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Iran Hawks and the Logic of Arms Control

Most hawks have never seen an arms control or nonproliferation agreement that they haven't wanted to derail or defeat.

Steven Metz charges that opponents of the nuclear deal framework have forgotten the logic of arms control agreements:

What these critics fail to understand is that an agreement on Iran’s nuclear weapons program is not an endorsement of the Iranian regime or its policies. They also fail to understand that no nation will undertake arms control unless it feels that it can do so and remain secure. Instead, they treat Iran’s insecurity as illegitimate and unjustified, even as they stoke it with talk of regime change and armed intervention.

For arms control to work, there must be a working agreement among Americans that however distasteful it is to cooperate with a regime like Iran’s, doing so is less dangerous than the risk of confrontation escalating into conflict.

The logic to which Metz refers is this: “the more hostile and dangerous an opponent, the more important arms control becomes.” Opponents of a deal have focused most of their attacks on the alleged inadequacy of the limitations it placed on Iran, but that line of attack hasn’t worked very well because it has forced the hawks to argue for their own inadequate means (more pressure through sanctions) to pursue an impossible goal (the nuclear program’s complete elimination). That in turn has forced many Iran hawks to try to change the subject to Iran’s regional behavior or some other aspect of the regime that the negotiations were never intended to address and couldn’t possibly solve. I have called this “hawkish whataboutism” because like other forms of whataboutism it is an attempt to avoid debating a particular policy or issue on the merits.

Metz makes many very good points, but these critics have not really “forgotten” the logic of arms control. It would be more accurate to say that they have never accepted that logic. Indeed, most of them have never seen an arms control or nonproliferation agreement that they haven’t wanted to derail or defeat. We saw that in the vehement hawkish opposition to New START a few years ago, and that was over the renewal of an earlier arms reduction treaty that one would have thought had become completely uncontroversial. These critics are ideologically opposed to making diplomatic compromises of any kind with regimes like the one in Iran. They are the political descendants or, in some cases, the very same people that accused Reagan of appeasement when he pursued arms control agreements with the Soviets. Past warnings about these agreements have been repeatedly discredited over time, but that doesn’t stop them from being recycled in the next debate.

First, the hawks fault any deal for being too weak regardless of its content. This includes familiar accusations of “caving” to the other side and getting nothing in return, warnings that the verification/inspections regime is not thorough enough (conveniently ignoring that they would be content to have no deal and therefore no verification measures at all), and the all-purpose claim that the other side will inevitably cheat anyway. If that doesn’t seem to be working, they try to delegitimize diplomatic engagement by citing other genuinely harmful or unwelcome things the regime does elsewhere. Having failed to persuade anyone that the agreement is lacking in itself, critics want to make it as politically difficult as possible for elected officials to support it by treating support as an endorsement of the other regime. Metz is absolutely right that negotiating a deal to restrict Iran’s nuclear program shouldn’t be seen this way, but the critics hope to weigh down the agreement by doing just that. It’s true that it doesn’t make much sense for Iran hawks to oppose a deal that constrains Iran’s nuclear program, but then they have been judging the results of diplomacy against an unreasonable standard from the beginning. This guarantees that any deal that could plausibly be reached would fall short of the total Iranian capitulation that they have insisted on as the minimum for what constitutes a “good” deal. Tacking on additional conditions related to other issues just takes that insistence on capitulation to an extreme.

Metz writes at the beginning of his column one major reason for opposition to a nuclear deal is that “the American public and its elected representatives no longer understand the complex and often counterintuitive logic of arms control.” That may be true of many elected officials, but it is generally not true of the public. Insofar as the public pays attention to arms control and nonproliferation arguments, there is typically strong majority support for their goals and for the diplomacy needed to achieve them. There may not be any popular enthusiasm for these agreements, but most Americans have no strong objections to making them. Whether or not most Americans fully understand the logic Metz mentions, most don’t reject it.

Unfortunately, while support for these agreements may be broad, it is not especially intense, nor does it seem to be a high priority for most voters or donors. Opponents of these agreements are greatly overrepresented in Congress, and this is most obvious among Republicans. According to one of the most recent surveys on this question, as many Republicans nationally support a deal with Iran as oppose one. Even though less than one third of Republicans across the country are against a deal, all of the incentives inside the party keep driving its elected members to reject such agreements. Getting politicians to reject a deal is a very high priority for the activists and ideologues in the party that want the talks to fail, and for the most part it is not nearly as important to the deal’s supporters. That is why there is almost universal hostility to any deal among elected GOP officials and the party’s 2016 candidates, who are catering to the pundits and donors that will definitely hold support for a deal against them.



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