The last couple of weeks have been a blizzard of diplomatic activity. For the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammed Javad Zarif, actually sat in the same room and talked it out. While an interim deal with Iran was torpedoed at the last minute by the French government, everyone agrees that the two sides made significant progress, and negotiators plan to reconvene on Nov. 20.
But sometimes our political system can astound even a cynic like me with its breathtaking capacity for destruction. A bipartisan coalition in the Senate is currently coalescing — like slugs in the dark — around the idea of blowing up the recent talks with Iran by passing additional sanctions.
In Iran, unemployment is somewhere around 20 percent and inflation is at least 30 percent. For comparison’s sake, unemployment in the United States peaked at 25 percent during the Great Depression and inflation never reached 15 percent in the stagflation of the 1970s. Sanctions have already inflicted an unimaginable amount of pain on the Iranians, the vast majority of which have zero responsibility for their government’s nuclear program.
Hassan Rouhani, the newly elected president of Iran, was voted into power largely because of his promise to negotiate with the West in order to roll back sanctions. He won a decisive mandate, and Ayatollah Khomeini is allowing him to pursue diplomacy. Essentially, the economy is so bad that even many hardliners recognize that freeing the economy from sanctions is more important than pursuing a staunchly anti-Western foreign policy. But for Rouhani to continue to receive this broad-based support, he must deliver.
And conversely, if sanctions are ratcheted up by the U.S. Senate in the very midst of negotiations, Rouhani and his diplomatic tactics will be discredited, and Iran will go back to sulking in its corner.
If the talks fail, war will come quickly. The Israelis intend to bomb the Iranian polonium-enriching facility at Arak. Without a deal — and without the United States forcing Israel to stand down — the bombing will probably take place in the next year, before the facility is operational.
But before I write anymore, I want to dispel some popular myths about Iran and its nuclear program. This issue is so densely thicketed with lies and deceit that I must act like Sam Gamgee in Shelob’s lair: I must hack away at the webs before I can slay the spider.
You’ve probably heard that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad once said he wanted Iran to “wipe Israel off the map.” Indeed, this quote indicates quite a serious threat, explaining much of the hysteria over Iran’s nuclear program. John McCain recently voiced his opposition to any deal with Iran by referencing this quote, claiming that “they are still dedicated to wiping Israel off the map.”
The only problem? Ahmadinejad never said that. He was mistranslated. According to The Washington Post, Ahmadinejad used a phrase meant to convey a prediction of Israel’s collapse, not a threat. It’s the difference between telling your neighbor you want to burn his house down and informing your neighbor that his house has certain structural deficiencies and that you expect it to fall down shortly. The latter is rude; the former is criminal.
But even if a nuclear weapon–armed Iran wanted to commit mass murder against Israel — an assertion for which there is absolutely zero evidence — Iran still wouldn’t do it because Israel has more than 100 nuclear weapons of its own. The doctrine of mutually assured destruction would keep the Middle East safe just as it kept the world safe for much of the 20th century. For Iran to launch a nuclear weapon against Israel, they would have to be both genocidal and suicidal, and there is simply no evidence that either of those words describe the Iranian regime.
Of course, I’m making the assumption that the Iranian nuclear program is for military purposes. According to the CIA and Mossad, Iran still hasn’t made up its mind to pursue nuclear weapons. A few years ago the Ayatollah actually issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, that nuclear weapons are contrary to the principles of Islam. Contradicting that fatwa now would hurt his credibility with the Iranian people.
But we don’t have to be naïve. The Iranians aren’t going to all this trouble just to get nuclear power. They clearly want the option to construct a nuclear weapon in the future.
And why wouldn’t they? The best strategic move an enemy of America can make is to construct a nuclear weapon. We hate Pakistan, and Pakistan hates us, and yet we still give billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan each year. They have a nuke. We hate North Korea, and North Korea hates us, and yet we mostly leave them alone. They have a nuke, too.
In contrast, both Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi had nukes and other WMD’s before giving them up. Both of those suckers ended up dead.
The way to avoid a pointless war and ensure that Iran does not construct a nuclear weapon is to cut a deal; Iran will not build a nuclear weapon if they no longer feel threatened by the United States.
The broad outlines of any potential deal are well known. Iran must allow for rigorous and unscheduled inspections of every nuclear facility it has. Iran must also accept a cap on the level to which it can enrich the uranium; highly enriched uranium is critical for building nuclear weapons and unnecessary for nuclear power. In return, the sanctions must end, and the United States must signal that it respects Iran’s “right-to-enrich” uranium for peaceful purposes.
That last bit is likely to be the most problematic. Israel’s position is that any Iranian enrichment capability must be destroyed, as their nuclear infrastructure will give them the option to construct a bomb in a matter of months. Of course, at this point the only way you could take away their nuclear capability entirely is by bombing them to pieces, which is precisely what Israel wants the United States to do.
From an Iranian perspective, giving up on nuclear power altogether is completely unacceptable. The regime has made nuclear power a central part of their propaganda; to abandon it would be a staggering admission of weakness and would be seen by most Iranians as abject surrender. Iran will not give up on nuclear power, regardless of the price it pays in sanctions.
And so we come back to the Senate, which is threatening to sabotage diplomacy by adding to the sanctions unless Iran stops all of their enrichment immediately. Iran, of course, will refuse, as they will see it as a sign that their “right-to-enrich” will not be respected in the final deal. If the Senate sanctions are then passed as planned, Iran will walk away from the negotiating table.
We will then begin the slow and sorry march to an utterly avoidable war.