By Philip Gordon, Politico—
Of all the arguments President Barack Obama made last week in his defense of the Iran nuclear deal, the one that has provoked the most vigorous—and curious—reaction from his critics was the suggestion that the alternative to the deal could be war with Iran. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Obama’s comments went “way beyond civil discourse” and predicted Democratic critics would be “especially insulted” by them. Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain, not typically so sensitive to suggestions about the possible use of military force, quickly put out a statement insisting that the alternative to a deal was “never war” but greater pressure on Iran to get a better agreement. AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittmann insists the alternative to this deal is “definitely not war,” Senator Bob Corker agrees “war is not the alternative” and Senator Joni Ernst rejects “the outright notion that we would go to war.” Among Democrats, Senator Chuck Schumer says the alternative “does not have to be war” and Senator Robert Menendez, confirming McConnell’s prediction, finds it “insulting” to suggest that it does.
The good news is that in the short term, at least, the critics are probably right that there will not be war with Iran. Even if Congress rejects the nuclear deal when it votes in September, it is highly unlikely that Tehran will make a mad dash for the bomb, and that the United States, Israel or anyone else will respond by using military force. The bad news, however, is that it’s even less likely that if Congress rejects the agreement Iran will continue to freeze its program and then come back to the table to accept a “better deal.” That means that in the long run, we will indeed face a choice between accepting an Iranian nuclear weapons capability and the use of force. That’s what Obama and others mean when they say the alternative may well be war, and what Members of Congress need to keep in mind when they cast their votes.
Those calling on Congress to oppose the Iran deal try to escape this dilemma by insisting that the alternative to this deal is simply a “better deal.” According to this line of thinking, after Congress rejects the deal we can turn up the pressure on Iran, persuade or coerce the international community to increase sanctions, bolster the credibility of the use of force and oblige Iran to renegotiate. Iran will agree to continue to freeze its nuclear program in the meantime, and sometime in the future, either under this administration or the next, agree to better terms, presumably (based on the critiques of the Vienna deal) including an even smaller enrichment program with indefinite limitations, an end to Iranian support for terrorism, greater restrictions on research and development, the outright closure of the underground facility at Fordow, a public accounting of past nuclear weaponization work and “anywhere, anytime” inspections, including at military sites.
This would indeed be an excellent outcome. But it is implausible to the point of fantasy, and irresponsible to suggest otherwise. We’ll never know if Iran, faced with a unified P5+1, would ever have accepted terms different from those agreed in Vienna in July. My own view is that there were perhaps details that could have come out differently, but on the big questions of concern to critics, insisting on a perfect deal would have meant no deal at all. What seems certain, however, is that calling for such fundamental changes now is even less likely to produce them. The Vienna agreement has been endorsed by the P5+1, the entire United Nations Security Council and practically every country in the world. It would be one thing for critics of the Iran deal to show the courage of their convictions and conclude that the deal is so flawed, and so dangerous, that war would in fact be a better alternative if Iran refuses to meet their conditions. But to rule out, and even take offense at, the possibility of a military strike while betting that Iran will accept a significantly better deal is not realistic.
Many of those, including in the administration, who reject the possibility of a better deal focus on the difficulty of maintaining, let alone increasing, sanctions on Iran, if the United States rejects a deal supported by the other international powers. And it is certainly true that major economic players like India, South Korea and Japan, let alone China and Russia and the Europeans, will be hard to persuade to tighten sanctions on Iran if the U.S. Congress kills a deal they unanimously support. Thus rejection of the deal probably means not more economic pressure on Iran, but less. What needs to be understood, however, is that Iran is likely to resume the development of its nuclear program even if somehow sanctions are maintained, just as it has over the past decade and more. It is worth recalling that we had far more crippling sanctions on North Korea and Iraq, and in neither case did it lead them to accept all our demands. To walk away from this good nuclear deal with Iran based on the hope that it will behave differently would be to take an enormously dangerous risk.
I do not believe that Iran, in the wake of Congress rejecting the Iran deal, will move quickly or overtly toward the bomb, giving anyone a pretext to use force. Instead, they will do what they have been doing for years—carefully and cautiously making incremental progress toward a nuclear weapons capability. They will install more operating centrifuges, a few hundred at a time; they will resume enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, and accumulate a small stockpile of it; they will accelerate R&D on more advanced centrifuges, including IR6s and IR8s; they will advance work on the original heavy water reactor at Arak; and they will continue to develop Fordow as an enrichment site. None of these measures in themselves will necessarily cross “red lines” giving the United States or anyone else a solid basis for the use of force, particularly because we would be using force to prevent developments Iran had already agreed to forego diplomatically. But cumulatively they will mean that if and when negotiations did eventually resume, Iran’s nuclear program would be significantly more advanced than it is today, making it even more implausible that the Iranians would make greater concessions than they made in Vienna. And then what?
Critics of the nuclear deal with Iran cannot have it both ways. If a Congressional rejection of that deal actually leads Iran back to the table to make the significant concessions those critics say will be necessary to constitute a “good deal,” I will be the first to tip my hat, and the world will be a safer place. If, as I think far more likely, Iran does not dash for a bomb but simply advances its nuclear program across the board, as it has for over a decade, it is the critics who will have to say whether they will allow that to happen or whether they will call to stop it with a military strike. And I hope no one will be insulted if they end up calling for the latter.
Read more: http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/08/iran-deal-rejection-121257.html#ixzz3iezMTBZD