The Risks of Rejecting Iran-Nuke Deal

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has told the U.S. Congress to reject the Iranian nuclear deal and the Israeli propaganda machine is fully in gear to back up his demands, but the deal’s opponents ignore the risks of their potential success, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The first few days of argumentation about the recently completed agreement to restrict Iran’s nuclear program have taken predictable directions, predictable not only because the shape of the deal was known well before all the drafting was finished in Vienna but also because the principal opposition to the agreement has little or nothing to do with the terms and instead is opposition to any dealing with Iran.

A recurring pattern in discourse about the agreement this past week has been reluctance by opponents to talk about the alternative of no agreement, again, unsurprising, given that the alternative is patently worse on nearly all the points (inspections, duration, limits on enrichment, etc.) on which the agreement gets criticized. This has meant, as Peter Beinart has noted, much evasiveness and changing of the subject when opponents are asked about the alternative.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The opposition approach has been dominated by two general lines of attack: shooting at provisions of the agreement as if the alternative were not the absence of an agreement but instead some perfect pact, notwithstanding the unattainability of that ideal; and reminding people of all the reasons they should dislike Iran, notwithstanding how far this gets from the nuclear nonproliferation objective that is what the agreement is all about.

Among the numerous obfuscating aspects of the public discourse on this subject are some more subtle ways in which the issue has gotten framed. One of these ways is to regard this agreement and its implementation as somehow riskier, or involving the taking of greater chances, than the alternative of no agreement.

For example, David Sanger of the New York Times, who has made into an art form the weaving of his evident disdain for the agreement into reporting on the subject for the nation’s premier newspaper of record, wrote after the agreement was reached about President Barack Obama’s “leap of faith” and “roll of the dice.”

This sort of framing has already become so embedded in the discourse that even proponents of the deal, not to mention fence-sitters, have been using it, perhaps in part to insulate themselves from charges of being too gung-ho about the agreement. The President himself, in his interview this week with Tom Friedman, spoke of the agreement as “a risk we have to take.”

What risk, exactly? Risk in taking a course of action implies that the course may lead to possible scenarios that were not possibilities before, that we cannot predict which of these scenarios may occur, and that at least some of them would significantly harm our interests if they did occur. The concept involves opening ourselves to some sort of loss to which we would not otherwise be open.

It may be that the introduction of the vulnerability is worthwhile to get whatever benefit we hope to get from the course of action, but the added possibilities of loss or harm are intrinsic to the idea of risk. A risky investment, for example, is one that adds a significant possibility of losing money, a possibility that would not be there if we did not make the investment.

To understand how risk does or does not figure into the new Iran deal, compare it with international agreements that otherwise seem most similar to it, which are ones involving arms control. A classic arms control agreement is one in which two or more states agree to reduce or limit their own armaments in return for the other parties reducing or limiting theirs.

This was true of the U.S.-Soviet agreements on reducing strategic nuclear forces. The element of risk involved is obvious. If the Soviets were not to live up to their side of the bargain while the United States, living up to its side, reduced its own forces, the United States could wake up to find itself in a position of strategic inferiority.

Whatever one may have thought about the overall worth of such Cold War-era agreements or about how much difference any discrepancies in strategic nuclear forces of the time made to international politics, it made sense to talk about risk in embarking on those agreements, and specifically the risk of Soviet cheating. The details of inspection and monitoring arrangements associated with those arms control agreements were all the more important for that reason.

The agreement reached this week in Vienna is nothing like that. The only reductions and limitations, either of arms or of technical programs, are ones that apply to Iran. The United States is not giving up a single bullet. It will have every bit of its “military option” to hold over the head of the Iranians that it has now, and that it would have if there were no agreement.

Neither are the rest of the P5+1 giving up anything in that regard, and neither are the regional rivals of Iran. Those rivals will have everything they have now and would have in the absence of an agreement, at either the nuclear level or the conventional level.

At the conventional level, as Anthony Cordesman observes, Iran already is the loser in anything that can be called an arms race in the Persian Gulf region. If anything, implementation of the agreement will tilt the military balance even more in favor of the rivals to Iran because of the politically necessary compensation they will get from the United States in terms of more generous arms exports.

Even if one were to assume the worst possible cheating, or breaking out or sneaking out, on the part of Iran under the agreement, it is impossible for that scenario to be any more hazardous or harmful than what could occur under the state of affairs before the first preliminary agreement was reached two years ago or under what would be the state of affairs if the new agreement is killed.

If such breaking or sneaking out for a nuclear weapon were Iran’s plan or intention, it could implement that plan at least as easily without an agreement as with one. Reaching the agreement does not subject us, or the regional rivals of Iran, to any added risk in that regard.

There is a tendency to say that the United States is in fact “giving up” something, meaning sanctions. But the sanctions from which relief is to be granted have existed for the sole express purpose of inducing Iran to change its nuclear policies and practices. That is what the agreement does.

These sanctions are worthless if they do not serve that purpose and there is no agreement. They already demonstrated their worthlessness in that sense by failing even to slow down advances in Iran’s nuclear program until serious negotiations finally began and bore fruit just three months later.

Neither is there the sort of value in these sanctions that is being claimed by opponents of the agreement who want to repurpose them for supposedly preventing the Iranians from spending on “nefarious”, what has become one of the most overused, and carelessly and tendentiously used, adjectives in current Washingtonese, activities in the Middle East.

Their worthlessness in that regard was demonstrated by the lack of any apparent reduction in Iranian regional activism when the sanctions came into effect. Moreover, as noted by Charles Naas, who was U.S. chargé d’affaires in Tehran when the Iranian revolution broke out, “This manufactured warning” about the prospect of supposedly nefarious spending “is risible in light of Arab wealth and their expenditures of many billions on purchases of modern arms and in support of Sunni extremist organizations.”

The concessions the United States made to Iran in the recent negotiations did not involve giving up anything that represents any losses or increased vulnerabilities or added potential for harm to our interests. Besides dealing with the pace of the sanctions that have value only insofar as they get a deal, the concessions were all about just how much the Iranians would be giving up in the way of restrictions on, and scrutiny of, their own nuclear operations.

And the baseline for that, equivalent to the state of affairs before the negotiations began, and what would prevail if the deal is killed, was no restrictions or scrutiny at all beyond the minimum to which Iran was subject as a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Everything that the United States and P5+1 got beyond that is pure gravy for our side.

In sum, there really isn’t a valid reason to talk of this agreement as entailing any more risk than the alternative of no agreement. Given the uncertainties under that alternative of a largely unrestricted Iranian nuclear program, the risks of the agreement are probably less.

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.)

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12 comments for “The Risks of Rejecting Iran-Nuke Deal

  1. Mark
    July 20, 2015 at 10:24 am

    So we have yet more confirmation that Israel does not want peace while perpetually claiming they do — never has their been any country more blatantly and openly disingenuous.

    With friends like Israel — sabotaging our own security initiatives, and having the US make and be enemies simply for the sake of Israel’s continuous warmongering plans at everyone else’s expense — it seems obvious that Israel is as much of a friend or worse than any other enemy we have.

    When exactly will all the “US” politicians start doing what is in the best interests of the vast majority of American citizens and tell Israel to take a hike as far away from America and our politicians as they can get???

    • momus
      July 21, 2015 at 9:31 am

      “Frenemy,” Mark, not “friend.” Israel is our frenemy.

  2. Gregory Kruse
    July 20, 2015 at 11:30 am

    Why is he granting interviews to Thomas Friedman?

  3. Joe Tedesky
    July 20, 2015 at 1:54 pm

    For starters the U.S. in 2006, along with Russia, and China, joined the EU3 in regard to negotiating with Iran’s nuclear weapon program. For what it is worth, Iran gave up their nuclear weapon program in 2003. So, actually the U.S. was not the nation to instigate any peaceful negotiation with anyone, let alone Iran.

    Today 7/20/15 the UN signed on to this P5+1 agreement, now the 60 day clock starts ticking. This next 60 days will probably be bizarre, along with frustratingly mad for us peaceniks to comprehend. I would expect all kinds of dastardly accusations will be proclaimed against the Islamic Republic of Iran to be made, for cause not to honor this agreement. I don’t know about how you all look upon this, but I will remain skeptical as to it all going well. You see now we don’t have those pesky Russians, and that clever China, to contend with anymore. Since this Iran deal has been developing the U.S. has been arming Israel and Saudi Arabia to the teeth. This may turn out to be an ugly consequence, as the U.S. has armed the very nations who could start an all out war with Iran. I would also expect that if Israel/Saudi Arabis/U.S. we’re to attack Iran, that they won’t be just bombing any nuclear facility…it will be bad!

    • Joe Tedesky
      July 20, 2015 at 1:55 pm
      • July 20, 2015 at 7:03 pm

        wow…reading that definitely ruined my day…too much black and white reality…again.
        One thing i noted in all those pages of scheming is a complete neglect of Russia or the EU having a problem with attacking Iran…even China may have some serious problems with the US or its proxy attacking Iran…For all of their technical posturing, they leave out some large variables in their calculations….amazing

    • Steve Naidamast
      July 20, 2015 at 3:52 pm

      You are quite correct, Joe. However, Iran has a very formidable “defensive” military posture. Any attack on the Iranian nation will be met with a disastrous response, which just may totally destroy the Israeli nation…

      • Joe Tedesky
        July 20, 2015 at 4:18 pm

        Steve, you are correct. I know that Iran soon, or maybe already has received the S300 Russian missile protection system. Although, with the sanctions being lifted, do you think it will be easier for Mossaud/CIA to learn anything that would impede the Iran defense systems? Wouldn’t spying become easier? Regardless, Dov Zakheim claims Iran could never breach Israel’s defenses. Here’s something to contemplate, would Israel use nukes to destroy Tehran? This is the country which should be sanctioned into a nuclear disarmament program, and this should be started immediately, since now the world has Iran’s P5+1 agreement as a model.

  4. Ash
    July 20, 2015 at 11:15 pm

    Meanwhile Iran still isn’t trying to get the bomb anyway. It’s funny how that never even comes up in this discussion. This piece could have come from any mainstream media outlet.

    • Peter Loeb
      July 21, 2015 at 6:06 am

      WHAT IS THE ALTERNATIVE INDEED!

      Paul Pillar’s article on the risks of rejectiing the Iran nuclear “deal” are
      unpersuasive. The response, “What is the alternative?” is a standard
      and very defensive not to say misleading rejoinder of this Administration.

      I recall too well the Administrations “advocacy” of a universal healthcare
      plan for the US which benefit the medical-industrial complex with
      a windfall and ultimate control of prices and at the same time give
      assurances to conservatives in Congress that their demands
      would be met (such as the ability to opt out etc.). “What’s the alternative?”
      Obama said over and over again and there came no answer at all.
      For the other “alternative” backed by many experts, a large organization
      by labor unions was never to be part of the solution. The decisions had
      been made. There were “no alternatives.” Or to put a better light on it,
      Obama was not listening to any even if they had been proposed many
      times in Congress. Instead we got crumbs if anything and the medical-
      industrial complex (major contributors to Obama campaigns but
      then..who counts?) decdided.

      As regards the Iran agreement (not a “treaty”), it is very possible that
      it will not survive the US Congress. It is unknown what the ramifications
      of this might be for Israel, for the US, and for the world.

      A more balanced approach (admittedly in the face of many uncertain
      factors) can be found in the COUNTERPUNCH article, “Why They Hate
      the Deal with Iran” of 15 July 20015 by Richard Lachmann, Michael
      Schwartz and Kevin Young.

      For full disclosure, I have many times expressed in this space the opinion
      the Iran “deal” will be rejected or altered in an unacceptable way for the
      Iranians. The above-cited article deals with these points in detail including
      their international ramifications. One must continually bear in mind that
      the version of this agreement emphasized by the Administration is
      often false and aimed specifically for domestic propaganda.

      For the implications for Palestinians, see Ali Abuminah’s eloquent
      analysis recently in “EI”..

      One might ask “risks” for whom? But discussion of this outside of
      the COUNTERPUNCH article cited above is of minor consequence.

      —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  5. Mortimer
    July 21, 2015 at 12:32 pm

    Paul Craig Roberts offers realist rational in his latest piece: The Real Reasons For the Iran Agreement——- http://www.paulcraigroberts.org

    EXCERPT:
    If you can free yourself from the brainwashing from the presstitute media, three BIG reasons jump out at you. One is that the neoconservatives’ perception of the threat has shifted from “Muslim terrorists” to Russia and China. Unlike Muslim terrorists, both Russia and China are constraints on Washington’s unilateralism. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington has grown accustomed to being the Uni-Power, able to exercise its will unchallenged in the world. The rise of Russian strength under Putin and Chinese strength under the new policy has destroyed Washington’s Uni-Power privilege. Washington wants the privilege back.

    Washington is not in good shape, economically or militarily. According to Nobel Economist Joseph Stieglitz and Harvard University budget expert Linda Bilmes, Washington has wasted at least $6 trillion dollars in its 14-year old wars in the Middle East. Despite the extraordinary cost, Washington has been defeated, and is now faced with the Islamic State, a new entity arising out of Washington’s mistakes that is creating a new country partly out of Iraq and partly out of Syria.

    Despite its gigantic hubris, Washington has figured out that the US cannot simultaneously take on Russia, China, Iran, and the Islamic State. This realization is one reason for the nuclear agreement with Iran. It removes Iran from the mix.

    A second reason for the agreement is that Iran is opposed to the Islamic State and can be employed as an American proxy against the Islamic State, thus freeing Washington for conflict with Russia and China.

    A third reason for Washington’s agreement with Iran is Washington’s concern with Europe’s energy dependence on Russia. This dependence is inconsistent with the EU going along with Washington’s sanctions against Russia and with NATO’s military moves against Russia. Washington wants to end this dependence and has hopes that money can bring Iran into becoming a supplier of natural gas and oil to Europe.

    The explanation I have provided is realism, not cynicism. All that the agreement with Iran means is that Washington has belatedly realized that the concocted Iranian and Muslim threats are using up time, energy, and resources that Washington needs to apply to Russia and China. Moreover, there were too many threats for the American people to know which was paramount.

    IMO, the simple Anglo-Saxon rule of divide and conquer is and always has been the modus operandi in this vicious scheme to “Secure the Realm.”

    All of the so-called Color Revolutions were initiated by the tactic. While the Green Revolution was beat back in Iran, it did cause tremendous domestic division within the country and, along with the crippling sanctions, created a huge exodus of educated Iranians, which devastated industrial and economic development.

    The Iranian people live under the subversive siege — unwarranted punishment — as prologue to “regime change.”

    When will that group of murderous plotters, PNAC and the neocons receive their just rewards?!?

    • Mortimer
      July 21, 2015 at 12:37 pm

      I ought to have put a line of separation between Robert’s words and My opinion…
      My Bad, please forgive.

      IMO, the simple Anglo-Saxon rule of divide and conquer is and always has been the modus operandi in this vicious scheme to “Secure the Realm.”

      All of the so-called Color Revolutions were initiated by the tactic. While the Green Revolution was beat back in Iran, it did cause tremendous domestic division within the country and, along with the crippling sanctions, created a huge exodus of educated Iranians, which devastated industrial and economic development.

      The Iranian people live under the subversive siege — unwarranted punishment — as prologue to “regime change.”

      When will that group of murderous plotters, PNAC and the neocons receive their just rewards?!?

Comments are closed.