Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Iran Nuclear Deal: Prelude to Apocalypse, Sign of American Weakness or Realpolitik?

I first became aware that we’d made a deal with Iran when someone posted a comment on Facebook about New York City being nuked.

This wasn’t an isolated sentiment.

Others compared Obama to Neville Chamberlain or expressed concern about negotiating with a country that just held a massive anti-American protest. (If we ignored all the countries with anti-American protests, we’d be mighty lonely – and we would have bombed the shit out of the French years ago.) And of course just about every conservative commentator and Republican presidential candidate jumped on it as sign of American weakness. (“Thanks Obama!”)

In short, the Apocalypse is coming. Or the sky is falling. Choose your metaphor.

But what's the reality?

Let me get one thing out of the way: no, I don't want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. Frankly I'd be happy if no one had them, but that ship has sailed and we need to do everything we can to keep anyone else from acquiring them, particularly theocracies with a strong eschatological bent. As it is, there are already two countries with nuclear weapons that scare the bejeezus out of me:
  • North Korea, often referred to as a "rogue nation," a term that barely seems adequate: "Oh that Kim Jong-un is such a rogue." It's not a rogue nation; it's a bat-shit crazy nation. And they've got not only atomic bombs but ballistic missiles to deliver them.
  • Pakistan, our "ally" against the Taliban (with friends like this…): unstable governments, a history of military coups, Islamic extremist groups supported by its own spy agency (particularly when that activity is a directed against archenemy India), etc., etc. I sure as hell hope our special forces have a plan to go in and secure the bombs if there's ever an extremist takeover.
While I certainly don't want to Iran added to this list, the idea that if they get nuclear weapons they're going to start lobbing them at New York City or Tel Aviv is ludicrous. They may be crazy, but they're not insane. Ask yourself: what happens if Iran somehow manages to overcome the myriad technical issues, obtain long-range ballistic missiles, and somehow manages to land one or more nuclear weapons on the U.S., Israel or, for that matter, Europe?

Iran would be obliterated. It would cease to exist. The size and dispersal of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, not to mention immense second-strike capability from submarines, would ensure Iran's destruction, and therefore make it unlikely in the extreme that the regime would ever be so profoundly stupid. And while Israel is extremely secretive about its nuclear capabilities, there is little doubt that they would be able to respond as well. In other words, it’s mutually assured destruction.

The scenario that is more worrying (and I suspect what most people fear) is a regime like Iran providing nuclear weapons to terrorists who somehow smuggle them into New York, London, or any other western city, or figure out some other way of delivering their payloads. Again the ayatollahs aren’t totally crazy. These weapons have signatures. Their origin would be determined. And result would be the same, if somewhat delayed by the investigation: Buh bye, Iran.

That brings us to the agreement. I haven't read all 120 pages, which I’m quite certain puts me in the company of the vast majority. I’m no expert in diplomacy or nuclear weaponry. I rely on the fact that we have very smart people looking after our interests, and I trust them to make the best deal. I don’t believe John Kerry or Barack Obama would make an agreement if they thought it would put us in danger. And unlike many Americans, I put stock in the European perspective: they have the most to fear since Iran already has missiles that can reach Europe. So the fact that the Europeans support it while Iranian hardliners oppose it all point to it being a reasonable deal.

That's not to say it's all sunshine and roses. There are legitimate policy concerns (some of which have been raised by the very few opponents who approach this from a thoughtful, fact-based perspective). The three-week waiting period if we want to inspect an Iranian military base, for example, is a legitimate concern, as is Iran’s overall record of evasion and obfuscation.

But that’s not what this debate is about. Much of the opposition is driven by inchoate hatred and distrust of Obama, not by the specifics of the deal. There’s no point in trying to convince the “Obama is a socialist,” and the “Obama is a Muslim or not American” crowds of anything (and the outright racists – I’ve personally seen three instances of pure, unrepentant racism about Obama and I live a pretty sheltered life – are obviously beyond hope). But there’s another big group who suggest this deal highlights American weakness. This I just don't get.

The question of whether America is weaker now that it was when Obama became president is one for another time (although let's note for the record that since Obama assumed office, we pulled out of a huge recession and managed to withdraw from the bloody mess in Iraq) but I fail to see how negotiation, even with a regime as odious as Iran, suggests that we’re weak. This is what big, grown-up countries do. I realize that the average American likes things simple, and black and white. Foreign policy is rarely simple. I believe Obama recognizes this, but has done a piss poor job of explaining this to the American people, not that we particularly want to hear it.

And what are the alternatives? I have yet to see anyone offer credible options to negotiation:
  • We could and should continue the regime of economic sanctions until such time as we're satisfied the Iranians are not producing nuclear weapons or conducting work toward nuclear weapons. (This, in fact, is what the agreement calls for.) But too often sanctions punish the very people we need to engage. In the case of Iran, there is a very young and entrepreneurial population that is a natural, potential ally to the West. The leaders of the regime always have ways to stock money away somewhere and never particularly suffer.
  • Special warfare is always an option and we had some good results (apparently) from the Stuxnet virus, but how many times can we pull that rabbit out of the hat?
  • We could bomb the crap out of Iran, but from all accounts it would have almost no impact on any nuclear program: the Iranians have buried everything so deeply, and scattered facilities so widely that even our biggest bunker buster bombs would have little to no effect.
  • Invade? Iran is not Iraq. This is a real country, with a much higher degree of ethnic and religious unity than many of the other countries in the Middle East. In other words, it's not a product of French and British colonialism. This is the 18th largest country in the world – more than twice the size of Texas, and almost four times the size of Iraq. Its military is much bigger and better than anything Saddam Hussein had to offer, even if woefully behind in technology thanks to the various embargoes. An invasion (even a surgical action directed only at known nuclear facilities) would be a bloody mess with thousands of American dead, and would likely provoke a wave of terrorist attacks around the world aimed at American and other Western targets.
It may yet come to military action, but this must always be a last resort, particularly if it’s pre-emptive action. (Did we learn nothing from the titanic mistake of invading Iraq?) At least this agreement puts Iranian commitments in writing with a specific timeline and consequences. It gives the moderates in Iran a chance to come to the fore and bring their country into the community of nations. If they choose to ignore this opportunity and continue down the path toward nuclear proliferation, then they’ll remain a pariah nation – and may suffer even worse consequences.

This is the reality of the world. “Rah rah ‘Murica” chanting or “We need to make America great again” hyperbolic chestpuffing will work about as well in this situation as it does on the playground – where it belongs. 

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