We are still a long way from a formal international agreement restraining Iran’s nuclear program, but the contours of a deal — both an interim accord and the final agreement — are slowly coming together. It won’t be perfect, but our worst mistake would be to make an impossible ideal the enemy of a tangible, “good enough” agreement.
When negotiations resume this week in Geneva between the United States, Britain, France, China, Germany and Russia on one side, and Iran on the other, seems the two parties will concentrate first on sealing an interim deal that would freeze Iran’s nuclear progress in return for some modest relief from sanctions; once that happens, negotiators would turn to hammering out details of the final, critical agreement.
That final agreement is expected to cap Iran’s uranium enrichment and halt its construction of a reactor to harvest plutonium. Moreover, it would bind Iran with far more intrusive inspections than those currently in place (or ever imposed on Iran), and it should carry the threat that sanctions could be quickly reimposed if Iran were ever caught cheating. Thus, Tehran could not manufacture even a crude nuclear weapon quickly, and it would be highly likely that the world would know about it long before such a weapon were ready.
If we can get it, such a final deal should be more than adequate to remove the Iranian nuclear program as a source of fear and instability in the Middle East.
Of course, it still wouldn’t be perfect. It would not eliminate Iran’s nuclear program. It would probably allow Tehran to continue some enrichment. In theory, this residual capability could become the foundation of a new Iranian drive for nuclear weapons, possibly even a secret one.
That’s why the Israeli government has been denouncing the proposed deal as a sell-out to Iran and why the Persian Gulf states have been saying the same in private. For them, even a theoretical possibility is too great a risk.
In international politics, however, a deal such as this one cannot be measured against some theoretical ideal; it can be assessed only relative to its real-world alternatives. There are three possible alternatives to accepting the deal currently under discussion with Iran, and unfortunately, all are worse courses.
The first alternative is to hold out for a better deal, even a perfect one, in which Iran would give up every vestige of its nuclear program.
Those who seem to be advocating this approach, such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, assume that if the world rejected Iran’s current overture, we could ratchet up the pressure even more and, at some point, Iran would cave and agree to whatever we wanted.
Is that possible? Sure. And if it happened, it would indeed be a better outcome.
But it is highly unlikely. Iran has insisted for more than a decade that it will not give up its nuclear program completely. Even the Iranian moderates who support the current proposal demand that the world recognize the country’s right to a peaceful nuclear program. Iran has suffered under severe economic sanctions for at least seven years, and its leaders contend that they will bear them for much longer if they are not granted this minimum concession.
Moreover, it is critical to recognize how the international environment would probably change if the United States and its allies rejected the deal now being debated. The current sanctions against Iran work only because they rest on an international consensus that Iran has been the recalcitrant party in the nuclear impasse. Russia, China, India, Brazil and other key nations have supported and abided by the sanctions because they have seen Iran as the country refusing to negotiate.
If Washington — rather than Tehran — rejects the deal under consideration, the United States will suddenly become the problem, and that could prove disastrous. It would embolden Tehran to hold out, rather than give in. Instead of increasing the pressure on Iran, over time, we would probably see an erosion of the sanctions.
Here it is worth remembering Iraq. Once international opinion turned against the Iraq sanctions in the mid-1990s, they unraveled quickly. By 2000, Saddam Hussein was smuggling billions of dollars in oil, goods and cash while countries such as France, Russia, China, Egypt and Turkey ignored U.N. Security Council resolutions — resolutions that France, Russia and China had voted for. What we found then, and as we would probably find now with Iran, is that once international opinion turns against sanctions, trying to enforce them means fighting with your allies and trade partners, rather than the targeted country. That makes sanctions virtually impossible to sustain.
The second alternative would be to give up on any deal with Iran and simply continue to contain it as we have for 34 years, to prevent it from creating problems beyond its borders. That would involve keeping military forces in the gulf to prevent any Iranian military moves, maintaining sanctions to keep the regime isolated and continuing to employ covert and cyber-operations. It is a sensible policy and more feasible than most of Washington has been willing to consider.
Still, there are two important caveats. The first is that it would be easier to contain a nonnuclear Iran than a nuclear one, and getting a deal now is the best way to ensure that. Second, containment would also suffer significantly if international support turned against the sanctions and other measures designed to pressure Iran. And again, by turning down a deal that most of the world considers reasonable, the United States would probably shift international opinion from our side to the Iranians.
The final alternative to the current proposal is to go to war with Iran — to destroy its nuclear facilities, overturn the regime or both. This, too, is a real alternative. However, it is strategically problematic and politically unpalatable, perhaps even impossible.
Most of the evidence available indicates that a “limited” military operation to destroy Iran’s nuclear program would be unlikely to remain limited. Iran would probably rebuild and retaliate, and we in turn would escalate. We could easily find ourselves in a much larger and longer war than we wanted. Here, as well, the lost of international support we would suffer from turning down the deal would undermine our military effort. And given the public uproar over the Obama administration’s plans for a limited strike against Syria — a much smaller and weaker adversary — it seems hard to imagine that the American people would be ready to sign up for a costlier and riskier conflict with Iran.
We don’t know if Iran will accept the deal being discussed, and we should not agree to anything just because the Iranians consider it acceptable. But if Tehran is willing to give up all but a minimal enrichment capability, if it accepts comprehensive and intrusive inspections, and if we can be confident that the sanctions would be reimposed if Iran were ever caught cheating, such an agreement would meet our strategic needs and those of our allies. It may not be perfect, but it would be better than our other options. And that is the only real test.
Kenneth M. Pollack is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy.