The Iran deal doesn’t negate the military option

Critics of the Iran nuclear deal claim John F. Kerry and company improperly downplayed the military option. Had Iran truly believed we would vaporize its nascent nukes — the argument goes — we could have cut a better deal. For this crowd, President Obama’s refrain that our choice is his deal or war is greeted with disdain — or worse. Michael Mandelbaum, in the American Spectator, writes that the deal was negotiated from “a position of self-imposed weakness”; John Bolton claims “no one took Mr. Obama’s threat of military force seriously — a credibility gap that Israel still fears and Iran still exploits.”

But those who think the negotiations and the deal have undermined our position by negating a military option have things backward. This agreement doesn’t just preserve our ability to halt Iran’s “breakout” capacity with a bunker buster bomb; it strengthens our case for action if Tehran sneaks and cheats. This deal doesn’t assume that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Instead, it keeps one eye fixed on the doomsday scenario. And in that case, effective diplomacy will have laid the groundwork for effective use of force.

Tehran has two very good reasons to find our military threat credible, and even more credible today than it was before we struck a deal. For starters, our actions in the neighborhood are becoming increasingly muscular in deterring Iranian aggression. In Yemen we contribute arms, fuel and intelligence to the air campaign against Iran’s destabilizing proxies. This administration has given tens of billions in high-tech weapons to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, security commitments we’ve redoubled since the deal (the Persian Gulf states, by the way, have endorsed the agreement). I hope we’ll also reach consensus soon on new military assistance for Israel, which more than any other American ally deserves our strong backing.

Iran's heavy water nuclear facility, located near the central city of Arak, as seen in 2011. U.S. intelligence officials say the deal requires Iran to provide an unprecedented volume of information about nearly every aspect of its existing nuclear program. (Hamid Foroutan / Associated Press)
Iran’s heavy water nuclear facility, located near the central city of Arak, as seen in 2011. U.S. intelligence officials say the deal requires Iran to provide an unprecedented volume of information about nearly every aspect of its existing nuclear program. (Hamid Foroutan / Associated Press)

All that support adds up. On every side, Iran confronts well-trained, well-equipped American allies. Even if the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, plowed every cent of sanctions relief into Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, it would still be vastly outmatched on the battlefield.

Meanwhile, in Iraq and Syria, circumstance pits Iran and the U.S. against a common enemy: Islamic State. But a strong American response in both cases has strengthened our hand against both Abu Bakr Baghdadi and Khamenei — a security win-win.

On the one hand, the jihadist group has battered Iran’s terroist partners, especially Syrian President Bashar Assad and Hezbollah. Both are less able to project Iranian power than they were a year ago. And as our 62-nation coalition beats back Islamic State, we can marginalize Iranian influence even more in both countries. In Syria, that means making clear that a pluralist government without Assad is the desired end. In Iraq, it means showing that the U.S. is the ally Prime Minister Haider Abadi can’t afford to forfeit. Sure enough, when Abadi faced a choice between Iranian militias and American air power in April, we came out on top.

Iran has every reason to feel threatened on its home turf because of our decisive military advantage. But beyond that, the nuclear agreement sets up an international case for action if Tehran rushes for a bomb. Critics have questioned whether the deal’s “snapback” mechanism has enough oomph. I believe it does, but it’s also — in a worst-case scenario — mostly beside the point. What matters is that we gave diplomacy every chance in full view of the international community; we offered Iran a way to avoid conflict. Now, if restored sanctions fail to block an Iranian breakout attempt, the world would understand — and some would even applaud — a mega military response.

I understand that members of Congress have sincere doubts about this agreement, as I do. But we live in a post-deal world. Now, the pressure is on Iran to live up to international expectations; Congress’ blocking the deal would flip that script, putting the U.S. in the hot seat. We would look confused, undependable and isolated. It would undermine our ability to go in guns blazing if it comes to that.

We’ve marshaled a powerful coalition on the nuclear issue; our strategic advantage over Iran is as large as it’s ever been, and that includes our military options. Let’s not squander that leverage.

Jane Harman, president of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, represented California’s 36th Congressional District for nine terms.

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