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The Iran Deal: Three Unfounded Lines of Attack

Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Donald Trump hosted a rally to oppose the Iran Deal in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 0, 2015. (Photo:

Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Donald Trump hosted a rally to oppose the Iran Deal in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 10, 2015. (Photo:

A great deal has been written about the agreement negotiated between Iran and the P5+1 countries (the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China), officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). A lot of the commentary has been nonsense. A great deal of attention has been allocated not according to the relative importance of the various aspects of the deal, but rather according to how vulnerable to attack they appear to be. Also, much of the public discussion has been technically inept. Many assert, for example, that if Iran wants even more centrifuges, then that proves that its nuclear program is really intended for military purposes. In fact, generating fuel for a power plant requires far more fuel (albeit, enriched to a lower level) and many more centrifuges. Iran has had enough centrifuges to make a bomb since the Bush administration.

The JCPOA is complex, and it has been attacked from several directions. I will focus on the key issue of verification in an accompanying post. Here I would like to address three other popular lines of attack.

First, some commentators insist that the only realistic way to deal with the Iranian nuclear program is to bomb it. (The same people often insist that the Iranians will hide facilities in secret locations, so it is difficult to say exactly where they plan to bomb.) They frequently cite Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981 as an example of how it can be done successfully. Evidently they are unaware that the Iraqis did not have a serious nuclear-weapon program before 1981. Far from stopping Iraq’s nuclear program, the bombing of Osirak exposed Iraq’s vulnerability to an Israeli attack and prompted Saddam Hussein to pour resources into the development of a nuclear weapon. Much of that nuclear program, as well as chemical and biological weapons, survived weeks of intensive bombing during the Gulf War of 1991. So, what happened to Iraq’s notorious weapons of mass destruction (WMD)? Who finally disarmed the country, leaving it without WMD at the start of the Iraq War in 2003, after bombing failed to do so? The answer is: UN weapons inspectors.

Second, other commentators simply assert that we should discard the agreement and negotiate a better one. A number of experts, administration officials, and foreign envoys have listed factors working against the success of that approach. In brief, Iran is not simply going to be talked into demilitarizing the way Japan did after we destroyed its navy and air force, bombed its cities (two of them with nuclear weapons), and occupied and disarmed it.

If we wanted a better deal, then the time to do it would have been a decade ago, when a previous moderate government was in power in Iran. In 2003 Iran offered to negotiate a comprehensive settlement touching on U.S. interests (WMD, terrorism, coordination on Iraq, and movement toward a Palestinian-Israeli settlement based on a two-state solution, including the possibility of Iranian pressure on Hezbollah) and Iranian interests (an end to U.S. efforts at regime change, an end to sanctions, Iranian access to technology, including nuclear technology; and action against Mojahedin-e Khalq, an anti-Iranian group based in Iraq). The nuclear part of the deal might well have been similar to today’s agreement, except that Iran’s nuclear program was far less advanced at that time, so its bargaining position would have been weaker. In addition, many other loose ends of the relationship might have been covered as well.

The Bush administration, however, was not interested in compromising, or even in negotiating, opting instead to rely on economic sanctions. Rather than respond to the offer, the administration complained that the Swiss ambassador had exceeded his authority by transmitting the message at all. (Since Iran and the United States have no diplomatic relations, Switzerland represents U.S. interest in Tehran.) Could a mutually acceptable arrangement have been worked out at that time? We will never know. What we do know is that in 2003, when the offer was sent, Iran had not yet enriched any uranium. By the time the recent negotiations started in 2013, Iran had a stockpile of 10,000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium and 19,900 operational centrifuges. Moreover, it no longer appeared interested in discussing the other regional and bilateral issues, or at least not until they saw how the nuclear deal went. That was the result of the Bush administration’s decision to hold out for a better deal.

Additionally, the similarity between the 2003 offer and the present deal suggests that the presence of a moderate Iranian government, rather than the force of sanctions, is what makes negotiation possible. The most important role of sanctions may have been in convincing Iranian voters to give moderates another chance. Rejecting the treaty (and some people are still trying to do so) would essentially teach the Iranian public that their hard-liners were right, that the moderates were fools for thinking they could negotiate an acceptable deal with the Americans.

Third, some cite North Korea’s abandonment of the 1994 Agreed Framework, apparently assuming that if one negotiated arrangement turned out badly, then they all must. This may actually be more relevant to the case at hand, but not necessarily in the way those making the argument have in mind. The Agreed Framework was negotiated by a Democratic administration, but a Republican Congress decried it as appeasement and refused to implement certain key provisions that were important to the North Korean government, including the lifting of sanctions and the normalization of relations. Other aspects were delayed for years (sometimes because of North Korean actions that were objectionable but not covered by the agreement). Then a new Republican administration denounced the agreement, threatened the North Korean regime, and unilaterally tried to change provisions of the agreement retroactively. When the Bush administration suspected that the North Koreans were cheating on the agreement, it made no effort to bring them back into compliance. Now North Korea has nuclear weapons. Would North Korea still have cheated if the United States had followed through on its commitments? Again, we will never know. Yet some people seem intent on repeating this singular example of diplomatic failure step for step.



Scott Monje

Scott C. Monje, Ph.D., is senior editor of the Encyclopedia Americana (Grolier Online) and author of The Central Intelligence Agency: A Documentary History. He has taught classes on international, comparative, and U.S. politics at Rutgers University, New York University (SCPS), and Purchase College, SUNY.