History tells of leaders who were so eager to prevent war that they appeased evildoers. History also tells of leaders who were so eager to prevent war that they negotiated treaties that stood the test of time.
In 1994 Bill Clinton negotiated a “breakthrough” agreement freezing North Korea’s nuclear program. North Korea had other plans, and detonated its first device in 2006.
In 1982 Ronald Reagan negotiated a massive reduction in US and Soviet strategic nuclear arms. While mutually assured destruction is still a possibility, today the chances of a Russian-American nuclear exchange are greatly reduced.
Which scenario will unfold from the deal worked out in Lausanne, Switzerland last week? Will the announcement that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus one (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, plus Germany) have reached a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran herald a defanging of Iran’s nuclear program? At this point, it is impossible to know.
What is certain is this: Iran is now a threshold nuclear state. If it observes the conditions laid out in the JCPOA, it will forego a quick jump to nuclear arms for the next 10 years.
In fact, no negotiation could stop Iran’s determination to pursue nuclear know-how. Nothing the international community could do would roll back the clock, or wipe clean the knowledge amassed by Iran’s scientists and engineers. Sooner or later, Iran will have a nuclear bomb. President Barack Obama’s assurance that all paths in that direction have been blocked is preposterous.
What the P5+1 have bought the Middle East is some breathing room. For the next 10 years – if the inspection regime is sufficiently robust – Iran will remain a threshold state. Its nuclear fuel cycle will remain intact and its ongoing research will remain unfettered.
In the absence of regime change in Tehran, this is a disturbing result for the state of Israel. Iran today is a sponsor of destabilizing regional violence, much of it directed at Jews. It calls for the destruction of Israel. No wonder Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has defied diplomatic niceties to denounce the deal.
But the JCPOA is the best possible outcome in the current circumstance. Ten years is a long time, the best punt of the Iranian nuclear football the international community could obtain.
The alternative is (as Senator John McCain once sang) to “bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.” Israeli generals call this option “mowing the grass,” because while a military strike on the multiple targets that make up the Iranian fuel cycle would temporarily cripple the Iranian program, it would hardly stop it. Even as past clandestine operations to infect the control software of Iran’s centrifuges and to assassinate its nuclear engineers have slowed down the program, they have ultimately redoubled the regime’s commitment to go forward.
Much of today’s imponderable conundrum has to do with missteps and retreats on the part of the Obama administration. The most regrettable misstep was back in 2009, when the Iranian people rose up in mass protests against a rigged election (a kind of foretaste of the Arab Spring), and President Obama dismissed the notion of supporting the protestors, calling it a matter of internal governance. In the final days at Lausanne, the P5+1 retreated on a number of positions, such as demanding the once-secret Fordow site be permanently shuttered and insisting that Iran’s highly enriched uranium be transported overseas to Russia. But there are many good points in the JCPOA.
The Arak reactor will be retro-fitted in such a way that it can no longer produce plutonium. Fourteen thousand centrifuges will be mothballed. The Fordow facility will be turned into a research site with 1,000 centrifuges spinning nothing more than medical isotopes. The breakout window for Iran’s dash to a bomb will be extended from the current two months to 12.
There is no point now in Netanyahu continuing his ineffective assault on the deal. In almost every conceivable way, his hand-flailing has boomeranged. Thanks to him, the American Congress has become more rather than less approving of the Obama approach.
In the upcoming 90 days of hard negotiating that will give specificity to the deal, Israel should stop railing against its very premise and focus on the devilish details. Let Netanyahu insist on unprecedented inspection, on the strictest interpretation of Iran’s agreement to the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and on the provisions for a sanctions “snapback” should Iran cheat. Let him welcome President Obama’s offer for increased security and intelligence sharing with the Jewish state.
Let him, in other words, join the international community. Having laid out the case for abandoning a “bad deal,” and having failed miserably to convince a world audience, it is time to accept the ten-year punt and lobby for the most stringent enforcement of the play rules.
We hope that during the coming decade Iran will agree to further peaceful engagements with the civilized world, much the way the former Soviet Union turned away from its Cold War confrontation. If that happens, then the JCPOA will be a turning point. If not, then the world – and not just Israel – will have to respond some other way.
CAP: Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.