with Iran, or face the prospect of striking or at least supporting an Israel strike. That's one of the many unfortunate aspects of the US being in thrall to Israel. It would probably take a war with Iran, and the consequences that would flow from it, to turn US public opinion decisively against Israel. Sad but true.

Thomas L. Knapp

Jay,

Glad you like RRND!

The CIA and the Mossad say that they don't believe Iran has aimed its research at developing nuclear weapons at any time since, at the latest, 2003.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has brought up a few issues vis a vis NNPT inspections protocols and so forth, but at no time has reported so much as an iota of evidence that the Iranian nuclear program is aimed at weapons development.

The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, issued a fatwah in 2006 declaring that the development and use of nuclear weapons is a sin against Islam which he will not allow his regime to commit.

And yet the same people who tell us that Khamenei et. al are religious nutjobs whose every crazy pronouncement we must take deadly seriously, also tell us that on this one, single issue, and despite the totality of the evidence weighing in on the side of his statements, we should believe exactly the opposite of what he says.

I agree with you that it is naive to believe the public pronouncements of politicians, including Iranian Islamist extremist politicians ... but I just don't see any way around it, for the reasons above and for one additional reason.

That additional reason is that if the Iranians wanted nuclear weapons, they could almost certainly have bought them, or at least significant ingredients for them, from the Russians during the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Jon Harrison

Who the hell is Jay?

"I just don't see any way around it . . ." Unfortunately, you suffer from tunnel vision. Nothing you say in your comments is in any way dispositive. And some of the stuff you say ("could almost certainly have bought them . . . from the Russians") is nonsense (and buying a bomb does nothing to help the buyer achieve a real, national nuclear deterrent). There is an unfortunate human tendency to bend reality to fit our prejudices. That's all you're doing here.

You're a fine collator of articles written from the libertarian perspective(s). Doesn't mean you know squat about world politics or national security issues.

Thomas L. Knapp

Jon,

Sorry for the "Jay" typo -- at the same time I was responding to you, I was checking out Jayant Bhandari's piece on Bhopal and must have got some dyslexic typing action going there.

I agree that one of us is benidng reality to fit our prejudices. I'm willing to admit the possibility that one of us doesn't know squat about world politics or national security issues. We probably disagree on which one of us we're talking about, though.

Jon Harrison

Clever reply! Better than many I see. And yes, I'm sure we disagree on your ability to judge such issues.

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