From the minute Iran detected that the U.S. was unwilling to use its overwhelming military force to curtail Tehran’s nuclear program — and that dates back to the George W. Bush administration, which would neither accept Iran’s right to a nuclear fuel cycle nor structure a military or diplomatic option to stop it — no perfect deal overwhelmingly favorable to America and its allies was ever going to emerge from negotiations with Iran. The balance of power became too equal.
But there are degrees of imperfect, and the diplomatic option structured by the Obama team — if properly implemented and augmented by muscular diplomacy — serves core U.S. interests better than any options I hear coming from the deal’s critics: It prevents Iran from producing the fissile material to break out with a nuclear weapon for 15 years and creates a context that could empower the more pragmatic forces inside Iran over time — at the price of constraining, but not eliminating, Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and sanctions relief that will strengthen Tehran as a regional power.
Supporting this deal doesn’t make you Neville Chamberlin; opposing it doesn’t make you Dr. Strangelove. Both sides have legitimate arguments. But having studied them, I believe America’s interests are best served now by focusing on how to get the best out of this deal and cushion the worst, rather than scuttling it. That would be a mistake that would isolate us, not Iran, and limit our choices to going to war or tolerating an Iran much closer to nuclear breakout, without any observers or curbs on the ground, and with crumbling sanctions.
“The nuclear agreement is a deal, not a grand bargain,” argued the Wilson Center’s Robert Litwak, author of “Iran’s Nuclear Chess.” “Obama and Iran’s supreme leader, (Ayatollah Ali) Khamenei, are each making a tacit bet. Obama is defending the deal in transactional terms (that it addresses a discrete urgent challenge), but betting that it will empower Iran’s moderate faction and put the country on a more favorable societal trajectory. Khamenei is making the opposite bet — that the regime can benefit from the transactional nature of the agreement (sanctions relief) and forestall the deal’s potentially transformational implications to preserve Iran’s revolutionary deep state.”
We can, though, do things to increase the odds that the bet goes our way:
1) Don’t let this deal become the Obamacare of arms control, where all the energy goes into the negotiation but then the implementing tools — in this case the verification technologies — don’t work. President Barack Obama should appoint a respected military figure to oversee every aspect of implementing this deal.
2) Congress should pass a resolution authorizing this and future presidents to use force to prevent Iran from ever becoming a nuclear weapons state. Iran must know now that the U.S. president is authorized to destroy — without warning or negotiation — any attempt by Tehran to build a bomb.
3) Focus on the Iranian people. The celebrations of this deal in Iran tell us that “the Iranian people want to be South Korea, not North Korea,” notes Karim Sadjadpour, Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment. We should reach out to them in every way — visas, exchanges and scholarships — to strengthen their voices. Visiting Iran taught me that Iranians have had enough Islamic fundamentalism to know they want less of it, and they’ve had enough democracy to know they want more of it. (Iran’s hard-line Revolutionary Guards know this well, which is why they are still trying to persuade Iran’s supreme leader to reject this deal and its opening to the world.)
4) Avoid a black-and-white view of the Middle East. The idea that Iran is everywhere our enemy and the Sunni Arabs our allies is a mistake. Saudi Arabia’s leadership has been a steadfast U.S. ally in the Cold War; many Saudis are pro-American. But the Saudi leadership’s ruling bargain is toxic: It says to the Saudi people that the al-Saud tribe gets to rule and in return the Saudi Wahhabi religious establishment gets billions of dollars to transform the face of Sunni Islam from an open and modernizing faith to a puritanical, anti-women, anti-Shiite, anti-pluralistic one. The Saudis have lost control of this puritanical-Salafist transformation of Islam, and it has mutated into the ideology that inspired the 9/11 hijackers — 15 of 19 of whom were Saudis — and the Islamic State.
Iran aided the U.S. in toppling the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and, at the same time, Tehran, and its cat’s paw, Hezbollah, have propped up the Syrian regime while it has perpetrated a genocide against its own people, mostly Syrian Sunnis. We need to confront Iran’s regional behavior when it contradicts our interests, but align with it when it comports with our interests. We want to balance the autocratic Sunnis and Shiites, not promote either. Neither share our values.
Finally, when it comes to the Middle East broadly, we need to contain, amplify and innovate: Contain the most aggressive forces there, amplify any leaders or people building decency there, and innovate on energy like crazy to keep prices low, reduce oil money to bad actors and reduce our exposure to a region that is going to be in turmoil for a long, long, long time.
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.