As many people are now aware, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel gave a speech to a joint session of Congress on March 3. The circumstances under which the speech was given were controversial. The prime minister was invited by the Republican leadership of Congress without the White House being informed, and he came specifically to attack one of the president’s major foreign policy initiatives, negotiations toward an arms-control accord with Iran. This is certainly enough to raise eyebrows, but the circumstances have given rise in some corners to the notion that a sound proposal was drowned out by the unfortunate controversy of its setting. That is not the case. The prime minister’s speech was just as unfortunate as the circumstances.
First, it is worth noting that Israeli intelligence does not back Netanyahu’s position. Mossad officials and former officials have suggested on various occasions that they do not agree with Netanyahu’s interpretation of the Iranian threat. In fact, earlier this year the agency lobbied the U.S. Congress not to impose new sanctions on Iran—even sanctions that would be triggered only at a later date—precisely because that would undermine the negotiations that Netanyahu opposes so fervently. The Israeli foreign intelligence agency clearly views the prime minister’s position as dangerous.
Netanyahu has a long record with regard to the Iranian nuclear program. The first time he declared that Iran was within three to five years of building a nuclear bomb was in 1992. Two and a half years ago, exactly 20 years after that first assessment, he told the UN General Assembly that Iran was within one year of developing a bomb. We now know—because of an unnamed person who leaked intelligence documents in South Africa—that Mossad assessed at that time that Iran was progressing with its nuclear enrichment program but was making no effort to convert its nuclear fuel into a bomb. The Mossad report concludes:
Bottom line: Though Iran at this stage is not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons, it is working to close gaps in areas that appear legitimate such as enrichment, reactors, which will reduce the time required to produce weapons from the time the instruction is actually given.
The U.S. intelligence community had made a similar assessment in a National Intelligence Estimate released to the public, in part, five years earlier, in 2007. Apparently Iran had once had a nuclear weapons program but shut it down in 2003. It continued to develop nuclear enrichment, which could be used for peaceful or military purposes. It is possible that it could renew its weapons program in the future.
So, Iran has not been hell-bent on producing a nuclear weapon at all costs. It has had the technical capacity to build one since about 2008, but it has not done so. Its “breakout time” (the length of time necessary to produce 25 kilograms of weapon-grade uranium [about 90% U235], enough to build one bomb) is about two or three months, but it has not produced any. Instead, it is actively engaged in negotiations that, inter alia, are expected to increase its breakout time to about a year. Since the negotiations began, it has—as stipulated under the interim agreement of November 2013—eliminated its entire stockpile of moderately enriched uranium (enriched to a level of 19.75% U235). Prime Minister Netanyahu, by the way, predicted that Iran would never abide by that interim agreement.
Still, a future weapon program is a possibility, and there are reasons not to trust the country’s leadership. So the question is what to do about that. Bombing a country on the off chance that it might start a weapons program in the future is a bit extreme. In considering it, we should keep in mind that Israel bombed an Iraqi reactor in 1981 in order to disrupt that country’s nuclear-weapons program. As a result, the Iraqi program, which was described by participants as “directionless and disorganized” until then, far from being stopped, was given a new impetus. Large segments of the Iraqi nuclear program also survived the much more extensive bombing of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. It was dismantled only in the 1990s, after being rooted out by UN weapons inspectors. Likewise, bombing Iran today would only convince its leaders that they need a bomb to deter future attacks. At this stage, keeping close track of what Iran is doing with its nuclear program is sufficient.
Netanyahu dismisses diplomacy as a reasonable response because he says you cannot trust Iran. That, however, is backward. You do not negotiate arms treaties with countries that you trust. During the Cold War, the United States did not negotiate arms treaties with Britain, a country we could trust. We negotiated arms treaties with the Soviets because we did not trust them, nor did they trust us. Those treaties established limits on what sorts of activities were acceptable or not acceptable and elaborated verification regimes to assure each side that the other was operating within those limits.* While the Iran agreement is not yet finalized, as envisioned it would restrict Iran’s nuclear activities for at least a decade and allow for intrusive inspections in perpetuity.
Although opposed to negotiations, Netanyahu proposes expanding them beyond the question of nuclear weapons to include extraneous issues. Iran must agree to suspend its nuclear program, he argues, until such time as it ceases being a terrorist state, pursuing aggression in the Middle East, or threatening Israel. This is a curious goal inasmuch as it assumes that Iran interprets the world in the same way that Netanyahu does. Iran does not view itself as an aggressive terrorist state (it sees itself as countering Israeli aggression and granting support to embattled Shiites in various active combat zones), and it certainly will not leave it to Netanyahu to decide when its behavior is appropriate any more than Netanyahu would leave it to the ayatollahs to decide that for Israel. Holding out for Netanyahu’s deal is not engaging in tough negotiations; it is sabotaging the main nuclear deal with unnecessary and unachievable secondary demands. The issue of nuclear weapons is important enough and complicated enough to be the subject of its own treaty. The rest can be dealt with separately (as happened during the Cold War). In any event, diplomacy is not a process in which one side gets everything it wants and the other gets nothing but restrictions and obligations (unless the first country has just defeated and occupied the other, and even then it does not always work out). Both sides must agree to the result. Diplomacy is a process in which both sides get to go home and exclaim, “We won.”
Netanyahu and the negotiations’ American opponents, moreover, speak as if the proposed agreement would allow Iran to build a bomb after it expires. The negotiations are not about the right to build a bomb. Iran has already conceded that. The proposed agreement would create obstacles to the processing and stockpiling of weapon-grade uranium or plutonium as a confidence-building measure. Those specific limits would expire after an agreed period of time, but the enhanced inspection regime would continue in perpetuity. With it, the international community would be in a better position than it is today to determine whether Iran was violating it continuing commitment not to build a bomb. If it is shown that Iran is violating its commitments, then the possibility of a military response will be just as available as it is today, when no evidence of violations has been presented.**
Opponents of a deal also argue that it would lead to an arms race in the Middle East as Saudi Arabia and possibly other states sought to enhance their security vis-à-vis Iran with their own nuclear programs. There are reports that Saudi Arabia is already considering this. The argument, however, is based on the assumption that a deal would lead to a nuclear Iran. It is the prospect of a nuclear Iran, not the prospect of an agreement per se, that would entice Saudi Arabia into an arms race. The issues, then, are (1) whether a deal or the failure to reach a deal is more likely to lead to a nuclear-armed Iran and (2) what assumptions Saudi Arabia makes about those prospects. If Saudi Arabia assumes that a deal will lead to a nuclear Iran but in fact the failure to reach a deal does so, then either decision could spur a competition in arms. A Middle Eastern arms race, as well as the possible means of preventing one, is therefore something that we ought to be thinking about in any event.
In conclusion, let me stress that when evaluating the agreement, if an agreement emerges, you must compare it to viable, real-world alternatives, not some imagined ideal. Opponents of the negotiations like to say that the alternative is a better deal, usually meaning one in which Iran is stripped of all nuclear capabilities (although the Iranians clearly know how to rebuild them, having done it once). That better deal is to be forced on Iran by means of even heavier economic sanctions. Sanctions brought Iran to the table, they argue, so even more sanctions will force it to agree. That, however, is not necessarily the case. Sanctions brought the Iranians to the table to negotiate a deal to eliminate the sanctions. If instead they get nothing but more sanctions, they are quite likely to denounce the United States for negotiating in bad faith and give up on diplomacy altogether. That would remove a major incentive for restraining their nuclear program. Moreover, if the negotiations are seen as failing because of U.S. intransigence, not because of Iran, then international support for maintaining the sanctions even at the current level is likely to evaporate. The comprehensive international sanctions regime brought together by the Obama administration, rather than being strengthened, would collapse, leaving only unilateral U.S. sanctions, which would be no more effective than the unilateral sanctions maintained against Cuba for the past half century. Without the enhanced monitoring regime envisioned in the agreement, U.S. leaders would be back in the position they faced vis-à-vis Iraq after 1981, when it accelerated its nuclear program without international oversight, or after 1998, when it did not revive its nuclear program but many people simply assumed that it did and acted on that assumption, leading to an unnecessary war that is still with us. It is a bit too soon to be attacking yet another country because of weapons of mass destruction that it does not actually have.
*During the Cold War, meaningful limitations on nuclear weapons came only in the 1970s, by which time each side had the capacity to observe and verify the other side’s activities through its own spy satellites (referred to euphemistically in treaties as “national technical means”). Later, more ambitious treaties allowed each side to conduct intrusive on-site inspections. In the case of Iran, on-site inspections are conducted by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
**Note that when reporters speak of Iran’s failure to adequately answer questions about work on bomb design and other “possible military dimensions” (PMD), they are talking about weakly substantiated—and in some cases possibly fraudulent—allegations concerning a program that everyone agrees ended a dozen years ago.