In our personal lives, and in most of the business world, deals are about trust and amiability. Pundits and politicians would like us to believe that deals between nation states work the same way. Nothing can be further from the truth. Reagan used to say “trust but verify;” the truth is that verification generates trust. The greatest negotiations in history were between hostile states, and successful negotiations rely on enforcement mechanisms, not friendship. President Obama’s recent nuclear deal with Iran indicates a serious commitment on Iran’s part, and is the first step towards a critical long-term deal. Opponents of the “Geneva deal” point to dangerous, morally repugnant, and supposedly untrustworthy behavior by the Iranian government. Leaving aside the US’ own less-than-clean hands in dealing with Iran, the truth is this deal is important because of Iranian behavior, not in spite of it. The alternatives — harsher sanctions or war — would only increase the Iran’s strategic incentives to continue funding international terrorism and weaponize its program, while weakening moderates within the Iranian regime.

The 6-month Geneva deal, though by no means a final arrangement, is worth it for the US. Iran acceded to more nuclear inspections, slower enrichment and even agreed to blend down its stocks of 20% enriched uranium to 5%. (Civilian use generally require 5%; weapons require over 90% enrichment.) If Iran were merely “buying time,” it would not agree to a deal that requires it to take an active step backwards. The US has promised not to institute new sanctions for 6 months unfroze some Iranian government assets — but not lifted the trade sanctions which are really hurting the country. By agreeing to this deal, Rouhani has showed us he is serious about reaching a permanent agreement. Rouhani also agreed to allow greater access to IAEA inspectors, who have a great track record. No country has ever made nuclear weapons by evading the IAEA — only countries not subject to inspections, or who blatantly kicked inspectors out, have gone nuclear. Agreements providing the IAEA with additional access are extra safeguards. Iran is not North Korea. It does not benefit from its isolation, and thus has strong incentives to comply with any agreement. Inspections make it possible for the US to monitor, and thus enforce, that compliance.

Why is Iran interested in a long term agreement? Iranian priorities are not uniform. In Iranian political discourse, there is a very important distinction (often lost in American media) concerning the existence of a domestic uranium enrichment. As a matter of pride (not to mention a legal guarantee in the Non-Proliferation Treaty), an overwhelming majority of the Iranian public support Iran’s right to domestically enrich uranium, while simultaneously disapproving of Iran’s international isolation and not supporting a weapons program. Nearly any long-term deal which allows Iran to keep domestic enrichment while eliminating the possibility of a weapons program would be overwhelmingly supported by the Iranian populace and by many elements of Iran’s government, even beyond just moderates and reformists (It’s unclear exactly what Ayatollah Khomeini’s priorities are, but even he is constrained by public opinion on very important issues, as the world learned during the almost-revolution of 2009). 

Geneva, though far from an ultimate solution, is a political victory for President Rouhani. Rouhani ran on a reformist platform and has a diplomatic history of working with the U.S., from Reagan-era arms deals to nuclear negotiations under President Khatami, another reformist politician. Iranians realize a nuclear weapon would alleviate their fear of the U.S. military, but provide few other benefits and entrench their isolation. Iran’s calculus is pretty clear: Ending sanctions beats acquiring a nuclear weapon, but enduring international approbation as a nuclear state is far better than enduring it under the fear of military retaliation. The U.S. needs to give Iran the former tradeoff, rather than the later.

Iran’s sponsorship of terrorist groups, most notably Hezbollah, is not to be ignored. Iranian-backed terrorist attacks by Hezbollah have killed thousands of people on multiple continents; the organization has killed thousands more in Lebanon by provoking a war with Israel, and aided Bashar Assad’s massacres of Syrian dissidents. Yet even this behavior has an underlying strategic logic. Iran maintains Hezbollah and funds terrorists in Iraq to check American military power in the Middle East, and to retain the option of provoking an all-out war against Israel and Persian Gulf oil producers as a deterrent against American attack. Hard-liners like Ted Cruz would refuse to negotiate with Iran until they end their support for terrorism. This is silly (imagine the catastrophe if the US had such a policy towards the USSR), not to mention hypocritical (Iranians haven’t forgotten US complicity in Iraq’s chemical weapons attacks). Iran’s primary motivation for its militarism is the threat of war with the U.S. or Israel; the most likely cause of such a war is the ongoing tensions over Iran’s nuclear program. Resolving those tensions will put the U.S. in a much better position to negotiate on these other pressing issues. Additionally, Iran has domestic reasons for encouraging violence against the U.S. and Israel — Iranian hardliners are desperate to deflect blame for Iranian economic suffering by making the U.S. (and countries sanctioning Iran) seem like unreasonable aggressors. Counter-intuitively, the more the U.S. and Israel threaten Iran, the better things are for Iranian hardliners. Thus, they try to provoke us. Don’t count on Rouhani saying anything too nice about America or Israel in public, but he’s sincere about domestic reform. Lifting sanctions in exchange for nuclear guarantees would give Rouhani a boost, and give him the chance to rebuild Iran’s economy. Only in such an environment could the US trade more sanctions reliefs for concessions on terrorism.

A deal with Iran is really the U.S.’ only option. Some conservatives have a fantasy that economic sanctions will turn Iranians against their government, leading to a glorious pro-western revolution. This justification for economic sanctions has been frequently cited throughout history; not even once has that mechanism actually worked. But if it was work, it would require the US to negotiate in good faith with Iran — otherwise, Iranians will blame the US for their economic troubles, not their government. Sanctions without negotiation are a pointless policy. Similarly, Iran’s geography and underground, redundant nuclear sites mean that air strikes against Iran could only delay their program, while giving Iran a strong reason to accelerate weaponization. Iranian retaliation against Israel, the US, and the Gulf would kill thousands whilst triggering a global oil crisis. Since desperate and futile actions require desperate justifications, some conservatives argue that Khomeini is set on going nuclear so he can trigger the end of the world for religious reasons (supposedly to bring the return of the “hidden imam”). This claim should be laughed at: no devout Muslim believes mankind can intentionally trigger the end of the world — since that would be forcing Allah’s hand — and Khomeini himself has tried to discourage those Shiites who believe that the end is near, since their mystical eschatology runs against more traditional Shiite theology.

In short: The real risks of Iranian nuclear proliferation and terrorism should not be minimized. This does not justify using moral outrage, fear mongering, and cheap “appeasement” analogies to obscure reality. The right thing to do is continue perusing a diplomatic option. Since Iran isn’t making significant forward progress — and willingly took a huge step backward — the U.S. has nothing to lose. Sanctions without diplomacy are inhumane; an unnecessary war would be insane.

Zachary Taylor is a member of

the class of 2015.



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