The True Reason Republicans Oppose the Iran Nuclear Deal
October 15, 2017
President Trump, like many Republicans, has repeatedly referred to the Iran nuclear accord as a “very bad deal.” It was therefore unsurprising when, on October 13th, Trump decertified the deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In doing so, Trump echoed common criticisms of the deal: That it allows Iran to continue developing its ballistic missile capabilities; that it unleashed billions of dollars to the Iranian regime that it can use to finance terror; and that key limitations on Iran’s nuclear program will expire in under a decade. Such points indeed warrant debate. But to truly understand Republican skepticism of the accord, one must look deeper. Such skepticism is fundamentally rooted in Conservatives’ ideological animosity towards the Islamic Republic. And stemming from such contempt are three critical assumptions: That Iran is determined to acquire nuclear weapons; that it intends to use those weapons against Israel; and that its nuclear program can be stopped entirely through sanctions and/or military action. If any or all of these assertions were true, then much of Republicans’ concerns would be justified. But therein lays the problem. Such assumptions are at best problematic and at worst baseless. As such, Republican hostility towards the deal is both misguided and dangerous.
Let’s start with the first assumption: That Iran has made up its mind to acquire nuclear weapons, and is determined to do so. To be sure, this contention is based on an important truth. While Iran maintains that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, the international community has reacted with skepticism, and for good reason. Iran has built secret facilities, evaded inspections, and conducted research related to nuclear weapons, thereby casting doubt on its professedly peaceful intentions. Nonetheless, there is no conclusive evidence that Iran actually intends to build nuclear weapons. Rather, it is most likely it has not made up its mind. Top officials and intelligence agencies – including the CIA and Israel’s Mossad – instead conclude that Iran probably desires to become a nuclear threshold state. In other words, it seeks the capability to break out into nuclear weapons capabilities in a short period of time, should it ever decide. While indeed concerning, it is an important distinction. If it were true that Iran was hell bent on obtaining nukes, then, as Republicans assert, the nuclear deal wouldn’t be of much use. After the constraints on its nuclear program expire, Iran would merely resume its enrichment program, this time with advanced ballistic missiles and possibly nuclear warhead technology. But that is not the case. Since it has not made up its mind to acquire nukes, it means that Iran can be compelled not to. It means that Iran is susceptible to pressure and cost-benefit calculations, and to diplomacy, negotiation, and political climate. That is the logic behind the JCPOA and its sunset clauses. After the nuclear restrictions expire, Iran, enjoying its newfound prosperity and international engagement, might conclude that the costs of revamping its nuclear program are too high. Or, at the very least, it may decide against actually pursuing nuclear weapons for the same reason. Additionally, the Obama Administration concluded that the agreement and its subsequent economic and political benefits would empower the moderates in Iran, who are more willing to engage with the West. To be clear, the deal was indeed a gamble. Such outcomes are uncertain, and look more uncertain by the day, given the current political context. But it is nonetheless a real possibility which, when weighed against the dismal alternatives to the JCPOA, provides the best realistic solution to the Iran nuclear conundrum.
Now, let’s assume for a minute that Republicans are right – that Iran is hell bent on making nukes. Because it is this assumption on which another right-wing contention rests: That Iran intends on using nuclear weapons against Israel. This, again, stems from Republicans’ deep ideological animosity towards the Iranian regime. It is based on the belief that Iran’s radical religious views render it irrational. Were this true, the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran would indeed be all the more alarming, and the costs of attempting to stop it through military action would seem insignificant by comparison. This assumption, however, is largely baseless. It stems partly from the regime’s repeated insistence on the destruction of Israel. There is no doubt that the Islamic Republic despises Israel, and when it says it intends to destroy Israel, it probably means it. But to say that it intends on destroying Israel by nuking it is a different matter entirely, and one for which there is no evidence. Nor does it necessarily mean that destroying Israel implies the physical annihilation of Israel and its people. Iran has never shown any appetite or intention to implement such an operation, let alone with nuclear weapons. So what does Iran mean by the “destruction of Israel?” Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, published a 9-point plan with explicit steps to eliminate Israel. While Khamenei does call for armed resistance, there is no mention of nuclear weapons or anything of the sort. To the contrary, Khamenei explicitly calls for only the elimination of the Israeli state, which “does not mean the massacre of the Jewish people.” Khamenei’s plan, however unrealistic, is neither irrational nor genocidal. Moreover, much of the perception that Iran is irrational is due to one man: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The former Iranian president regularly predicted that an apocalyptic war between believers and heretics was near, amid which the “Hidden Imam” would return. Conservatives have cited such claims as evidence that Iran’s calculus is based on outlandish religious beliefs, rather than rational, cost-benefit calculations. One problem with this is that Ahmadinejad is largely alone in his beliefs. Throughout his presidency, the bellicose politician was roundly criticized by regime officials and clerics for his “sorcery” and mystical rhetoric. There is little evidence to suggest that the regime as a whole, much less the Supreme Leader, shares Ahmadinejad’s fantastical beliefs. Even if that was the case, to say that because the regime harbors apocalyptic beliefs, it therefore intends to use nuclear weapons would be quite the logical leap and mere conjecture. Contrary to Republican claims, Iran’s foreign policy is rational and pragmatic. Tehran has demonstrated no intention of taking such an unthinkable action – let alone one that would result in the destruction of Palestine and Iran itself.
That brings us to our third Republican assumption: That the continuation of sanctions would have resulted in a better deal. What would such an agreement look like? According to Republicans, a good deal would have resulted in the complete and permanent dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear enrichment and ballistic missile programs. If this were a realistic possibility, then indeed it would be preferable. But there is little evidence to support that this would ever happen. There are two important points to consider. The first is that the sanctions regime credited with bringing Iran to the negotiating table was effective because it was a concerted multinational effort. Unlike the US, the other nations participating in the sanctions had extensive economic ties with Iran, and had little appetite for extending the sanctions indefinitely. Meanwhile, as the negotiations dragged on, Iran was rapidly drawing closer to developing nuclear weapons capabilities. If the US had postponed making a deal in pursuit of a better outcome, it is likely that the sanctions regime would have faltered and Iran would have continued its nuclear progress unabated. By reaching an agreement, the Obama Administration seized what was a narrow window of opportunity. Even if Iran would have been willing to make greater concessions, there was simply not enough time. The second point is that although sanctions can be effective, there are limitations to what they can achieve. The decisions of governments and the people that support them are influenced by more than just economics. They are also affectedby the desire for dignity. Nations need to feel respected, and politicians need to save face. One who does not allow for this will have little success in negotiations. And that is a critical point in the context of Iran. Its nuclear program is about more than just electricity or weapons. It is a source of national pride. In a country divided among hardliners and moderates, among Persians and ethnic minorities, there is near unanimous support for its nuclear program. According to a survey by Zogby International, 96 percent of Iranians believe that maintaining the country’s enrichment rights were worth the costs of sanctions. Likewise, regime officials have repeatedly asserted that Iran will never capitulate on its right to enrich uranium and produce ballistic missiles. There is little reason to think otherwise. While the JCPOA placed considerable constraints on Iran’s nuclear program, it still left Iran with limited enrichment capacity. This allowed Iran’s moderates to get the hardliners on board, and allowed the regime to sell the deal to the Iranian people. Had this not been the case, there would never have been an agreement, and Iran would have been free to build its nuclear capabilities, sanctions or not. All things considered, to eschew the JCPOA in search of a better outcome would have made little sense, and it makes even less sense now that the deal is firmly in place. Even many staunch critics of the deal seem to have little appetite for abrogating it. Then there are, of course, Republicans who have suggested regime change or airstrikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities. As usual, such proposals are made with little consideration of their potentially disastrous consequences. Regime change is usually ineffective, and is certainly unlikely to work in the context of Iran. Arguments to the contrary are weak and reminiscent of the mindset that has led to devastating wars in the past. Likewise, bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities would merely set its capabilities back a few years (assuming the operation would be successful at all), while at the same time strengthening Iran’s hardliners, reaffirming its need for a nuclear deterrent, and further destroying America’s global image. The costs of such an operation would be exceedingly high, and its objectives would go unfulfilled.
However imperfect the JCPOA may be, perhaps its greatest advantage is the absence of a viable alternative. And it is Republicans’ inability to provide such an alternative that renders their opposition untenable. Like most Republican foreign policy positions, their distaste for the JCPOA is rooted in their misguided worldview. They believe that coercion is the only effective means of dealing with adversaries, while diplomacy, negotiation, and other soft means of projecting power are dismissed as weakness. It is a worldview that overstates the utility of sanctions and military action while understating the consequences. It is one that modern history shows to be futile. Republicans should heed the warnings of generals and intelligence officials, both American and Israeli, and those of US allies, all of whom caution against abandoning the Iran nuclear deal. The last thing the US needs is another nuclear-armed adversary and another disastrous war in the Middle East. The JCPOA is America’s best hope for avoiding such outcomes.