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How Strong Is the Realist Case Against the Iran Deal?

Kissinger and Shultz's op-ed give us an opportunity to examine it.

The Kissinger/Shultz piece from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal makes the best case I’ve seen yet against making a deal with Iran – one that doesn’t rely on apocalyptic rhetoric or fantasies about the efficacy of alternative approaches, and that traffics exclusively in terms that realists accept. The piece doesn’t actually say it’s against the deal, but the tone is consistently one that suggests this is a bad deal that will have negative consequences. How strong is the case?

The argument has four parts:

  • Verification of compliance will be complicated by the diversity and scope of the permitted facilities, to say nothing of the size and sophistication of the country as a whole.
  • Enforcement will be made extremely difficult first by the fact that violations will rarely be clear-cut and then by the fact that assembling a coalition to reimpose sanctions, particularly in the case of disputable of ambiguous violations, will be much more difficult than assembling the initial coalition was.
  • Even under the terms of the agreement, Iran could establish itself as a nuclear threshold state after a decade without material violation.
  • Saudi Arabia and some other American allies in the region may well view the deal as a sign either of an American tilt toward Iran or, at least, of American acquiescence in Iranian hegemony; either could lead them to pursue alliances with rival powers or to seek to go nuclear themselves.

As a supporter of a deal with Iran, I have to say that I think advocates of the deal on the table too often fail to acknowledge the difficulties of verification and enforcement when making their case. Nonetheless, the we have to consider what the alternatives might be to the deal on the table, either diplomatic or not. In that regard, a diplomatic alternative would only be superior on the first and third points – the difficulty of verification and the question of whether the deal goes far enough in limiting Iran’s program even if scrupulously complied with – if it achieved more dramatic concessions from Iran to substantially reduce or even eliminate their nuclear program. To achieve those, America would have to have the leverage to extract those concessions.

But the second point – that enforcement will be difficult because the currently-assembled coalition will not be eager to restore sanctions even in the face of Iranian violations – implies pretty clearly that we do not have that leverage. After all, to turn the screws tighter on Iran now would require international support – and if that support would not be there in the future in the face of Iranian violations of the agreement, it certainly would not be there today if America were the one to refuse to take yes for an answer.

That doesn’t mean these points are invalid. But this could conceivably be a deal that effectively blesses Iran’s status as a nuclear threshold state while also being the best deal we could plausibly get from our strongest diplomatic position, with much of the world united behind sanctions that have real bite. That would be a reasonable conclusion if many of the other powers who would need to be supportive of any effort to put effective pressure on Iran – China, Russia, Germany, etc. – are less troubled by the prospect of Iran as a nuclear threshold state than we are.

This leads to the final point, that the deal with Iran would lead Saudi Arabia and possibly other regional allies to doubt America’s commitment to their defense and either seek other partners or to go nuclear themselves. In effect, Kissinger and Shultz are saying we should take these allies’ interests into greater account than those of other powers on whom we depend for leverage to pressure Iran effectively. While larger and more important powers outside the region are less-interested (or outright uninterested) in continuing a confrontational policy towards Tehran, many of our regional allies and clients would welcome a continuing of confrontation – possibly because they fear an Iranian threat, possibly because they fear losing the leverage they currently have over American policy were the confrontational policy towards Iran to be dropped, likely for both reasons.

But do they really have substantial other options? What other power is going to provide for Saudi Arabia’s defense? China simply doesn’t have the capability to do so. Russia is an oil-exporting state with no substantial common interests. And suppose, for the sake of argument, that there was an uprising in the Saudi oil region (which is majority-Shiite), comparable to the Shiite uprising in Yemen, and when the Saudis tried to crush said uprising (as Bahrain crushed a similar uprising in that country), Iran intervened, counting on a nuclear shield to keep outside powers from retaliating against them directly. Which other power would take that risk if the United States was unwilling to do so?

As for the prospect of Saudi nuclearization: that is indeed a distressing prospect. But if two wars against regional rival Iraq and active support for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen are not enough to convince Saudi Arabia that we will not tolerate a foreign power seizing control of the oil region, then I’m really not sure there’s anything that would be sufficient. We can’t put ourselves in a position where our regional policy is held hostage to our allies’ threats to go nuclear if we don’t initiate preventative wars against rival powers, or at a minimum maintain a hostile posture against interest.

Kissinger and Shultz spend no time at all on the possible alternatives to diplomacy. Nobody I find credible has made a case for preventative military action that is remotely persuasive to me – it might well fail in the short term, to say nothing of the long term; it would certainly lead to extremely negative consequences for our relations with a host of states, and would essentially shred what is left of formal international restraints on the use of force; and it might well lead to a completely unnecessary large-scale war. If this is a case for military action – which I don’t think it is – it is thoroughly inadequate.

But that does leave the option of simply giving up on the idea of restraining Iran through diplomacy, but opting to remain hostile anyway.

This would seem to be ruled out by the article’s concluding peroration:

If the world is to be spared even worse turmoil, the U.S. must develop a strategic doctrine for the region. Stability requires an active American role. For Iran to be a valuable member of the international community, the prerequisite is that it accepts restraint on its ability to destabilize the Middle East and challenge the broader international order.

Until clarity on an American strategic political concept is reached, the projected nuclear agreement will reinforce, not resolve, the world’s challenges in the region. Rather than enabling American disengagement from the Middle East, the nuclear framework is more likely to necessitate deepening involvement there—on complex new terms. History will not do our work for us; it helps only those who seek to help themselves.

Continuing the hostile policy of the past generation would hardly seem to be a “new strategic political doctrine” but I wonder. It’s telling that Kissinger and Shultz don’t give a single clue what that doctrine might be. The more I look at the case Kissinger and Shultz make, the more I wonder whether in the background, the second-best-case scenario (best case being total Iranian capitulation at the bargaining table) isn’t simply staying the course with a policy of hostility, even if it ultimately failed to prevent Iranian nuclearization. [UPDATE: I mean the second-best-case scenario from Shultz and Kissinger’s perspective, not mine. As noted at the top, I favor the deal with Iran. Just making that clear.]

It’s worth contemplating why that might be, but I’m going to save that for another post.



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