A better Iran deal? History suggests no.

The debate over the July 14 nuclear agreement with Iran has come down to a question of alternatives. President Obama and other defenders of the agreement argue not that it is perfect, but that it is far better than any realistic alternative, and certainly better than the use of military force. Critics, on the other hand, deny that the alternative to this deal is war. They contend that increasing economic pressure on Iran, backed by a credible threat of force, would yield a better diplomatic deal.

Unfortunately, political science does not lend itself to controlled experiments, and we cannot test these competing hypotheses over the next 10 to 15 years to see which yields a better result. We can, however, look at results produced by the proposed alternative — counting on pressure and the threat of force to get everything we want — in similar cases in the recent past. Doing so makes the current nuclear deal look pretty good.

Take, for example, North Korea, another insecure, authoritarian state with a nuclear program and problematic foreign policy. In 1994, the Clinton administration and its regional partners tried to deal with that program with something called the “Agreed Framework,” which provided modest economic benefits to North Korea in exchange for eliminating its means to produce nuclear weapons. Critics of that deal, including in a newly elected Republican Congress, objected to the provision of fuel oil and light-water reactors to North Korea, insisting that its bad behavior should not be rewarded. Then, after years of North Korea’s foot-dragging, the incoming Bush administration said in 2001 that the Agreed Framework as drafted was no longer on the table and focused on further isolation of a country already far more economically squeezed than Iran is today. The result? Over the next several years, North Korea restarted its plutonium-producing nuclear reactor, revealed a covert uranium-enrichment program, conducted advanced ballistic missile tests and began producing and testing nuclear weapons.

There is, of course, no guarantee that any enduring deal could have been done with the erratic and unpredictable regime in Pyongyang, whose attempts to cheat on the Agreed Framework underscore the importance of verification. But what is certain is that the absence of even an imperfect agreement resulted not in capitulation but in a dangerous and unstable nuclear weapons state.

Iraq’s recent history also provides some lessons. After years of crippling international sanctions and growing frustration with Saddam Hussein’s dissimulations, the Bush administration again decided that only pressure and a credible threat of force could get the dictator to come clean. The United States deployed massive military force to the region and gave Hussein an ultimatum requiring him to abandon his illicit programs and allow unfettered inspections or face invasion and removal from power. Hussein refused — even though in this case he did not even have the weapons in question. The result has, to be sure, left Iraq without a nuclear weapons program, but at astronomical financial, human and diplomatic costs and unintended consequences, including, ironically, vastly increased Iranian influence in Iraq. More to the point, the Iraq case demonstrates that even devastating sanctions and a highly credible threat of force do not necessarily lead a regime to accept a “better deal.” Republican presidential candidates such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) seem to believe that just telling the Iranians that “if you want a war, you’re going to lose it” will lead them to let us simply dictate our terms. The Iraq and North Korea precedents suggest this is a fantasy.

What about the case of Iran itself? In fact, we’ve already tried the “alternative” approach there, too, and it’s what brought us to where we are today. When the Bush administration came into office, Iran had only just launched its enrichment program and had no known operating centrifuges. We had an administration that was hardly seen as reluctant to use force and, after 2003, 150,000 U.S. troops on Iran’s Western border and a demonstrated willingness to use them. The Europeans wanted to take advantage of this leverage and cut a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program, but the United States insisted on better terms. What came next? Not an Iranian agreement to abandon its enrichment program forever while accepting intrusive inspections, but the program’s massive expansion, along with the construction of a plutonium-producing heavy-water reactor, a growing stockpile of enriched uranium, more advanced centrifuge work and the enrichment of uranium to more dangerous levels.

None of these cases proves that the current deal with Iran will be effective, though it is far more detailed and comprehensive than any of the failed agreements that came before it. What these cases do suggest, however, is that there is little basis to believe that merely increasing sanctions and threatening force will lead to a better deal than the one on the table.

If the U.S. Congress kills the current Iran deal and the alternative approach leads the Iranians to come back to the table and accept a much better agreement, it will deserve enormous credit. If, as seems far more likely, the death of this deal instead leads Iran to resume the expansion of its nuclear program even while under sanctions and the threat of force, just as it has for the past decade, Congress will have made a historic mistake. And the next generation will wonder why we did the same thing all over again and expected a different result.

Philip Gordon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was White House coordinator for the Middle East from 2013 to April.

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