Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The recent deal between Iran and the P5+1 countries negotiated by the Obama administration over the former's nuclear weapons program has been lambasted, with good reason, by all but the most sycophantically pro-Obama commentators.  But while it's certainly a foolish giveaway, with lots of drawbacks and no significant redeeming features, its overall long-term effects are widely misunderstood.  Here are a few of the most prominent myths:
  • The deal profoundly imperils Israel's security.  As I've argued before, Iran's offensive nuclear capability--and it will almost certainly have one, sooner rather than later, irrespective of this deal--will be effectively deterred by both the Israeli and American capabilities, just as the Soviet Union's was.  Iran's very likely possession of nuclear weapons is thus not a major direct threat to Israel, let alone an existential one.
  • The deal is intended first and foremost to weaken Israel.  As I've also argued before, the Obama administration's guiding foreign policy principle is the desirability of diminishing American power and influence around the world.  This deal contributes substantially to that goal, and while it also harms Israeli interests, it's American interests that by far suffer the greatest harm, more than enough to amply justify it under the president's worldview.  (Of course, the two effects are directly correlated:  given that Israel is a strong ally and supporter of the US, a blow to Israeli strategic interests is highly likely to damage US strategic interests as well--and vice versa.)
  • The primary effect of the deal is to clear the way for the Iranian nuclear weapons program. In fact, the Iranian nuclear weapons program has been moving forward at full speed for many years now, and this deal scarcely affects it.  Rather, the primary (and wholly negative) effect of the deal is to undermine the sanctions regime against Iran.  Once the sanctions are lifted--and given this deal, that lifting is now inevitable--Iran will have more cash to spend on conventional mischief in the region, such as propping up its puppets in Syria and Lebanon, extending its influence in Iraq, fomenting unrest in the Gulf monarchies, and sponsoring terrorist plots around the world. 
  • Israel is now more likely to launch its own pre-emptive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.  I don't believe that such a strike was ever remotely plausible.  The risks--of failure, of casualties, of a diplomatic backlash, of Iranian retaliation--are huge, and the likelihood of delivering a substantial setback to the Iranian program is negligible.  It's possible that the Netanyahu government sees things differently, but my guess is that if they did, they'd have launched a strike years ago.  More likely, the entire "do something or I'll be forced to act on my own!" charade was simply a ruse to get Western governments to impose sanctions.  If so, then it worked brilliantly--there's absolutely no way any sanctions, let alone the fairly substantial ones that were in effect until now, would have been imposed without this threat.  Unfortunately, the Obama administration has from the beginning hungered for reconciliation with Iran as part of its overall strategy of snubbing friends and courting enemies, the more effectively to undermine American power and influence abroad.  It was therefore something of a miracle that Netanyahu was ever able to huff and puff his way to a global sanctions regime, and probably inevitable that Obama would eventually find a way to dismantle it.
  • The deal dramatically improves Iran's strategic position.  In the short term, no doubt, the extra revenue that will accompany a lifting of sanctions will expand the Iranian regime's freedom of action.  But it still finds itself in dire straits in the medium term:  its most important satellite, Syria, is mired in an unbelievably bloody civil war that has already begun to spread to its second most important satellite, Lebanon.  The Saudis and their allies are certain to be even more determined than ever in their efforts to support the rebel factions in Syria and Lebanon--not to mention domestic dissidents within Iran itself.  The Iranian economy will be helped but not saved by the lifting of sanctions--it's still a corrupt quasi-command economy dominated by the leadership's relatives and cronies in the clergy and the Revolutionary Guard.  And a global oil and gas production boom is very likely to lead to a decline in oil prices in the near future, with consequences for Iranian government revenues that could easily end up dwarfing the recent sanctions in their severity.
So while I join the critics in condemning a deeply misguided and counterproductive deal, I don't think its consequences will be nearly as disastrous as many seem to fear.  Rather than Munich in 1938, I would compare this agreement with Vienna in 1979--also a reckless giveaway by a cluelessly naïve, American power-loathing president to a cunning, ruthless dictator with grand geopolitical ambitions and at the height of his power.  That deal, too, seemed to formalize and enhance the dictatorship's prestige, but in fact it coincided with their high-water mark, followed by an astonishingly rapid descent that concluded with the regime's complete dissolution within roughly a decade.  May this deal achieve the same result. 


Anonymous said...

I would agree with most of this analysis except for the notion that a nuclear-capable Iran would be deterred by the fact that both the U.S. and Israel are capable of retaliating. The principle of MAD is not applicable in this instance. May I remind you that neither the Soviet Union nor the Americans made use of suicide bombers during the cold war. (Assassins maybe but not suicide bombers.) The Iranian psyche, in general, is wholly different; their calculations may well run along the lines that, since Iran's real estate is vastly larger than that of tiny Israel, they can afford a Jewish nuclear strike and survive whereas Israel may not.

Dan said...

I'm not aware that Iran--as opposed to its proxies--has ever used suicide bombers. In any event, I don't think the use of suicide bombers makes much difference one way or the other--the Iranian and Soviet ruling parties both long ago demonstrated a capacity for spectacular callousness toward their own citizens. Deterrence of either was therefore never founded on their desire to preserve the well-being of their people, since neither regime ever evinced the slightest concern for their own people in the first place.

Rather, deterrence of such regimes is based on their thoroughly demonstrated devotion to preserving their own interests--and in particular, their own power--at all costs. A massive retaliatory nuclear attack on either the Soviet Union during the Cold War, or on Iran today, would have done far more damage to their power structure--playing havoc with their command and control infrastructure, devastating their military readiness and ability to project and display power, and unleashing otherwise suppressed or intimidated domestic and foreign enemies--than the attack that preceded it could possibly have enhanced their power. This has always been an obvious calculation, and therefore neither country ever seriously contemplated a nuclear first strike on nuclear-armed adversaries.

In fact, I would go further, and argue that the Iranian regime sees no particular value in destroying Israel, as opposed to presenting itself as a potent threat to Israel's survival. This pose gains it a great deal of credibility in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and facilitates co-operation with (which usually means effective co-optation of) various Arab and Muslim forces--e.g., radical Sunni ones--that would otherwise never give Iran the time of day. It's therefore quite possible that Iran would prefer that Israel continue to survive for the indefinite future, while Iran rallies Arabs and Muslims throughout the region to its cause with promises of support for their struggle against Israel.

The Soviet Union in fact played exactly this game, quite successfully, for many decades. And like Iran, it spent a fortune funding and supporting anti-Israel elements in the Middle East, in return for those elements' co-operation with/assimilation into their sphere/empire. Yet somehow neither country has ever been known to make any concrete sacrifices for the sake of furthering their supposed anti-Israel goals. Their anti-Israel position always followed strategic logic, not anti-Zionist (let alone anti-Semitic) passion, and can therefore be relied on to be constrained by the cold realities of deterrence.

Anonymous said...

The point I was trying to make was that the leaders of the Soviet Union were not known as religious fanatics (and that includes the religion of communism). On the whole, they were usually acting rationally. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for the Ayatollas of Iran. They may just bring down the house, in a Samsonesque way, with them inside it as long as Israel is destroyed in the process. I don't think the Jewish state can afford to trust the mullas' will for self-preservation.

As to the suicide bombers, of course they'll use proxies; it is not worth their while to become martyrs for the sake of killing a few dozen people - in that sense they are rational enough. But if it would come to destroying a whole "cancerous" nation, I think they would be willing to meet the 72 black-eyed houris in Paradise.

Dan said...

Perhaps Ayatollah Khamenei really does believe his regime's rhetoric about the moral and practical necessity of destroying Israel, even at the cost of his own downfall. Perhaps, too, he believes its rhetoric about the need to destroy America, and about Shi'a Islam's inevitable world domination and the return of the Mahdi, and about the domestic opposition--not to mention every single misfortune that befalls Iranians--being the work of Zionist and American agents, and about all the amazing weapons that the Iranian military is supposedly developing, and all the amazing weapons that the Mossad has supposedly deployed against Iran. But as you yourself agreed, the regime's behavior has consistently been far, far more rational and coldly self-interested than its wacky rhetoric.

The same, of course, was true of the Soviet Union. And when it fell, we were able to confirm what most of us had suspected all along: that the state's absurd official rhetoric reflected the leadership's power-lust and their subordinates' fear, and that nobody there actually believed any of it for a Moscow minute.

Perhaps, as you say, Iran is different. But after so many years of watching exactly the same patterns of overblown speech and ruthlessly logical behavior from totalitarian dictatorship after totalitarian dictatorship, I see absolutely no reason to believe that Iran alone has broken the mold.

Dan said...

One more thing: when I referred to "proxies", I meant that I don't recall Iran ever even sending its own citizens--as opposed to Lebanese, Palestinians or other nationals--to sacrifice themselves as suicide bombers. But now that you mention it, I don't quite understand the "rational" calculation you attribute to the Supreme Leader and his henchmen, by which entry into eternal paradise--which one might imagine to be a devoutly coveted reward--is somehow rather a burden only worth enduring for the sake of a great earthly accomplishment like destroying Israel, and not for the sake of a more minor feat like, say, killing a few dozen infidel Americans at the UN. In what way is it "rational" to decline eternal paradise based on the putatively insufficient magnitude of the act that earned admission? Wouldn't it be simpler just to infer that such a person is "rational" in the sense of placing greater value on dying comfortably in his own bed than on promises of eternal virgins?

Anonymous said...

Let's just say that the Ayatollah adheres to the principle of pragmatic fanaticism. I know it's a contradiction in terms but in the Middle East it's acceptable (remember the story of the turtle and the scorpion?).