Such would be the highly likely, if not inevitable, result of the policy urged by Senatorial hawks, many others in the GOP in Congress, and Reagan-Bush neo-cons waiting for a hawkish GOP administration. Obama’s reputation for talking big and carrying a small stick, and turning red lines into pink ones gives them some reason to urge a tough deal or strong measures. But the 47 Republican signatories to Cotton’s letter to the Ayatollah show themselves ignorant, irresponsible, and unwise, with potentially dangerous consequences for national and international security. Just consider McCain’s explanation for signing: he was in a rush to get to the airport to avoid a snowstorm—this trivial reason for risking harm to national interests from a GOP leader on foreign and military affairs.
In its habit of denying ideas and facts contrary to its political ideology, the GOP takes enormous risks without caring about, much less understanding, the technical, economic, political, or military issues. For a war with Iran would be of a kind on scale and scope with consequences not imagined by Congress—and one which the American people would not likely approve if they understood the issues or the consequences of GOP risk-taking and war-mongering. Presently, they do not understand them. But, then, neither do the majority of Republicans in Congress who want to insert themselves into the negotiations.
What everyone in Congress and the media refers to as “Obama’s deal” with Iran is nothing of the sort. The negotiations which may or may not lead to a “deal” involves two sides: on one side, Iran; on the other: the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council—the U.S., China, England, France, and Russia—and Germany. None of these six countries wants to see Iran with a nuclear weapon, and none can act alone to reach an independent agreement with Iran.
The claim by some members of Congress in both parties that it has a proper role in these negotiations or the resulting “deal” is contrary to history in such foreign policy matters. Every previous administration, Democratic or Republican, has had the sole authority to negotiate essentially administrative arrangements in accordance with existing treaties. So the interest of some members of Congress in involving itself in negotiations is unprecedented and dangerous in undermining future administrations’ authority to do what past administrations have always done. Other nations will be reluctant or unable to negotiate with the U.S. with confidence that it is participating in good faith or to any good purpose if Congress can modify or revoke any agreements.
Most Democratic and Republican senators seem to know little or care less about the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the enduring, painstaking work of informed officials and experts throughout the world—now at risk of being undone on the initiative of a rookie Arkansas Republican senator. The Treaty drafted in 1968 and entering into force in 1970 responded to the inherent dangers posed by nuclear energy: many facilities in a civilian nuclear energy regime can be used by a military nuclear weapons regime. The NPT provides a framework for permitting the use of nuclear energy for civilian purposes and proscribes its use for military purposes, which signatories must renounce. Thus, the NPT, by its signatories’ compliance, keeps the world safer than it would otherwise be. As an NPT signatory, Iran is entitled to its benefits. But some violations of NPT provisions give good reason to suspect its avowed purpose to develop civilian nuclear power. What the six nations are negotiating is not a treaty but an arrangement to secure Iran’s compliance with, and thereby preserve, the NPT.
Finally, although the 47 GOP signatories to Cotton’s letter and their amen chorus of talking heads outside Congress declare the deal a “bad” one, none of them knows the terms of the deal because it is still being negotiated. Their efforts to sabotage these multi-national negotiations reflect the arrogance of their ignorance.
In its idea-free, fact-free approach now characterizing its approach to difficult problems with possible solutions contrary to their partisan interests, Republicans are unwilling to declare their willingness to increase the risk of war by disrespecting Obama, discrediting the United States, disrupting the negotiations, and preventing a deal. As Leslie Gelb put it, they hate Obama more than they hate a nuclear Iran, or, I would add, love America.
Nevertheless, under the circumstances, a “distrust-but-verify” deal makes sense. Without it, without inspections and other limitations on Iran’s nuclear program, the rest of the world would have little or no timely knowledge of Iran’s use of nuclear energy. So Iran, with a nuclear weapon in its arsenal, would constitute an existential threat not only to Israel, but also to other countries in the Middle East and beyond.
Without a deal, the threat becomes unmanageable and intolerable. An assumed breakout time of one year from uranium enrichment to nuclear weapon is mistaken; in countries like Iran with expertise, technologies, and infrastructure, the breakout time can be three months or fewer—a huge threat to one and all—and perhaps not discoverable in time. Worse still, if a breakout occurs, is discovered, and does not elicit a response reversing or undoing it at once, many other countries in the area would likely initiate their own nuclear program for military weapons. The NPT would be abrogated by a consensus of the scared. The shorter timeline and broader effects make the threat much greater in the absence of a deal than Republicans realize.
Whatever the final deal, the six countries negotiating with Iran can assure the world that Iran will not be allowed to develop military uses of nuclear energy. It can adopt and announce several principles of action reserved to themselves, separately or collectively, without regard to Iran’s views. First, the right to impose immediate and full-scope economic, financial, and political sanctions if Iran violates the inspection regime in any way. Second, the right to define a breakout from civilian to military use as an act of war and to take such action as they deem appropriate, including a devastating response, possibly nuclear. Third, an announcement of planning for a military response as their preferred option because no country willing to risk severe non-military sanctions by violating the inspection regime will stop the attempt if faced with only them. Finally, the interpretation of the development and deployment of missiles, which exist only as a means to the end of delivering nuclear bombs, as an indication of the likelihood of a breakout and military intent.
In short, the nuclear weapon/missile threat posed by today’s Iran is not unlike the threat posed by yesterday’s Soviet Union. With that threat comes the need to prevent it by peaceful means if possible, to deter or destroy it by credible military means if necessary. The threat is perhaps greater because miniaturization makes it possible for non-bomber, non-missile delivery of nuclear weapons by sub-state actors. To the weapons and tactics used in conventional or bomber- or missile-based nuclear warfare, Iran can add those of guerilla and terrorist warfare. Welcome to the new world of mutual assured destruction, with demonstrated fanaticism assuring us that turning the other cheek will get it blown, or cut, off.