By Joshua Shinbrot
Editor’s note: This piece is the first in a several part series by the US-Middle East Network’s Chief Technology Officer Joshua Shinbrot on Iran.
The White House has launched a major campaign to produce American support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known colloquially as “the Iran Deal.” President Obama’s negotiating position with the American people has been unambiguous: accept the Iran deal or embrace war. Supporters and critics of the Iran Deal alike should demand a discussion of the actual merits and drawbacks of the Iran deal rather than the oversimplified slogan that the only alternative to this particular deal with Iran is war.
Assume that the White House has framed the options accurately and that rejection of the Iran deal really will mean war. Armed conflict between the United States and Iran would not be pretty, but military realities simply dictate that the winner of such a war would not be Iran. The fact that Iran would lose a war with the United States is certainly not a call to arms. However, it does provide grounds for questioning whether or not President Obama means what he says when he frames the acceptance or rejection of the Iran deal as a choice between diplomacy and war. Proponents and critics of the deal agree that the JCPOA is a really good deal for at least one party to these negotiations. That is, they agree it’s a really good deal for Iran. The Iranian negotiators who were smart enough to produce such a good deal for Iran are certainly smart enough to know that Iran would not win a war with the United States. This should lead proponents and critics of the deal alike to wonder: Did the United States have the same intractable negotiating position with the Iranians that President Obama now has with the American people? Did the United States present a list of demands to Iran and hold the line that it now holds with the American people: accept this deal or risk war with the United States? If so, why are there so many drawbacks to the deal?
It is easy to see that the negotiating position that President Obama has outlined with the American people is far more aggressive than the one the Administration has adopted with Iran. This is not mere conjecture, but rather a verifiable fact. The publicly available text of the deal outlines the choices that the Iranians faced at the negotiating table and the choices they stand to face when the JCPOA is implemented. President Obama and Secretary Kerry have spoken openly about the consequence if Iran violates the nuclear deal. They have threatened the use of “snap-back,” a mechanism that at least theoretically, allows the United States to re-impose sanctions on Iran – unilaterally if necessary.
Iran faced a clear choice at the negotiating table: make a deal or continue to suffer under the most comprehensive international sanctions regime ever created. After the deal is implemented, the Iranians face a less-stark choice: keep the deal or face the re-imposition of sanctions. The choice is less-stark after implementation of the deal because all of the contracts that Iran enters between the implementation of the deal and the violation of the deal are grandfathered in and will not be affected by the re-imposition of sanctions. Consequently, it appears that the American negotiators never forced Iran to choose between a deal and war with the United States.
It is unacceptable for any president of the United States, Democrat or Republican, to adopt a tougher negotiating position with the American people than he did with the world’s largest state sponsor of terror. The American people, whether they are supporters or opponents of the deal should demand better.
Proponents of this deal believe that it is likely the world’s best option for preventing, at least temporarily, Iran from developing nuclear weapons. They argue that the military option, if exercised, will only set the Iranian nuclear program back by a few years. This deal, they believe, will prevent the Iranians from obtaining a nuclear weapon for at least as much, if not more time than military strikes. Critics of the JCPOA argue that a better deal would include a more robust inspections regimen that would give inspectors anytime, anywhere access to ensure that Iran is not pursuing a covert path to develop nuclear weapons. They believe that the “snap-back” mechanism is fundamentally flawed. While the mechanism theoretically allows the United States to unilaterally re-impose sanctions on Iran, the actual re-imposition of sanctions on Iran will require international cooperation. Thus, no member of the P5+1 can truly re-impose all international sanctions against the will of its partners, even if it seems like it can on paper.
Supporting this deal does not mean opposing war, and rejecting this deal does not guarantee war. Whether you are a proponent or critic of this deal, it is a fact that if this deal is implemented Iran will be a threshold nuclear state that will be able to quickly produce a nuclear weapon in roughly 8-15 years. The reason that Iran will be a threshold nuclear state in less than two decades is that Iran will be treated like a normal member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) before forcing it to behave like every other member of the NPT. Economically crippling sanctions have not prevented Iran from using terrorist proxies to achieve its regional ambitions. They have not prevented Iran from supporting the Assad regime in continuing the Syrian civil war that has killed more than 300,000 people. A resistance mentality has led the Iranian regime to achieve, through this deal, the lifting of sanctions and the right to be a nuclear threshold state. Now, the question is: Will a deal that legitimizes and emboldens that same oppressive, extremist, homophobic, and misogynistic Iranian regime lead it to begin behaving like Germany or other normal members of the NPT?
If Congress rejects this deal with Iran and diplomacy fails to produce a better one, technological sabotage and the use of force will likely be the only options that remain to prevent Iran from obtaining a bomb. By framing the Iran deal as a choice between diplomacy and war, the President is making the claim that the rejection of this deal will indicate the failure of diplomacy and the use of force will be the only option that remains to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. This President has threatened the use of force before (most notably in Syria) and ultimately backed off when he believed a better diplomatic option presented itself. Proponents and critics of this deal alike should test the President when he claims that the failure of this deal will mean war. They can do this by challenging the President to support Congressional legislation that would authorize the use of all necessary means to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon if Iran violates the JCPOA. If the president means what he argues when he states that the failure of this deal means the use of force will be necessary, he should have no problem putting that in writing by signing legislation that would authorize its use if the deal fails.
Proponents of the deal should demand to know that the President truly believes that the choice between acceptance and rejection of this deal is a choice between diplomacy and force. Critics of this deal need to know that the President is really willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that Iran doesn’t obtain a nuclear weapon covertly or in time. And Iran needs to know unambiguously that today or in 25 years, if it tries to cheat or build a bomb, the United States will use any means necessary, including force to prevent it from obtaining one. Reasonable proponents of the JCPOA will admit it has some drawbacks. Reasonable opponents of the JCPOA will admit the deal has some merits. A discussion of those merits and ways to address the deal’s drawbacks would contribute much more to the public debate than the oversimplified classification of critics as warmongers and supporters as diplomats.