Schumer’s right — if Iran wants nukes, the US can’t deter it indefinitely


With the entire US political world focused on the Republican presidential debate last night, US senator Chuck Schumer quietly announced that, after much deliberation, he will vote against the nuclear energy deal negotiated between Iran and the P5+1 (the five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany).USflagIran Flag Icon

If Schumer thought his Thursday night announcement would fly under the radar, he was wrong — and US secretary of state John Kerry was quick to say that he ‘profoundly disagrees’ with Schumer. With Senate minority leader Harry Reid retiring after the 2016 election, and with Democrats in a very good position to retake control of the US Senate in 2016, there’s an exceedingly good chance that Schumer will be the Senate majority leader in less than 18 months’ time. Moreover, he’s one of the leading Jewish voices in American politics and, as a senator from New York, the US state with the highest proportion of Jewish voters in the country.

So it’s not surprising that Schumer, a longtime ally of Israel, would reject a deal that Israeli prime minister Benjmain Netanyahu fiercely opposes. (Though New York’s junior senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, announced her support for the Iran deal earlier this week).

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Schumer was careful to telegraph that he will not be working very hard to convince other Democrats to break ranks with the administration, and that’s probably the wisest course for someone who still wants to become the Democratic leader in the Senate after angering the party’s leftists. There’s no doubt that Schumer’s opposition will embolden the deal’s critics, and it may convince a handful of Senate Democrats to oppose the deal. But the Obama administration still believes opponents of the Iran deal will not achieve the 60 votes that they need to defeat it in the US Senate — or the 67 votes they would need to override Obama’s veto.

Chief among Schumer’s problems with the deal is the fact that after 15 years, Iran could conceivably be free of both international sanctions and restrictions on its nuclear energy program, thereby giving it the ability to build a nuclear weapon:

After 15 years of relief from sanctions, Iran would be stronger financially and better able to advance a robust nuclear program. More important, the agreement would allow Iran, after 10 to 15 years, to be a nuclear-threshold state with the blessing of the world community. It would have a green light to be as close, if not closer, to possessing a nuclear weapon than it is today. And the ability to thwart Iran would have less moral and economic force.

If Iran’s true intent is to get a nuclear weapon, under this agreement, it must simply exercise patience. After 10 years, it can be very close to achieving that goal, its nuclear program will be codified in an agreement signed by the US and other nations. If Iran is the same nation it is today, we’ll be worse off with this agreement than without it.

Schumer is right about this, and the Obama administration’s case has always been framed in relative terms — preventing Iran from nuclear capabilities for the next decade and beyond, subject to ‘snapback’ sanctions and an inspection regime, however imperfect, is still better than the alternatives.

The deal’s critics have to believe that the international will (including among Russia, China, Europe and the rest of the Middle East) to uphold sanctions against Iran will continue for the next 10 to 15 years. If not, opponents have to be willing to trust that US and Israeli intelligence capabilities will be sufficient to learn if Iran is truly seeking to build a nuclear weapon, and opponents have to be willing to accept that even costly military action might still not deter Iran.

Left largely unspoken in the current debate over the Iran deal are two points that both sides would do well to consider more fully.

First, we don’t even know that Iran wants a nuclear weapon.

Think about everything — every article or editorial or statement — you’re read on the Iran deal, and think about how often politicians and reporters lazily (or strategically) conflate Iran’s nuclear energy enterprise and a potential nuclear weapons deterrent as Iran’s ‘nuclear program.’ But these are two very distinct things, and it’s a disservice to the policy debate to confuse them. We simply do not know, even now, if Iran wants to become a nuclear-armed country. Or if it wants to have the capability to do so. Or if it just wants its rivals to think it has this capability.

After all, it’s been 10 to 15 years since foreign policy experts first sounded the alarm of a potential nuclear-armed Iran, and Iran still isn’t in the nuclear club. All of those doomsayers from 2003? We’re still waiting for the fallout.

There’s a lot of evidence that Iran today doesn’t even want a nuclear weapon, and there’s a lot of reason to doubt our ability to understand Iran’s motives, as I pointed out two years ago:

After all, it’s been 12 years 14 years since former president George W. Bush identified Iran as one of the three members of an ‘axis of evil,’ with his administration warning of the imminent consequences of a nuclear Iran.  Over a decade later, Iran still doesn’t have a nuclear weapon, so the regime is either incompetent (even the truly basket case of North Korea is generally believed to have nuclear weapons) or sincerely disinterested.  [Supreme leader Ali] Khamenei, his predecessor ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and even [former president Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad have denied that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons, and they’ve professed that the very idea of nuclear warfare violates Islam.  It’s worth noting, of course, that the only Middle Eastern country with a nuclear arsenal today is Israel, which has refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (nor, for good measure, has Israel signed the Chemical Weapons Convention).  It’s also worth wondering whether a nuclear-armed Iran would be worth another Middle Eastern war.

But there’s also cause for doubting Western intelligence on Iran’s true intentions, especially since it’s been four decades since Washington and Tehran severed ties.  In 2002, the Bush administration though it had a ‘slam-dunk’ case that Saddam Hussein was armed with weapons of mass destruction.  The world later learned that Saddam was deliberately playing coy about his WMD capability in order to scare Iran’s leadership, which he (wrongly) believed posed a greater threat to his regime than a US attack.  So the intentions of foreign leaders aren’t always clear.

Second, it would be impossible to deter Iran indefinitely
from nuclear weapons

If a country is determined enough to develop nuclear weaponry, it cannot deterred, and we have myriad examples of that over the past 70 years — North Korea, Pakistan, India, Israel and so on. If Iran’s supreme leader eventually decides, in 2015 or 2030 or 2050, that Iran should be a nuclear power, there’s little that the world can do to stop it.

There are at least a few plausible rationales for why Iran might want a nuclear deterrent, starting with the ease with which Great Britain and the United States interfered in Persian affairs in the 19th and 20th centuries and Iraq’s US-backed aggression against Iran in the 1980s, complete with the use of chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers and civilians. At the very least, there’s a plausible rationale for why Iran might want its Sunni regional rivals and the United States to believe that it could develop such a deterrent.

In the case of North Korea, its nuclear weapons program may have further isolated the country — but it’s certainly made North Korea less impervious to invasion. But in the case of India and Pakistan, the world crumbled and essentially admitted the two South Asian countries into the nuclear club after a short period of pearl-clutching. Indeed, a landmark nuclear deal between the United States and India helped jumpstart bilateral relations in the mid-2000s.

Just like nuclear energy programs, nuclear weapons programs are a significant point of national pride. Consider, for example, how fully British politicians still cling to its Trident nuclear submarine deterrent, most especially when the leftist frontrunner in Labour’s leadership race, Jeremy Corbyn, called on the country to scrap it. In India, its leading nuclear scientist APJ Abdul Kalam was so beloved that Abdul Kalam, who recently died, became one of the country’s most popular presidents.

Everyday Iranians in a middle-income country of 77 million people might look around and wonder why, exactly, they don’t get to join the nuclear club, and they sense (especially from the experiences of Pakistan and India) at least a little neocolonial patronization. After all, Iranians might ask on the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, what moral authority gives the United States the power to decide Iran shouldn’t have a nuclear weapon?

In 15 years, we might live in a world of growing international cooperation between Iran and the rest of the world — on trade, on defeating radical Islamists in Syria and Iraq, on monitoring security in Afghanistan, on balancing Sunni aggression in the Middle East. Even today, Iran’s government seems far more stable than Pakistan’s. In Hassan Rowhani, Iran now has a moderate, reformist president who still has an upper hand against Iran’s hardline ‘principlist’ conservatives.

Critics, who believe that the Islamic Republic of Iran is a nihilist revolutionary movement, give far too much credence to the empty, populist anti-Israeli and anti-American slogans. The late Kenneth Waltz, as eminently realist as any foreign policy thinker, made a convincing argument that nuclear weapons have made Pakistan and India both more responsible and more peaceful, and he argued shortly before his death that nuclear weapons would force the same discipline on Iran.

‘Iran’s still a country that acts rationally in line with its national interest, so a nuclear-armed Iran would not be as significant threat as imagined’ is not at all a satisfying conclusion to American hawks who believe that US military and economic strength can bend and break the will of any other country on the globe.

But it is a good reason to conclude that the current deal, which significantly impedes Iran’s nuclear near-term capability, is a great result in the multipolar 21st century world we live in.

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