Stay the Dogs of War on Iran

We don't know whether relations with Iran will go toward peace or war, but the interim freeze again under negotiations this week holds little risk and much promise. Don't let the hawks on both sides kill it, writes Leslie H. Gelb.

11.18.13 12:32 AM ET

No honest person can know whether the nuclear negotiations with Iran will produce a sound agreement, least of all the know-it-alls who are fighting to prevent it. Maybe, the West will have to further strengthen economic sanctions. Perhaps, Iran will make threatening moves that justify a Western military strike. But the arguments against a full and serious drive to try staying the dogs of war are sheer, dangerous nonsense.

The upside is a short-term deal that would lead to the Mideast equivalent of ending the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The deal could reduce, even sharply, the biggest threat to regional peace, an Iranian nuclear bomb, and open paths to taming dangerous conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. And under the proposed deal, reportedly the only price to be paid for this would be giving Tehran a few billion dollars of its own money. No sanctions would be lifted that could not be quickly reimposed. Almost all of the U.S. sanctions regime would be totally unaffected. Those are the facts that opponents of a deal simply either ignore or lie about.

The downside, failure, is that Iran, Israel, and the United States resume their march toward a terrible war in the Mideast and to the prospect of worldwide terrorist attacks. What a great alternative. And don’t think for a moment that toughening the sanctions would cause the collapse of the Ayatollahs’ regime in Iran. The U.S. has economically squeezed the guts out of North Korea and Cuba, for example. And the last anyone looked, those regimes are still around, thumbing their noses at Washington. Would the naysayers like to go to war against these countries? Ask any of America’s friends and allies if they would join such a venture. Not a chance. Even Israeli military and intelligence officials think such a course makes little sense.

What, then, do the naysayers believe they can practically accomplish by increasing the sanctions and the military threats against Iran? Sure, they’ll insist that the regime in Tehran will either cave to Western pressures or even fall. But those naysayers have neither history nor current reality on their side. Iran is nowhere near the economic hardships of Cuba, North Korea, or the tottering Soviet Union of the 1990’s. Iran is nowhere near surrender. The naysayers can’t be that self-delusional. Most likely, they simply want to please right-wing Israelis, Saudi autocrats, and make President Obama look weak. Why do you think France (yes, France) has gotten so tough in the nuclear talks? Is there any chance whatsoever of Paris actually standing up to the consequences of a war with Iran? Not on your life. More plausibly, Paris is simply interested in pleasing those very same Saudi autocrats who have now become sanctified by buying shiploads of French arms. Ah, money does inspire toughness.

Of course, the pact under discussion with Tehran won’t solve every nuclear problem to our satisfaction. But what negotiation can the naysayers cite, in modern times, that has ever been an outright capitulation? Is there any chance Tehran will abandon its “right” to enrich uranium? Not a chance. And everyone knows that; everyone. While I don’t like the clerical dictators in Tehran one bit, I can understand how they might feel threatened by Israel and the West. (And yes, I think they brought this on themselves, but here we all are.)

The Obama administration has brought much of the political grief about these negotiations upon itself, as usual. They pretty much destroyed their foreign policy credibility with their Syria policy blunders. With Iran, they have failed to plainly and simply explain how the pact they’re pursuing will benefit the West. It’s not enough, not nearly enough, to assert that the U.S. would rather have “no agreement than a bad agreement.” What’s good or bad? Explain it, for heaven’s sake. While the temporary agreement under discussion now is far from perfect, it reportedly does do two critical things: first, by attempting to freeze most of Iran’s nuclear activities, it would lengthen the time for Tehran to “break out” with a nuclear weapon; second, it would increase the time for the U.S. and its allies to react to trouble. And the U.S. gives up only trifling sanctions in return. What on earth is wrong with that?

Most of Iran’s nuclear weapons related programs would be on hold. And of equal importance, international inspectors—already on the scene and reporting—would have wide and better access to programs the U.S. needs to know about. And during the proposed six month freeze on Iran’s nuclear weapons-related programs, the West can seriously explore a more comprehensive and permanent agreement. Again, what on earth is wrong with that?

President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry deserve lots of praise—and support—for plowing on with the talks in Geneva in the face of the baloney typhoon. And the media, as usual, hasn’t helped. They rarely explain how very little the U.S. and its partners would be giving away in return for the chance to revolutionize the diplomatic alignment in the Mideast. It should be clear to all, save the ideologically and politically impaired, that President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif are as close as the West is going to come to genuine negotiating partners. It should be equally apparent that they’re on a short leash as well—and that they need something of value to appease their hawks.

Courage Messrs Obama, Kerry, Rouhani, and Zarif. Make this agreement and defy the hawks’ fight to kill it, and its possibilities.