Monday, April 6, 2015

The Iran Nuclear Deal Framework: All Upside and no Downside Risk

Tom Friedman scored a 46 minute interview with President Obama in the Oval Office on Saturday, April 4, 2015.  The questioning is good: respectful and designed to permit Obama to make his case on why we should all support this framework for a nuclear deal with Iran. Obama rises to the occasion. He provides a deliberative exposition of his policy like we'd like to see more of.  [It would have been nice to see something like this on the health care legislation for example]  It's our President unfiltered by handlers. It's a demonstration of thoughtful competence that we should expect not just at the Presidential level, but at the Congressional level as well.  Competence matters.

Near the end of this interview[@44m55sec] Obama succinctly lays out what he feels to be the key U.S. interest in the region today.
The one thing I always tell folks in the region, whatever has happened in the past, at this point the U.S.'s core interests in the region are not oil [or] territorial strategic concerns; our core interests are that everybody is living in peace, that it is orderly, that our allies are not being attacked, that children are not having barrel bombs dropped on them, that massive displacements are not taking place. Our interests in this sense are really just making sure that the region is working, and if it's working well, then we'll do fine. That's going to be a big project, given what's taken place, but this [nuclear deal] is at least one place to start. 
This is a positive vision. Obama is not suggesting to proceed with this nuclear deal with Iran because we are cowering in fear.  No, Obama is acting for positive reasons: because the deal will potentially help to stabilize the region.

In 2003 when we invaded Iraq we acted from fear. Or at least fear is what we were sold. Although the risk of Iraq having weapons of mass destruction was slight, said Dick Cheney, George Bush and the groundswell of support in the press and professional commentariat, the potential damage of such weapons of mass destruction was so devastating that we could not afford not to act. Meanwhile the cost of war (a short inexpensive war) and the pay-off (a democratic stable regime that would magically sprout) were both oversold. We greatly misread both the risks presented (there were no weapons of mass destruction) and the potential benefits and costs of war (the war was hugely expensive, long, and the political situation was worse on account of our actions, not better). We saw no up side and much downside risk was realized.

The Iran nuclear deal also presents risk. But the risk of proceeding in this case has no down side. There is only upside risk. There is hope that by making this deal, the Iranian regime will moderate: that after 37 years they will finally begin to engage the world in a more positive manner; that outside investment in Iran will start a virtuous cycle; that the Iranian regime will become more responsive to its people; that as Iran sees the benefits of engaging with the world, the regime will recognize that it can become a regional power without supporting proxy wars in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen; that the regime will come to recognize that it can be a regional power and gain influence without being a mortal enemy of the Sunni states, or Israel; that the regime will manage sufficient self-confidence to loosen up.

The risk, of course, is that all of these hopes will be dashed, that we are being naive. But Obama argues--and he seems correct--implementing this deal comes with no downside risk. The deal will not enable Iran to get closer to having a nuclear weapon (they will be much farther away with this deal than where they presently are); the risk does not include a weakening of the relative power and influence of the U.S., or the Sunni states, or Israel.  The U.S. will maintain all military options; the U.S. will continue to assure that Israel maintains a qualitative military edge in the region. The U.S. will continue to act as a protector of its Sunni ally states, and of Israel.  The only party militarily weakened as a result of this deal will be Iran--they will give up their ability to produce nuclear weapons for at least 15 years.

Even if we believe the Iranian's can't be trusted and that they are irrevocably committed to their ideological opposition to the West, our Sunni state allies, and Israel--as Netanyahu believes--this is still the right deal.  None of the alternatives--(1) maintaining the status quo, (2) continuing and increasing sanctions, or (3) possible military action--would make us any safer.  None of these alternatives lower risk. Walking away from this deal will leave Iran approximately three months away from obtaining a bomb according to nuclear experts (and Netanyahu). Increasing sanctions or military action would empower hardliners in Iran. "See, we have no alternative but to become a nuclear power to assert our interests," they would argue. Sanction might slow progress towards Iran's goal of building a nuclear bomb, but sanctions cannot prevent the development of a bomb--as we saw with North Korea. Similarly, military action could set the program back a few months, but it cannot prevent Iran from developing a weapon.  The status quo, increased sanctions, and war all come with significant downside risk.  On the other hand, the nuclear deal that is being finalized now will prevent Iran from obtaining a bomb for 15 years, and will result in a much enhanced capacity for the international community to monitor and to detect any potential violations by the Iranians.  All upside, no downside.

Netanyahu and his Republican supporters in Congress make the argument that there is risk that this is not the best possible deal that could be obtained. That is backseat driving. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, we say. Well, abandoning the hard-won framework of Lausanne will not result in a deal that is twice as good in a few months, or years.  Abandoning the framework simply means we'll come away empty handed.  On the other hand, there is a chance that by completing this deal and moving forward with normalizing relations with Iran, we will accomplish some positive things. The only risk is that the world community will look foolish to have gotten its hopes up for peace and more stability. That's a risk well worth taking.

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