The Iran deal and the hubris of certainty
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The Iran deal and the hubris of certainty

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, Foreign Minister of Iran, Mohammad Javad Zarif, British Foreign Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Philip Hammond, and US Secretary of State John Kerry pose for a photo after last Working Session of E 3+3 negotiations on July 14, 2015 in Vienna, Austria. Six world powers; US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany have reached a deal with Iran on limiting Iranian nuclear activity. (Thomas Imo/Photothek/Getty Images)

From left to right: EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini; Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif; British Foreign Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Philip Hammond; and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pose for a photo after last Working Session of E 3+3 negotiations in Vienna, Austria on July 14, 2015. (Thomas Imo/Photothek/Getty Images)

NEW YORK (JTA) – Admit it: You might be wrong.

Yes, you have a strong view about whether the nuclear deal signed with Iran last week will spell catastrophe for Israel, or whether it’s the best of a range of bad options for dealing with Iran’s apparent pursuit of a nuclear weapon.

But we can’t predict the future, so we can’t know for sure whether this deal will be more or less effective at slowing Iran’s path to a bomb than the other options: a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, or rejecting this deal and hoping the world upholds sanctions and a more yielding Iran returns to the negotiating table before it can build a bomb.

We can’t say with certainty which scenario endangers more Israeli lives: approval of the deal, because Iran will use cash from the sanctions easing to bolster Israel’s enemies, or a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities that likely would result in a war between Israel and Iran (and its regional proxies, like Hezbollah), or rejecting the deal and taking the risk that Iran acquires a bomb rather than renegotiates.

Not all issues are like this. Same-sex marriage, health-care reform, abortion laws — these are all ideological issues. But the Iran deal is a practical debate. We all agree on the goal: a secure Israel and a safer world. The question is over which path is more likely to get us there.

It’s easy to say with hindsight that Neville Chamberlain made a disastrous error by appeasing Hitler at Munich in 1938. But historical comparisons are facile. Iran is not Nazi Germany, and this is not 1938. That’s not to say the ayatollah loves Israel or the Jews, but he’s no Hitler. And the Iranian people — who have the lowest rate of anti-Semitic attitudes in the Middle East, according to Anti-Defamation League polling — are no Nazis.

Why is it important to acknowledge the impossibility of knowing which course of action will lead to greater security for Israel and the world? So we can conduct this debate with respect, free of vitriol or ridicule, and without maligning the motives of those who disagree with us.

Consider the following. Those who say the deal will make things worse make several key predictions:

  • Iran will take the windfall it will gain from the easing of sanctions to fuel its proxies in the region: Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Assad regime in Syria and the Houthi rebels in Yemen, to name just a few.
  • The Iranians will cheat on the deal, and the world either will look the other way or respond too slowly or inadequately.
  • Even if the Iranians abide by this deal, they will be able to race to a nuclear weapon once the deal is concluded, and will do so, forever altering the balance of power in the Middle East.

These are all legitimate concerns, and proponents of the deal must account for them. What will the world do to prevent the continued arming of Hezbollah, a terrorist group on Israel’s northern border, by Iran? How will Washington avoid a repeat of the North Korea scenario, where a terrorist regime intent on obtaining the bomb capitalized on the West’s lax implementation of the 1994 nuclear agreement? Even if this agreement freezes Iran’s progress toward a bomb for 10-15 years, what happens then?

Let’s look at the alternatives to the deal:

A better deal

Could the world powers have negotiated a deal that was a little bit better? Maybe. Could they have reached a much better deal, one that would have satisfied critics like the current Israeli prime minister? No way.

It wasn’t just that the deal had to accommodate U.S. demands and Iranian demands. (That’s how negotiations work: America had sanctions in its negotiating arsenal, but the Iranians had their advanced nuclear program in theirs). The deal also had to reflect the demands of the other countries in the talks. By all accounts, Russia and China did not want any limits on conventional arms sales to Iran. Though the deal’s five-year and eight-year limitations on arms sales are far from ideal, they may have been the best compromise possible.

In any case, the ship has sailed. This is the deal the six world powers and Iran negotiated. We can either take it or walk away.

What would happen if America walks away from the deal?

Iran likely would accelerate its nuclear program, as it did the last time negotiations with the Americans ran aground, in 2003. Even if the two sides managed to return to the negotiating table at some point in the future, Iran’s nuclear hand would be even stronger than it is today, just as it is stronger today than it was in 2003. The longer we wait, the more enriched uranium Iran will have.

Moreover, if we walk away now, America would bear the blame for having scuttled the deal. That would put Washington in an extremely poor position to get the rest of the world to tighten the sanctions noose around Iran. On the contrary, Russia and China likely would abandon the arms sanctions, and the limits on Iran would be weaker than they have been for years.

The military option

For some hawks, this is the ideal option for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. But it’s far from clear that it’s a better option than an imperfect deal. For one thing, it’s highly unlikely the United States will attack Iran. Obama is disinclined to do so, and America is still weary from having fought two recent wars in the region, in Iraq and Afghanistan.

If Israel were to attack Iran, several things likely would happen:

  • Incomplete destruction: Some elements of Iran’s nuclear program likely would survive an attack, given the extent to which it is dispersed around the country, the difficulty of penetrating the underground sites where much of Iran’s nuclear material is stored, the nuclear expertise Iran has gained over the years and the possibility that Iran has secret nuclear sites Israel that doesn’t know about. Even Israeli strategic analysts estimate that a strike would set Iran’s nuclear program back only by two to three years — far less time than the duration of this deal.
  • Diplomatic fallout: Without global backing for a military strike, Israel would be seen as the aggressor and isolated diplomatically, and the sanctions regime against Iran likely would fall apart. Within Iran, moderates probably would close ranks behind the regime, making it less likely that Tehran implodes from within.
  • Military reprisals: Iran probably would strike back against Israel, directly and/or through its regional proxies, including Hezbollah. Many Israelis probably would be killed.
  • Nuclear acceleration: A military attack likely would accelerate Iran’s race toward a nuclear weapon. Without sanctions, or with weaker sanctions in place, Iran would have an easier time importing the materials it needs to assemble a bomb. And fresh from the experience of an attack, Iran would have the motive to obtain a nuclear weapon as quickly as possible to deter against future attack.

It may be wishful thinking to hope that this deal is a moderating force on Iran, given its track record. But it’s also wishful thinking to believe that Israel could get a great deal, or that a military strike against Iran is a panacea. There are problems and complications with each of the options.

Take a position on the deal. Lobby Congress one way or the other. Rally. But admit this: You could be wrong.

There’s enough room for both proponents and opponents of the deal to argue that they’re acting in the best interests of Israel, the Jewish people and world peace.

READ: What ‘no deal’ would have meant — and 5 other things to consider now that Iran accord has been struck