Home/Daniel Larison/The Illusion of a “Better Deal” with Iran

The Illusion of a “Better Deal” with Iran

Peggy Noonan wants to have her criticism of administration foreign policy both ways:

He has a visceral and understandable reluctance to extend and overextend U.S. power, but where that power has been absent, violence and instability have filled the void. When he overcomes his reluctance to get involved, he picks the wrong place [bold mine-DL], such as Libya, where the tyrant we toppled was better than many of those attempting to take his place.

Six years ago, it might have been possible to pretend that Obama had a “visceral” reluctance to exercise U.S. power, but his record shows us that this isn’t true. Since becoming president, he has started two wars, escalated another, very nearly started one in Syria in 2013, and has just started backing a fourth in Yemen, and those are just the most egregious examples that prove Noonan wrong. The U.S. under Obama has contributed more than its fair share to the world’s violence and instability, but even this hasn’t been enough to satisfy hawkish critics. Libya is a good example of a place that was wrecked because the U.S. and its allies wanted to use their power for regime change. If this was the “wrong place,” as Noonan says, what does she think the “right” one would have been? Shouldn’t the Libyan war and its aftermath make us glad that Obama hasn’t been even more of an activist abroad when he is liable to select the “wrong place” to intervene? Noonan wants to argue that Obama is wrong when he intervenes and when he doesn’t, and that makes no sense except as a reflexive partisan objection to everything he does.

Noonan’s complaint about the nuclear deal doesn’t many sense, either. She worries about a “bad deal” that will only “slow the deadly project, not end it.” Anything that does slow the development of Iran’s nuclear program would be an improvement over the old status quo, and under the framework agreed this week the program will be put under more significant restrictions than it has had before. Like many Iran hawks, Noonan is annoyed that the administration has not achieved the impossible goal of “ending” the entire program. Noonan is making it sound as if “ending” Iran’s entire nuclear program could be achieved through greater “political pressure through increased economic sanctions.” We have every reason to believe that this wouldn’t happen. This is the path that was pursued for a decade when the previous administration refused to make a deal on much more favorable terms. Besides, ratcheting up economic pressure takes for granted that this would make Iran capitulate, and it assumes that international support for stricter sanctions would continue indefinitely. Neither assumption is valid. We know from the North Korean example that the opposite reaction to greater pressure is more likely, and there is every reason to think that most of Iran’s trading partners are eager to get back to doing business as usual.

She thinks that Obama should have had the negotiators walk away from the talks at the deadline on Tuesday. That would have prevented the framework agreement from being reached, and that would presumably have led to the end of the JPOA that has been successfully restricting Iran’s nuclear program over the last year and a half. The U.S. would have been widely blamed for the collapse of the talks, and international support for Iran sanctions would have quickly evaporated soon thereafter. Most of our allies in Europe would have been appalled. The only people that would have been “relieved” are hard-liners here, in Israel, and in Iran that thrive on keeping tensions with Iran as high as possible. This is her alternative: “In the end he should toughen the sanctions and wait out the mullahs.” The U.S. could impose stricter sanctions and try to cajole other countries to cooperate, but if the U.S. had just walked away from the negotiations there wouldn’t be many governments willing to comply. I’m not sure what she thinks will happen by “waiting out” the Iranian regime. What exactly is she waiting for? Instead of a potentially verifiable agreement backed by all of the world’s major powers, Noonan proposes that the U.S. should just keep applying sanctions and hoping for the best. In other words, she wants the U.S. to resume a policy that has already completely failed.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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