Fareed Zakaria’s Unconvincing Case in Favor of the Iran Deal

Dear Dr. Zakaria,

You have just published an open letter to Sen. Chuck Schumer explaining why you found his statement of opposition to the Iran deal “unconvincing.” I commend the civil tone of your letter and the strong arguments you advance. You do a better job of defending the agreement than does President Obama, who too often engages in ad hominem invective rather than reasoned discussion. Nevertheless, I do not find your arguments convincing. Because I and so many others have great respect for you as a foreign policy thinker, I would like to explain in an open letter of my own where and why I disagree with your analysis.

You begin by claiming that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action “is the most intrusive, demanding and comprehensive set of inspections, verification protocols and snapback measures ever negotiated.” Comprehensive, yes, in the sense of being long and detailed, if not always easy to understand. Despite the agreement’s length, however, is it far from the most demanding or intrusive such agreement ever reached. That honor belongs to countries such as South Africa, which by 1994 gave up its entire weapons of mass destruction program, and to Libya, which did the same in 2003-2004. Their programs were eradicated down to the roots. Iran’s program, by contrast, will continue to exist.

You are right that under the JCPOA “Iran must destroy 98 percent of its enriched uranium and all of its 5 percent to 20 percent enriched uranium, remove and store more than two-thirds of its centrifuges (including all advanced centrifuges), terminate all enrichment at its Fordow nuclear facility and render inoperable the key components of its Arak (plutonium) reactor.”

But all of these steps are reversible. As Iran’s own official news agency noted, “Iran’s nuclear infrastructure will remain intact, no centrifuges will be dismantled and research and development on key and advanced centrifuges such as IR-4, IR-5, IR-6, IR-8 will continue.” What this means is that at the end of the 10-to-15 year period covered by the agreement, Iran will emerge with a more sophisticated nuclear program than it has now–one that will put it on the brink of possessing nuclear weapons.

And that’s assuming a best-case scenario — i.e., assuming full Iranian compliance. But why should we assume that, given Iran’s long history of cheating on its obligations to the International Atomic Energy Agency? You write that “all of Iran’s known nuclear facilities are subject to anywhere, anytime monitoring.”  True, but what about off — off-the-books facilities of the kind that North Korea developed to cheat on the 1994 Agreed Framework? (North Korea pledged to freeze its plutonium enrichment program while proceeding with secret uranium enrichment.)

Sen. Schumer said he is disturbed by the 24-day grace period that Iran receives under the accord. Actually that’s a best-case scenario; in truth, Iran could probably stretch out the inspections grace period for three months or more. You suggest this is nothing to worry about, quoting a nuclear expert who says, “Should the U.S. intelligence community catch the Iranians red-handed, it might be that the Iranians would drag things out as long as possible. But in such a case, the game would be over.”

In reality, things are seldom so cut-and-dried. The U.S. intelligence community might have suspicions that Iran is cheating, but after the Iraq debacle, few will trust the word of the U.S. intelligence community about alleged weapons of mass destruction in another Middle Eastern country. Real proof will require on-site visits by international inspectors. But Iran will have plenty of time and advance notice to sanitize suspect sites. What we are likely to face is the kind of cat-and-mouse game that Saddam Hussein played with international inspectors in the 1990s. Catching Iran “red-handed” will be virtually impossible, if by “red handed” you mean evidence that will convince countries such as China, Russia, and, yes, France and Germany, which will soon have close economic relationships with Iran that will make them inclined to look the other way.

And what if Iran is caught cheating? You are more impressed than I am by the “snapback” provisions. You say the Iran deal “contains the first mechanism for the automatic re-imposition of sanctions ever created, to my knowledge. And they can be triggered by Washington unilaterally.”

Technically true, but the odds of Washington triggering “snapback” and the rest of the world going along are remote, because you neglected to mention that Iran has a “snapback” provision of its own — what sanctions expert Mark Dubowitz calls “nuclear snapback.” Paragraphs 26 and 27 of the agreement allow Iran to walk away from all of its nuclear obligations if any sanctions are imposed in response to Iranian violations, no matter how small. Paragraph 29 also forbids the US and EU from doing anything to interfere with the “normalization of trade and economic relations with Iran.” Oh, and if sanctions are re-imposed, all existing contracts are grandfathered in, so the blow to Iran would be considerably cushioned.

So imagine that a few years in the future, the U.S. were to develop intelligence suggesting that Iran is cheating in some way. Imagine, too, that Iran stonewalled with weapons inspectors, slow-rolling their demands for access to a suspect facility. In theory, yes, the U.S. could trigger a snapback of sanctions, but any American administration would hesitate to take such action if it allowed Iran to lift all the limits on its nuclear program — after having already reaped well over $100 billion in sanctions relief.

The chances of sanctions snapback are even more remote if you consider, as previously noted, how much of a business stake our European partners, to say nothing of Russia and China, will soon develop in the Iranian economy. Re-imposing sanctions in reality, rather than in theory, will require their active support — support which is unlikely to be forthcoming barring televised footage of Iran about to explode a nuclear device, by which time, of course, it will be too late.

I am also unconvinced by your response to concerns that the agreement will allow Iran, as Schumer wrote, “to redouble its efforts to create even more trouble in the Middle East.” You write: “That might be true, but the deal does not stop the United States and its allies from countering these activities, as they do today.”

The U.S. actually isn’t doing much today to counter the activities of Iran and its proxies in countries such as Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Why not? I believe a big part of the reason is that Obama has been anxious to placate Iran in order to get a nuclear deal. Once having gotten that deal, pressure to placate Iran will not disappear, however — it will be justified as necessary to convince Iran to abide by its agreement.

And countering Iran will be a lot harder in the future, and hence less likely, because it will not only have a lot more money to spend on exporting militancy abroad—the $100 billion or so that is currently frozen in Iranian oil accounts is only a down payment—but it will also soon benefit from the lifting of the bans on conventional arms and ballistic missile sales. You never mentioned those provisions, but they are crucial to Iran’s designs to dominate the region, and their inclusion in the agreement, which otherwise does not address non-nuclear subjects such as Iran’s support for terrorism, its violations of human rights, or its dedication to Israel’s destruction, is a particularly egregious giveaway on the part of the American negotiating team.

The end of the conventional arms and ballistic missile embargoes also make any future military action against Iran in response to a nuclear breakout much more difficult to execute and therefore much more unlikely to happen. It’s hard enough for Israel to bomb Iran today; think how much harder it will be once Iran takes delivery of the sophisticated S-300 air defense system from Russia. By further insulating Iran from military strikes, the agreement will remove a crucial bit of deterrence that might have prevented Iran in the past from weaponizing its nuclear facilities.

You write: “The non-nuclear tensions between Iran and the United States predate Tehran’s nuclear program, continue today and will persist in the future. But they would be much worse if Iran had a nuclear threshold capacity.” I agree. But if you believe this, how can you justify backing  an agreement that, even if it is carried out to the letter, will leave Iran as a nuclear threshold state within a decade?

You conclude your open letter by suggesting that there is now no choice but to embrace the deal Obama has negotiated: “Rejecting this deal would produce an Iran that ramps up its nuclear program, without inspections or constraints, with sanctions unraveling and a United States that is humiliated and isolated in the world.” I appreciate the fact that, unlike Obama, you have not said that the choice is either between this deal or war — the false choice that the president uses to brand his critics as warmongers.

But is even your more measured conclusion warranted? Of course no one knows what would happen if Congress rejected the deal, but the well-respected Middle East expert Robert Satloff offers some good guesses.

“First,” he writes, “Iran is unlikely to respond to congressional disapproval by enriching uranium with reckless abandon and thereby validating the skeptics who never trusted its commitment to a solely peaceful nuclear program.”

As for the Europeans, Satloff writes, “Europe is unlikely to respond to a vote of disapproval by unilaterally terminating its sanctions,” as long as the administration hangs tough: “If the administration maintains effective enforcement of its nuclear-related sanctions, along with enforcement of the primary and secondary aspects of the nonnuclear sanctions that will be unaffected by the Iran deal, European business leaders are ultimately unlikely to value the Iranian market more than the U.S. market, and much of the existing sanctions regime would stay in place. In that scenario, the outcome would probably be murky — the global sanctions regime would be less effective than it is today but would still have significant bite. It would collapse only if the United States failed to enforce its own sanctions.”

I find Satloff’s arguments convincing. What they suggest is that congressional rejection of the Iranian deal need not be a disaster — that with a modicum of toughness the U.S. could keep Iran in a sanctions box that the mullahs would hesitate to break out of right away for fear of triggering a true backlash. By contrast, if the deal goes through, Iran will be immeasurably strengthened, leaving it — best case scenario — as a nuclear threshold state within a decade that will also have much more powerful conventional and unconventional power projection capabilities than it has at present.

You did not mention in your open letter (I recognize you had limited space in your Washington Post column) the likely consequence for the Middle East of this power grab but I believe, at a minimum, it will lead Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and Turkey to back Sunni extremists such as the al-Nusra Front and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Hamas and possibly even ISIS as a counter to the “Persian” threat, while also increasing the likelihood that they will pursue nuclear programs of their own.

For all these reasons, I believe Sen. Schumer is right to come out against this dangerous accord. I hope that more lawmakers follow his lead. But whatever happens, I hope that lawmakers will engage in the kind of reasoned, details-oriented discussion we are having rather than be swayed by the emotional rhetoric on all sides.

Cordially,

Max Boot