Last week, I examined what I considered to be one of the best realist cases against the deal with Iran, penned by former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz. Today, I’m going to look at the realist case for the deal, ably made by Stephen M. Walt.

His case has four parts:

  • The details of the nuclear deal don’t really matter. Iran could have gone nuclear already if it really wanted to; perhaps it doesn’t really want to for a variety of rational reasons. And if Iran did go nuclear, that wouldn’t be a disaster. The deal is important because it ends Iran’s isolation, which makes it possible for America to engage in a normal, businesslike manner, and not because it solves the problem of Iran’s nuclear program.
  • An Iran re-integrated into the international community would be the strongest single state in the region – which is why it makes America’s allies nervous – but would not become a regional hegemon or a serious problem for the United States. Why? Because most of the surrounding states distrust Iran for ethno-religious and historical reasons, and so will not engage in bandwagoning; and because the United States is still so overwhelmingly powerful that Iran could be readily deterred if it tried to pursue a truly hegemonic role (and, particularly, control of the region’s oil).
  • Moreover, better relations with Iran would be expected to change its foreign policy as maintaining good relations became more important. And cultural and economic interaction could change Iran internally as well.
  • Finally, the “deal or no deal” choice is false because we do not actually have the option of keeping the pressure on; in the absence of a deal, Russia, China, India and much of Europe will abandon the cause of isolating Iran, and it is America that will wind up isolated on the issue.

What’s most interesting to me about Walt’s case for the deal is on how few points it disagrees with Kissinger and Shultz’s case against it.

Much of Kissinger and Shultz’s case consisted of arguments that the nuclear deal does not adequately restrain Iran’s nuclear program. Walt doesn’t dispute any of this; he says it doesn’t matter. Kissinger and Shultz argued that enforcement would be difficult because other powers won’t want to restore sanctions. I pointed out in my post that this completely undermined any argument for continuing sanctions in order to get a “better deal.” Walt makes the same point but also argues that Iran is the one that will not want to risk poisoning improved relations by violating a deal. But the point is: both sides apparently agree that the rest of the world is not so interested in pressuring Iran further.

The rest of Kissinger and Shultz’s argument revolved around the reaction within the region. Saudi Arabia, Israel and the smaller Gulf states are unhappy about the deal because it will make Iran stronger, and they fear a stronger Iran. Walt doesn’t dispute this. Kissinger and Shultz point out that if America is trying to engage in “offshore balancing” that we should be allying with Iran’s opponents rather than cozying up to Iran, since Iran is already the most powerful player. Walt simply argues that Iran is a long way from being able to dominate the region, and that we have plenty of time to engage in that kind of balancing if it tries to behave like a hegemon. But they agree that our regional allies are pretty much all opposed to the deal.

Kissinger and Shultz worry about Saudi Arabia going nuclear or seeking other partners. I pointed out that there aren’t really any other available partners that could remotely approximate America’s capabilities. Walt makes a similar point by noting that there are no other superpowers capable of projecting power into the region, which should make us less-worried about possible Iranian adventurism. But neither of us have a good answer to the risk of Saudi nuclear proliferation that an Iranian nuclear breakout could lead to (other than Walt’s point that that risk is a good reason for Iran not to cross the threshold).

So as I say: there’s a whole lot more agreement here than disagreement. Kissinger and Shultz don’t have any better idea of how to prevent Iran going nuclear than the deal they criticize, and Walt doesn’t offer any reassurance that the deal will work – it’ll work if Iran doesn’t really want a bomb, and it’ll fail if it really does. And there’s broad agreement as well on how our regional allies will react.

The real disagreements boil down to two basic points:

  • Do you believe Iran is a radical, revisionist power or an opportunistic but basically conservative one? By the former, I do not mean a suicidal regime in thrall to a messianic religious apocalypse. I simply mean a regime whose legitimacy is tied to an agenda of overturning the regional order as it stands, rather than maximizing its national power within that order.
  • Do you believe that America’s regional allies, like Israel and Saudi Arabia, have too much leverage over American policy, and that we should seek to make them recognize that they need to court our support rather than taking it for granted; or do we need to reassure them of our complete support in order to maintain the leverage we want over their behavior?

If you believe that Iran is a radical, revisionist power and that this will not change absent a change of regime, and that we need to cleave to Israel and Saudi Arabia for fear that, if we don’t, they will go off the reservation, then we should never have tried to get a deal with Iran in the first place. That implies that we would also never have assembled the current diplomatic coalition, and that Iran’s nuclear program would proceed largely unconstrained. The case for preventative war to stop Iran from acquiring a bomb simply has not been made (and I don’t think can be made honestly). This is the case for maintaining a hostile posture even at the risk that the result is the failure of the nonproliferation effort.

If, on the other hand, you believe either that Iran is not so radical, but largely opportunistic in its efforts to enhance its national power, and that America’s regional allies don’t have realistic alternatives to an American alignment, and so we don’t need to cater to them quite so thoroughly, then we should sign this deal even if the result is to bless Iran’s status as a nuclear threshold state.

Where do I stand on these two questions?

On the first question, I tend to split the difference. That is to say: I really don’t think the Iranian regime could survive a realignment to truly normal relations with America. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worth pursuing – just that I think it’s much more likely Iran will seek opportunities for limited conflict because it needs America as an enemy. (This “conservative of enemies” dynamic may be in play within America as well, by the way.)

Moreover, I think virtually all the major players in the Middle East today are revisionist to some extent; there are precious few status quo powers. (Jordan is probably the best candidate for the title.) Iran has actively destabilized Lebanon and may be doing the same in Yemen in order to expand its influence. But Saudi Arabia is actively destabilizing Syria and Iraq in an effort to limit Iranian influence. Pakistan regularly meddles in Afghanistan to support the Taliban. And the United States, of course, took an aggressively revisionist course under the Bush Administration with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and has to some extent continued that policy under President Obama with the invasion of Libya. There isn’t really a stable status quo in the Middle East to preserve; that’s one reason why the region is in the news so much.

So I don’t think Iran is uniquely evil or destructive, but I also don’t think we should be pollyanna about the nature of the Iranian regime or its likely course of action after a nuclear deal. Indeed, I would expect Iran to challenge the status quo in some noticeable way almost immediately after a deal, if only to placate its own hard-liners. And I would expect our hard-liners to seize on such actions as evidence that Iran cannot be trusted.

But on the second question I side with Walt. There is something perverse about saying that we should not conclude a deal to restrain Iran’s nuclear program for fear that Saudi Arabia will initiate a nuclear program in response. America can’t let itself be held hostage in that manner. That doesn’t mean I have a ready answer to the question, “how would you prevent Saudi Arabia from going nuclear with Pakistan’s help” – but I’m pretty sure “remain hostile to Iran forever” is not the answer.

Finally, I don’t agree with Walt that the details of the nuclear deal itself don’t matter. I think they do matter – that we really should be trying to prevent Iranian proliferation, even if the question isn’t an existential one (which it isn’t). It’s clear to me that scuttling the deal at this point will leave Iran’s program unconstrained, so in that sense a deal is obviously preferable. But of course we want the best deal possible – and to get the best deal possible, you have to be willing to walk away at some point without a deal. That’s just negotiation 101.

There’s one more question worth mentioning that neither Walt nor Kissinger and Shultz pay much attention to, and it also, to my mind, militates in favor of a deal. And that is: what the consequences of failure in either case?

If the United States signs the deal with Iran, and Iran continues to pursue nuclear weapons by some combination of overt (permitted) and covert (not permitted) means, and ultimately abrogates the deal and declares themselves a nuclear state, that will be a huge failure. Walt says that an Iranian bomb wouldn’t actually be a big problem – but it would be a huge failure of nonproliferation in the context described, with profound consequences for the confidence any other international actors might have in the nonproliferation regime.

But refusing to sign the deal on the table, and a subsequent successful Iranian march to the bomb, would be an even bigger failure, a declaration by the United States that it is incapable of taking yes for an answer and is devoted to the cause of hostility to Iran more than to achieving any concrete ends. And, as I’ve said several times, preventative war is completely unjustified and would be a disaster.

To my mind, it’s clear that the first risk – the risk of a deal that fails or is abandoned by Iran – is one worth taking if the United States has any interest in maintaining an international system characterized by cooperation on common security problems. But it is worth noting in passing that the risk of failure is one argument for never trying in the first place. And I think that’s one not-fully-articulated reason why Kissinger and Shultz argued for scuttling the deal even though they have no real backup plan.