The Iran Deal’s Big Upside

The tentative deal with Iran, ensuring that its nuclear program stays peaceful, opens some avenues toward reducing tensions in the Mideast and addressing long-neglected American interests, but the hard-line opponents will still do all they can to kill it, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

A dominant reaction to the framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, based especially on the State Department’s fact sheet about the deal, is that it is remarkably detailed and thorough. The lead article in the New York Times described the agreement as “surprisingly specific and comprehensive.”

Immediate reaction in much of the Israeli press was typified by the comment of widely read columnist Nahum Barnea, who wrote that “the details of the agreement that were reported yesterday are surprisingly good.” Irreconcilable opponents of doing any business with Iran were thrown off balance, reduced mostly to reciting old talking points that seemed all the more stale amid the news of the moment.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani meeting a group of Iranian citizens. (Iranian government photo)

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani meeting a group of Iranian citizens. (Iranian government photo)

Some notable people who were not among the irreconcilables but had expressed skepticism about a nuclear deal and could be expected to line up with the opponents have instead, seeing the terms, expressed at least mild support for the agreement. These people range from Bill O’Reilly of Fox News to King Salman of Saudi Arabia, not to mention the former head of Israeli military intelligence.

Over the next three months as the negotiators work on the still-challenging task of ironing out the remaining details, the opinion pages and airwaves will be filled as well with details, about types of centrifuges and inspection arrangements and much else. Some of that commentary will reflect genuine and legitimate concern that the final agreement be as carefully constructed and free of loopholes as possible.

Probably more of the commentary will consist of the irreconcilable opponents raising as much doubt as possible about as many provisions as possible in the hope that the net effect will be to increase political support for killing the deal. All that the opponents will really be telling us is that this agreement, like any international agreement, is not perfect and does not meet the farthest-reaching goals of either party.

They will continue their doubt-promoting campaign as they always have, without offering up any feasible alternative for similar detailed and skeptical scrutiny. Almost every detail the opponents address, about uranium enrichment and inspection access and much else, is a detail on which the agreement gives the United States more than it would get from the alternative, which is no agreement.

Amid all the wallowing in details, it behooves us to step back and to contemplate the big picture of what this agreement means and why it is important. The agreement, if completed, will be a major inflection point in U.S. foreign policy, particularly U.S. policy toward the Middle East.

This moment is one of those times when it is especially useful for discourse and debate to be strategic and to address the overall direction of U.S. foreign policy rather than getting bogged down by a preoccupation with details. The agreement has strategic importance for U.S. foreign policy in at least the following four respects.

First, it sets a direction for a major player in the Middle East, i.e., Iran, the second-most-populous nation in the region, that is consistent with U.S. interests and also in the interests of trying to make the Middle East a less tense and conflict-prone region than it already is. That direction is one in which nuclear weapons have no role in Iran’s future and, inextricably linked to that restriction, Iran slowly and partially sheds the stigma of a pariah.

The leadership of Iran, including the Supreme Leader, evidently have decided, and if they had not, it is inconceivable that they would have taken the negotiations as far as they have and made the concessions they have, that it is more in their interest and Iran’s interest to move in this direction, even at the price of the restrictions they have accepted on Iran’s nuclear program, than for Iran to be a bomb-building rogue.

This decision gets to the all-important matter of Iranian intentions, which is so often ignored amid fanciful speculation about what Iran might conceivably do with its nuclear capabilities. The agreement, if completed and implemented, will confirm Iran’s decision to move in the non-rogue direction and reinforce, because Iran would have that much more to lose if it departed from that trajectory, its decision.

By contrast, defeat of the agreement and an indefinite prolongation of pariah status would instead give Iran more motivation to do the sorts of things pariah states do, including possibly trying to make a nuclear weapon.

The consequences of the Iranian leadership’s direction-setting decision, if confirmed by a completed and implemented agreement, go well beyond the immediate matter of the nuclear program. The pragmatic inclinations represented especially by President Hassan Rouhani will be strengthened politically if his big bet on completing a nuclear deal succeeds, and will be weakened if he fails.

The pragmatic inclinations will extend to many other aspects of Iranian foreign and security policy, on which Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif will be much better positioned to challenge Iranian hardliners than they have been as they have concentrated on getting the nuclear deal.

A similar dynamic will extend to domestic policy, which is why those especially concerned with advancing human rights in Iran have welcomed the nuclear agreement. It is also why, bearing in mind the longer term effects of more pragmatic Iranian politics and more normal interaction with the West, longtime Iran watcher Gary Sick comments, “If you want regime change in Iran, meaning changing the way the regime operates, this kind of agreement is the best way to achieve that goal.”

Second, the agreement is a significant stroke in support of nuclear nonproliferation. Even though Tehran evidently stopped over a decade ago whatever work it may have been doing on developing a nuclear weapon, the agreement still is an important step on behalf of global nonproliferation given that Iran is a nuclear-capable state that probably has had active interest in a bomb and lives in a dangerous neighborhood of rivals to itself, including one state that nearly everyone believes already has nuclear weapons and whose leadership frequently talks about militarily attacking Iran.

No state has ever willingly negotiated special restrictions on its own ongoing nuclear program as severe as the ones Iran has accepted. No state has ever previously negotiated inspection arrangements on its own facilities as intrusive and extensive as the ones that Iran has accepted. This agreement sets the bar high for any other future nonproliferation agreements or arrangements anywhere in the world.

We should consider in light of all this the often-voiced fears about a proliferation cascade in the Middle East and comments by people like the Saudis that “we want whatever the Iranians get.” Given the nature of what Iran has agreed to, the appropriate response to such demands is probably: you’re welcome to it, although why any unsanctioned state would want to subject itself to such severe restrictions and intrusiveness is another question.

Third, this agreement partially releases U.S. foreign policy from restraints that have too long inhibited the ability of the United States to use all available tools, especially the diplomatic tool, to pursue its interests in the region. Abstaining from even talking to officials of one of the most important states in the region, as was the case with the United States and Iran until only a couple of years ago, is not an effective way to pursue one’s national interests.

The nuclear issue itself has already demonstrated the value of finally using the diplomatic tool, after years of failure of the approach of only pressuring and not talking. Cutting the cord that has kept one hand of the United States tied behind its back and following up the nuclear agreement by being able to conduct (even in the absence of full diplomatic relations) something more like normal business with Iran will be valuable to the United States in addressing such regional problems as the civil wars in Iraq and Syria and the violence of ISIS.

The nuclear deal has the beneficial quality of simultaneously supporting both the pursuit of U.S. regional objectives and the global nonproliferation objective. In this respect it is happily different from the nuclear cooperation agreement with India signed several years ago, in which U.S. policy debates tended to pit the nonproliferation community, which was wary of the signal that this agreement would send, against South Asia specialists who believed that this means of nurturing U.S.-Indian relations was worthwhile.

The difference between that situation and the Iranian case, of course, is that the Indian agreement in effect accepted India’s previous roguish behavior in developing nuclear weapons and operating outside the international nonproliferation apparatus, whereas Iran does not have nuclear weapons, is a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and is now committing itself more than ever to remaining a non-nuclear-weapons state.

Fourth, and by no means last in importance, this agreement is a step toward liberating U.S. foreign policy from three baleful influences that overlap considerably in terms of the people involved and the causes they espouse.

One of those influences is a crude exceptionalism that believes the world is divided rigidly into allies and enemies, that the United States shares interests on everything with the former and nothing with the latter, that the only proper approach toward the latter is pressure and isolation, that what passes for diplomacy consists of the United States making demands and other nations being expected to accede to them, that throwing one’s weight around is the way to get things done, and that because the United States has more weight and especially military weight than anyone else it ought to be able to get its way on just about anything.

Another influence is partisanship that has become so intense and overriding that because the nuclear negotiations with Iran are an Obama project it is de rigeuer for any Republican seeking the presidency to oppose the agreement reflexively.

The last baleful influence is the extraordinary influence that the rightist government of Israel, along with the lobby in the United States that works on its behalf, has on U.S. Middle Eastern policy. The Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu has been the most unrelenting and implacable source of opposition to any agreement with Iran, for reasons largely other than preventing an Iranian nuke, and its supporters in the United States have been in step with its opposition.

Peter Beinart was asking a pertinent question when he wondered how different debate in Washington (and Jerusalem) on the deal with Iran would be “if Sheldon Adelson had a different hobby.”

The lobby’s influence has manifested itself in especially blatant and ugly ways on the Iranian nuclear issue, including inviting a foreign leader to address the U.S. Congress for the express purpose of denouncing a major U.S. foreign policy effort, and a prominent Republican senator and former presidential nominee going so far as to urge the same foreign leader to treat the president of the United States with “contempt”.

The influence of the lobby ultimately rests on fear, of losing access to contributions from Adelson and other billionaires favoring the Israeli Right, or of some other kind of political payback in the next election campaign.

Taking a cue from what Franklin Roosevelt said about fear, we should realize that a demonstration of successfully flouting and overcoming the fear is one of the best ways to diminish the effect of the same fear in the future. Given the prominence of the Iranian nuclear issue and the intensity with which Netanyahu and the lobby have been trying to kill an agreement, implementing an agreement over that opposition would serve as such a demonstration.

The demonstration, and any resulting dilution of the fear and lessening of the strength of the lobby, would pay dividends not just concerning relations with Iran but with regard to other U.S. interests to which Netanyahu’s government is opposed.

This may be one of the biggest lasting contributions to the U.S. national interest that Barack Obama will be making if he manages to carry through the nuclear agreement to completion. It is also another reason for Americans who have that national interest at heart to support the agreement.

But the deal is not yet done. The die-hard opponents will keep raising every objection they can about every detail they can. They may not know the difference between an IR-1 centrifuge and an IR-2 and don’t really care, but we probably will hear about such things anyway.

The detailed objections need to be answered, and the announced framework agreement provides a strong basis for answering them, but in doing so we should keep in mind the really big reasons this agreement should be completed and supported.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

5 comments for “The Iran Deal’s Big Upside

  1. Robert Keith
    April 7, 2015 at 00:12

    President Obama will pull through on this one with flying colors. It should already be apparent that he and John Kerry, along with their Iranian partners, are the adults in the room. Their performance is turning out to be a model of responsible statesmanship.The other Midddle-Easterners, including Israel, relatively, are already diminished in stature. Saudi Arabia says, “they want whatever Iran has”. That shows real character and conviction. Netanyahu complains that Iran wants to “exterminate Israel”, while taking a position toward Iran that is so irrational that it can lead nowhere but to a similar treatment for them.

    Some realignments may be necessary, but that’s been a long time coming. Above all, The U.S., finally, must start to show Israel that we are running their foreign policy rather than they running ours. After all, we’re funding them.

    Robefrt Keith Brooklyn, NY

    • Peter Loeb
      April 11, 2015 at 07:30


      Dear Robert Keith:

      It has been a foregone conclusion that the “preliminary framework” —far from
      an “historic deal” or even a nonhistoric deal— would fail. As described it
      concerns restrictions on Iran’s nonexistent capacity to make a nuclear bomb.

      1. It never considered any similar restrictions of Israel “capacity” to make a nuclear
      bomb and Israel is the nuclear power of the Middle East. The Disarmament Commision
      of the UN General Assembly last year overwhelmingly passed such restrictions
      on Israel all of which were opposed by the US and Israel.

      2. Instead, the “deal” which might have been considered required was to include
      as well a reduction or eliminations of sanctions. This was clear from the beginning.
      It has been under- lined by political leaders of Iran.

      3.Whatever our views of Israeli positions, they remain an extremely powerful force
      in the US Congress. They are also powerful within this Democratic Administration as
      they would be if the Republican Party took over in 2016.

      4. You are correct that Israel is running our foreign policy. Whatever is said for
      public consumption, the US will continue to do Israel’s bidding. It will continue
      its overt and covert support in the area of defense, its tax deductions for
      Israeli settlements, its silence on the brutal Israeli oppression, home demolitions,
      invasions, murders etc. Not a word has been forthcoming from the Obama
      Administration. Never a word during the invasion of Gaza. I would not expect
      more should Hillary Clinton become President (formerly Senator from New York
      as you in Brooklyn are well aware) or if Schumer, currently Senator from New York, a spokesperson for the Israeli lobby, becomes Minority Leader for Democrats
      in the Senate, a position for which he is currently a presumptive candidate.

      5. I doubt that Iran will sign the nuclear portion and I am sure you
      have noticed that they are already pulling away. As Netanyahu has said, “You
      can’t trust the Iranians”…or the Israelis…or the US.

      6. Rather than “make a decision”, Obama will no doubt compromise with Congress
      and thus deal a fatal blow to any agreement.

      —Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  2. JWalters
    April 6, 2015 at 18:34

    Thanks for this excellent analysis and summary of the different reactions to the developing peace deal with Iran. Once again we see Republicans telling glaring lies to the American people. An initial lie was that Iran is making “no concessions” in the deal. Once again we see many commentators flabbergasted, frustrated, and baffled at the brazenness of their lies.

    In addition to the “intense” partisanship that Mr. Pillar notes, there’s another factor that hasn’t yet been considered in analyzing WHY the Republicans are so baffling in their political disfunctionality. The reason it hasn’t been considered is because it is hidden. But like the “dark matter” of the universe, its presence can be inferred from its large effects on what is visible. And unlike “dark matter”, there is some direct evidence of its political presence.

    Consider this segment of a 1998 interview with Kay Griggs, former wife of the U.S. Army’s director of assassination training.

    Kay Griggs: “Even when he [General Al Gray] was General he ran an intelligence operation which was a contract organization trying to hook politicians, and get them. What is the word? In other words …”

    Interviewer: “In compromising situations?”

    Kay Griggs: “Yes, yes. He had and still has an organization which brings in whores, prostitutes, whatever you want to say, who will compromise politicians so they can be used.”

    The above starts at 48:00 in the video at
    (Part 2 of interview)

    In an earlier part of the interview (Part 1) she explains the motives behind this.

    Kay Griggs: “I’m talking about the Brooklyn-New Jersey mob. My husband, Al Gray, Sheehan, they’re all Brooklyn. Cap Weinberger. Heinz Kissinger – there’s the Boston mob, which was shipping weapons back and forth to Northern Ireland. And I don’t want to get too deeply involved in that, but it goes – Israel – some of the Zionists who came over from Germany, according to my husband, were – he works with those people – they do a lot of money laundering in the banks, cash transactions for the drugs they’re bringing over, through Latin America, the Southern Mafia, the Dixie Mafia, which now my husband’s involved with in Miami. The military are all involved once they retire. They’re – you know, they go into this drug and secondary weapon sales.”

    The above starts soon after 18:00 in the video at
    (Part 1 of interview)

    Further on the following exchange occurs.

    Interviewer: “And directly under whose instructions to sell these weapons, do you know that?”

    Kay Griggs: “Yeah.”

    Interviewer: “Okay, who would that be?”

    Kay Griggs: “Well, uh, [pause] it’s the Israeli-Zionist group in New York.”

    The above starts at 1:06:45 in the same video at

    Shortly afterward in the same segment is this exchange.

    Kay Griggs: “It’s kind of like Monica and Bill. I think they put Monica in there to have something on Bill. That’s my own feeling. Sarah McClendon feels the same way. Because …”

    Interviewer: “And Linda Tripp was there to guide the situation.”

    Kay Griggs: “Absolutely, of course. Linda Tripp was Delta Force. Linda Tripp was trained by Carl Steiner, who’s in the diary [her husband’s] with my husband. Carl Steiner is called a snake. And he tried to trip up Schwarzkopf. I mean, he was trying to take, to take the whole Iraqi thing over because they had been baiting, you know using the Israeli rogues in Turkey. They were having little zig-zag wars. It’s all to sell weapons. It’s all about weapons sales, it’s all about drugs, it’s all about funny money.”

    A seriously blackmailed person would rather merely look like an irrational ignoramous to the whole world than have their entire personal life destroyed. Other segments of Kay Griggs’ interview deal with the casual use of murder if blackmail doesn’t work.

    A blackmail factor, backed up with a death threat, and combined with financial carrots, easily explains how a reasonably intelligent and educated person could appear to be so ignorant and irrational. The surface inconsistency becomes easy to understand. A strategic system of blackmail of the sort Kay Griggs described would explain a phalanx of politicians and ex-military men lying in lockstep to American voters.

    When I read news stories today about corruption in the New Jersey Port Authority, sex scandals in the Secret Service and Drug Enforcement Agency, and adamant anti-peace pressures emanating from Israel, I can’t help wondering if these are connected to the background story described by Mrs. Griggs.

  3. Pat
    April 6, 2015 at 17:38

    Thank you for another fine piece by Paul Pillar.

    The mainstream media run outrageous headlines to get clicks. Bibi’s hostility sells ads. Mr. Pillar’s wisdom doesn’t. Or, as Hearst once said, war is good for business.

  4. alexander horatio
    April 6, 2015 at 14:17

    Dear Mr Pillar,
    Very fine article…Thank you !
    Not only is it a good deal….it is the very reason why Americans elected Mr. Obama as president in the first place….to find a way to avoid another multi-trillion dollar catastrophic war in the middle east.
    That was job one !
    And he did it !…….It should be a “cause to celebrate ” both at home and abroad !
    It is.!…but you would never know it from the pall hanging over the major news networks
    this weekend….like they are all in a sulky and subdued frame of mind….its wild !

    One would hardly know either ,from the interviews conducted this weekend .that this was an agreement made between ALL the worlds most powerful nations and Iran.!..which is of vital importance to the sustainability and thoroughness of the deal.
    The Media , Instead of hosting a diversified crop of ambassadors from Britain , China, France Germany and Russia all giving INSIGHT into the positive ramifications of this historic event that they signed onto…we have Mr Netanyahu running around on NBC, ABC, CNN and FOX..hating it (and by proxy .fuming for war and repression )…Of course the discourse is dressed up a little (“tahksisanut ” or deception)…
    but we all know what he really means !
    It is quite sad and telling about the insular and propagandistic nature of our media today…where the tidings of “peace” are filtered, almost exclusively, through the one representative who wishes it the least !

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