Debunking the Fantasies of Iran Hawks
Michael Oren claims to be debunking “myths” about the nuclear deal, but as far as I can tell these are just things he has made up or misrepresented for the purpose of writing this article. Take the first “illusion” that he challenges:
The first of these falsehoods is that Iran could somehow be bought. In return for sanctions relief, followed by tens of billions of dollars in international contracts, the Islamic Republic, the assumption went, would abandon its commitment to extending Shiite hegemony.
Oren doesn’t cite anyone making this argument, because no one inside the Obama administration or anywhere else claimed that sanctions relief would change Iran’s foreign policy in the slightest. There may have been some hopes that U.S.-Iranian relations would improve as a result of the deal, and that this might lead to a reduction in tensions, but no one so much as suggested that trading sanctions relief for restrictions on their nuclear program would have any effect on Iran’s other behavior. Indeed, many nuclear deal supporters emphasized that concluding the deal was important because Iran’s other behavior in the region would continue no matter what. In other words, one of the main arguments that proponents of the deal made is the exact opposite of what Oren is saying here.
The second “myth” isn’t a myth at all. Oren just doesn’t like the reality:
This gives rise to the second myth: that the nuclear deal must be maintained because Iran is honoring its terms. This was precisely the fear of Arabs and Israelis—not that Iran would violate the agreement, but rather that Iran would uphold it. And why not? The deal enriched Iran financially while recognizing its right to enrich uranium.
Opponents of the nuclear deal don’t like the JCPOA because it involved a compromise on enrichment. Mind you, there was no chance of securing any deal if the P5+1 didn’t bend on this point. Zero enrichment was a non-starter for a decade, and it will be a non-starter now and in the future. Of all the dumb complaints about the deal from Iran hawks, the whining that the deal must be bad because Iran was adhering to it has to be the worst. For years, opponents of the negotiations warned that Iran would cheat and could never be trusted to remain within the limits set down by any agreement. It was only later, after Iran proved that it would comply, that they started using this other attack that Iranian compliance was proof that the deal must be awful. Oren does not acknowledge that Iran’s nuclear program would be under none of its current restrictions (except the limits set by the NPT) if there were no nuclear deal, and in the end that is what critics of the deal are arguing for when they push for the deal’s collapse. Iran hawks moan about “sunset clauses” and other supposed “flaws,” and their solution is to wreck the existing agreement and replace it with nothing. Obviously nonproliferation is not and never has been their real concern.
Oren’s final “myth” doesn’t exist, either:
The last and most pernicious myth is that the only alternative to the JCPOA is war.
The Obama administration did sell the JCPOA by talking about the potential for another war if there were no deal. That is not because war was the “only alternative,” but because the likelihood of war increased as Iran’s nuclear program continued to advance. That is mainly because Iran hawks here and in Israel were agitating for military action against Iran for years, and the nuclear issue provided them with their pretext for launching an attack. Some supporters of the deal warned that the JCPOA’s detractors wanted war because many of them did, and they could see that limiting Iran’s nuclear program was the best way to address the proliferation concern peacefully while removing any excuse for starting a new war. War isn’t the “only alternative” if the deal collapses, but if Iran hawks get their way it is one of the most likely alternatives.
So Oren is 0 for 3 in debunking “myths” about the JCPOA. The first one never existed, the second one isn’t a myth, and the third is a distortion of what supporters of the deal said. He then gets busy conjuring up some myths of his own:
Only when confronted with the choice between pursuing their aggression and risking economic ruin, threatening global security and facing armed action, will Iranian rulers forfeit their nuclear program and their dreams of empire.
Oren thinks that if Iran is sanctioned and threatened enough that it will capitulate, and this is based on some very shoddy assumptions. He thinks that their government can be compelled to “forfeit their nuclear program” in its entirety when they have demonstrated over the last two decades that no amount of pressure will get them to do that. When they are pressured to make even deeper concessions, their response has been to push back. As for “dreams of empire,” those don’t really exist, either. Oren is referring here to Iran’s regional support for its allies and proxies, and their government isn’t going to give that up because they consider these relationships to be important for their own security. Just like the Trump administration, Oren is seeking goals that can’t be achieved. If the U.S. continues pursuing those goals, it is likely to lead to war and to the collapse of the nuclear deal. Because Iran hawks refuse to take yes for an answer, and because they insist on an all-or-nothing approach with Iran, they are going to end up with nothing but conflict. One has to assume that is what many of them have wanted all along.