It’s no surprise that Marie Harf at the State Department sought Wednesday to dismiss the analysis by Henry Kissinger and George Schultz of the Iran deal as little more than “big words and big thoughts.” When you hear administration officials launch ad hominem attacks, you know it is because they are deeply threatened.
That’s because Kissinger and Scultz’s Wall Street Journal piece is the most thorough and damning evisceration of President Obama’s Iran arms deal you can find. And it’s been lodged by two of the foreign policy establishment’s wisest and most experienced hands, neither known for their partisan fervor.
I thought I’d take you through their argument, which you may not be able to access on the Wall Street Journal website. Because it’s a major statement about what may be the most important issue of our time.
Below, I’ve placed my own headlines above quotes from the piece to clarify their main points. There are six.
1. The deal permits a nuclear Iran
Negotiations that began 12 years ago as an international effort to prevent an Iranian capability to develop a nuclear arsenal are ending with an agreement that concedes this very capability, albeit short of its full capacity in the first 10 years. The gradual expiration of the framework agreement, beginning in a decade, will enable Iran to become a significant nuclear, industrial and military power after that time—in the scope and sophistication of its nuclear program and its latent capacity to weaponize at a time of its choosing. Limits on Iran’s research and development have not been publicly disclosed (or perhaps agreed). Therefore Iran will be in a position to bolster its advanced nuclear technology during the period of the agreement and rapidly deploy more advanced centrifuges—of at least five times the capacity of the current model—after the agreement expires or is broken.
2. Iran triumphed in the negotiations
While Iran treated the mere fact of its willingness to negotiate as a concession, the West has felt compelled to break every deadlock with a new proposal. In the process, the Iranian program has reached a point officially described as being within two to three months of building a nuclear weapon.
Ambiguities apply to the one-year window for a presumed Iranian breakout. Emerging at a relatively late stage in the negotiation, this concept replaced the previous baseline—that Iran might be permitted a technical capacity compatible with a plausible civilian nuclear program. Iran permanently gives up none of its equipment, facilities or fissile product to achieve the proposed constraints. It only places them under temporary restriction and safeguard—amounting in many cases to a seal at the door of a depot or periodic visits by inspectors to declared sites.
3. The agreement is probably unenforceable
The physical magnitude of the effort is daunting. Is the International Atomic Energy Agency technically, and in terms of human resources, up to so complex and vast an assignment? In a large country with multiple facilities and ample experience in nuclear concealment, violations will be inherently difficult to detect. Devising theoretical models of inspection is one thing. Enforcing compliance, week after week, despite competing international crises and domestic distractions, is another. Any report of a violation is likely to prompt debate over its significance—or even calls for new talks with Tehran to explore the issue.
Compounding the difficulty is the unlikelihood that breakout will be a clear-cut event. More likely it will occur, if it does, via the gradual accumulation of ambiguous evasions. When inevitable disagreements arise over the scope and intrusiveness of inspections, on what criteria are we prepared to insist and up to what point? If evidence is imperfect, who bears the burden of proof? Undertaking the “snap-back” of sanctions is unlikely to be as clear or as automatic as the phrase implies. Iran is in a position to violate the agreement by executive decision. Restoring the most effective sanctions will require coordinated international action.
4. The deal result in nuclear proliferation
Some of the chief actors in the Middle East are likely to view the U.S. as willing to concede a nuclear military capability to the country they consider their principal threat. Several will insist on at least an equivalent capability. Saudi Arabia has signaled that it will enter the lists; others are likely to follow. In that sense, the implications of the negotiation are irreversible.
Among the original nuclear powers, geographic distances and the relatively large size of programs combined with moral revulsion to make surprise attack all but inconceivable. How will these doctrines translate into a region where sponsorship of nonstate proxies is common, the state structure is under assault, and death on behalf of jihad is a kind of fulfillment?
Are the guarantees extended against the use of nuclear weapons—or against any military attack, conventional or nuclear? Is it the domination by Iran that we oppose or the method for achieving it?
5. An expansionist Iran will be newly empowered
For some, the greatest value in an agreement lies in the prospect of an end, or at least a moderation, of Iran’s 3½ decades of militant hostility to the West and established international institutions, and an opportunity to draw Iran into an effort to stabilize the Middle East. There exists no current evidence that Iran and the U.S. are remotely near such an understanding. Even while combating common enemies, such as ISIS, Iran has declined to embrace common objectives. Iran’s representatives (including its Supreme Leader) continue to profess a revolutionary anti-Western concept of international order; domestically, some senior Iranians describe nuclear negotiations as a form of jihad by other means.
The final stages of the nuclear talks have coincided with Iran’s intensified efforts to expand and entrench its power in neighboring states. Iranian or Iranian client forces are now the pre-eminent military or political element in multiple Arab countries, operating beyond the control of national authorities. With the recent addition of Yemen as a battlefield, Tehran occupies positions along all of the Middle East’s strategic waterways and encircles archrival Saudi Arabia, an American ally.
6. The administration erred in de-linking the nuclear deal from other issues
Unless political restraint is linked to nuclear restraint, an agreement freeing Iran from sanctions risks empowering Iran’s hegemonic efforts.
Some have argued that these concerns are secondary, since the nuclear deal is a way station toward the eventual domestic transformation of Iran. But what gives us the confidence that we will prove more astute at predicting Iran’s domestic course than Vietnam’s, Afghanistan’s, Iraq’s, Syria’s, Egypt’s or Libya’s?
Absent the linkage between nuclear and political restraint, America’s traditional allies will conclude that the U.S. has traded temporary nuclear cooperation for acquiescence to Iranian hegemony. They will increasingly look to create their own nuclear balances and, if necessary, call in other powers to sustain their integrity.
Nuclear arms must not be permitted to turn into conventional weapons. The passions of the region allied with weapons of mass destruction may impel deepening American involvement. If the world is to be spared even worse turmoil, the U.S. must develop a strategic doctrine for the region. Stability requires an active American role.
This is typical Obama. As Kissinger and Schultz point out, we have no strategy. No broad thinking has gone into this agreement. We just put a bandaid on the situation for ten years while strengthening our adversary, Iran, and destabilizing the region.
And we and our children will pay dearly for it.