Look At It This Way: The Interim Agreement With Iran

— by Steve Sheffey

The interim agreement with Iran is not the final agreement and shouldn’t be judged as such; its purpose is to buy time. Increased sanctions won’t stop Iran. Military action could delay Iran and might stop Iran, but at an uncertain cost.

The diplomatic solution made possible by the interim agreement would be the best solution, but we may have no choice but to take military action. Attempting diplomacy through the interim agreement will increase the likelihood that tougher sanctions can be put in place and that military action will succeed, should either alternative become necessary.

Details after the jump.
If this interim agreement doesn’t work, the only option left will be military action. That’s why President Obama has repeatedly emphasized that the military option is on the table. It’s no coincidence that Israel and the US have scheduled a major joint military exercise at the time the interim agreement expires. Many in Israel are strongly opposed to the interim agreement, and many support it. When people tell you there are problems with the interim agreement, they’re right. Any comprehensive agreement that does not address those problems will be unacceptable.

Sanctions cannot stop Iran. We keep hearing that sanctions are working. If the goal is to damage Iran’s economy, they are working. If the goal was to force Iran to negotiate, they worked (at least so far). But if the goal was to slow or halt Iran’s nuclear program, they have failed. In 2007, Iran claimed to have 3,000 centrifuges. Now Iran has over 18,000 centrifuges. If we impose tougher sanctions it will be because either Iran cheated on the interim agreement or because the interim agreement did not lead to a final agreement, but sanctions haven’t slowed Iran’s progress and they are unlikely to stop Iran.

It’s possible that sanctions could cause Iranians to force their government to change its policies, but only if:

  • they actually have the power to do so,
  • international support for sanctions does not diminish, and
  • Iran does not obtain nuclear weapons first.

Anything is possible, but it seems unlikely that we can rely on sanctions alone. That leaves military action as the only viable option.

Can military action work? We are not talking about a ground invasion. We are not talking about a war. We are talking about heavy, limited, targeted airstrikes. Many experts say that military action would only set back Iran’s program by a year. Setting back the program by a year is good, not bad. If we have to bomb again later, we can. I know that sounds horrible. But Iran is free to stop the program. And if it doesn’t, as horrible as it sounds, is periodic bombing of Iran worse than a nuclear-armed Iran? We might not have a choice.

Wouldn’t military action incentivize Iran to acquire nuclear weapons? They are already incentivized, to the tune of 18,000 centrifuges. It’s hard to see how they could try harder than they already are.

Wouldn’t military action spark a regional war? With whom? None of the countries in the region want Iran to have nuclear weapons. Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries are terrified that Iran will get nuclear weapons. Iran’s only ally is Syria. The Arab countries might not join in air strikes, but we don’t need them–all we need from them is to look the other way, as they did when Israel bombed Syria’s nuclear reactor.

Remember also that when Israel bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor, the harshest practical reactions were not from the Arab countries, but from Ronald Reagan, who supported a UN resolution condemning Israel, called for international supervision of Israel’s nuclear facilities, demanded that Israel pay reparations to Iraq, and cut off sales of F-16s to Israel.  Today, US-Israel intelligence and military cooperation are at the highest level in history. What happened under Reagan is unlikely to happen under President Obama.

Wouldn’t military action spark retaliation from Iran and the terrorists it supports? Perhaps. And as usual, Israel will bear the brunt of these attacks. But despite the best efforts of Edward Snowden, we still have a strong intelligence network, and so does Israel. Hezbollah may attack Israel; but they’ve been quiet for several years, and the reason probably has less to do with a newfound love for Israel than the knowledge that retaliation from Israel would be harsh and fast. In any event, if retaliation from Iran and Hezbollah is a risk that Israel is willing to take, it’s not for us in America to tell Israel that the risk is too great.

Then why not initiate military action now? Military actions frequently have unintended consequences. We might not know where all of Iran’s installations are, and once we bomb, there will be no more inspections. Even if we succeed in setting back Iran’s program, Iran will continue its program knowing that we might strike again and take precautions. Iran might succeed despite military action, and we will have no leverage at all.

That’s why the interim agreement makes sense. The only alternative to the interim agreement is military action, and right now, that’s a worse option than the interim agreement. The interim agreement might work. In an article you really need to read, both because of the clarity of its analysis and the easy-to-understand charts, Graham Allison explains that

if we compare where Iran is today with where it will be over the next six months under the agreement, we are clearly better off. And if we compare where Iran’s nuclear program will be over the next six months with where it would have advanced in the absence of an agreement, we are even better off.

So we’ve bought some time. Given that the real alternative to diplomacy is not more sanctions, but military action (that might not succeed in the short term, let alone in the long term), we’d be irresponsible not to try diplomacy first. The interim agreement gives us the breathing room we need, and even if it’s a low-percentage play, it’s a play worth making.

But what if we can’t reach a comprehensive agreement? In that case, we will have proven to the world beyond a doubt that Iran is intent on developing nuclear weapons and is not serious about negotiating.  Imposing further sanctions would be pointless–why impose sanctions if sanctions don’t force Iran to seriously negotiate? The only option at that point will be military action, either by us or Israel or both, and the more international support we can muster, the better. And if we do try one more round of sanctions first, we’ll have a much better chance of garnering international support for that too.

Will Americans support military action? Americans are tired of war. Thanks to George W. Bush’s pointless war in Iraq, not only is Iran much stronger (Bush did Iran a huge favor by wiping out its two natural enemies, Iraq and Afghanistan), but Americans are in no mood for more military action, especially after being lied to about both the reasons for the Iraq War and its probable duration and cost.

The burden will be on President Obama to explain to the American people the difference between airstrikes and boots on the ground and to explain to the American people that unlike Iraq, a nuclear-armed Iran truly is a threat to American national security. One would hope that should we reach such a point, even our friends who reflexively are against anything the President does would support him. The only alternative to military action at that point would be containing a nuclear-armed Iran.

We all wish the interim agreement were stronger. We might realize in six months that the only option all along was military action. But I think we owe it to ourselves to test diplomacy before it’s too late.

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