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Not War

August 3, 2015

If there are “warmongers” in the Iran debate, they are not the deal’s critics, but its proponents. Yes, there are some extremists clamoring to send in the troops, but they are very few; no credible commentators are arguing to reject the nuclear agreement and instead launch a campaign of air strikes or a ground invasion against the Islamic Republic. In fact, it’s supporters of the deal who are putting up the straw-man argument, “It’s this deal or war.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

The “deal or war” false choice isn’t even remotely credible. Nobody has explained how this might work. Congress rejects the deal, and instead passes an Authorization for Use of Military Force and launches an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites? President Obama fails to override a veto, so he calls in the bombers instead? Or does Iran walk away from the agreement, perhaps alleging some imaginary American breach, and declares war against the U.S.? These may be plots for summer action movies, but not serious real-world scenarios.

The real question is whether military action—eventually, not immediately; conventional or nuclear—will be more likely or less likely with the deal. If we could have two parallel universes, one with the JCPOA taking effect and one without it, in which world is there a more plausible, higher-probability path to war?

The agreement does a lot of things that make the Middle East less stable and conflict more likely. It empowers and emboldens the repressive, theocratic regime in Tehran. It gives the mullahs a huge economic windfall: unfrozen assets, immediate sanctions relief, and incentives for foreign companies to rush in with new contracts that can be “grandfathered” in the event of future sanctions “snap-back.” It allows Iran to re-arm with both conventional weapons and ballistic missiles. It provides a financial bonanza and morale boost to Iran’s regional proxies—Assad in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen—all “bad actors” embroiled in active armed conflicts. It erases and launders previous misdeeds, allowing Iran to play the victim of Western bullying against its now-legitimized nuclear program. It makes the Saudis and other Gulf states, and of course the Israelis, very, very anxious. It allows the Iranian rulers to brag about their “win” over the west and whip up the “Death to America” frenzy.

Are these outcomes likely to enhance peace and tranquility? On the contrary, each of them is a destabilizing factor. Any combination of these has the potential to ignite the tinderbox, escalating from rhetoric to skirmish to battle to all-out war. Clearly, this trend is inimical to U.S. interests—and to the interest of peace.

And these are just the short-term consequences. Longer term, Iran may cheat on its JCPOA obligations, or stonewall inspectors, or build clandestine sites not subject to monitoring. Or it could simply run out the clock on the agreement’s restrictions, and then—legitimately, with the funding and even protection of the West—dash to a nuclear weapon. How much safer will the world be then?

And Iran doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Anticipating Tehran’s aggression, duplicity, and/or patience, Iran’s neighbors (especially the Saudis) and other players in the region (Turkey, Egypt, Jordan) are arming themselves—and considering launching their own nuclear programs. The implications for regional stability, and for the future of non-proliferation worldwide, are obvious and ominous.

Finally, the “war” boogeyman plays on American disappointment and resentment about our decade-long engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, and raises shadows of the national trauma of Vietnam. In fact, the U.S. has engaged in limited military action throughout the Middle East and Africa in the last six years, without being dragged into a quagmire. We have troops in Iraq and are conducting limited air campaigns against ISIS and drone attacks in Yemen and Somalia. We have intervened militarily in Libya and tried to do so in Syria. We have provided non-combat support to armed conflicts in Mali, Uganda, Chad, and Nigeria. We captured and killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. The only ones of these that have escalated were the wars in Iraq (where the U.S. reduced its involvement) and in Syria (where Congress declined to approve any direct involvement). There have been very limited “boots on the ground,” few American casualties, and little national debate—let alone national trauma.

The Israelis, too, have—allegedly!—conducted limited strikes against suspected nuclear sites, in Osirak (Iraq) in 1981 and in Syria in 2007. Neither incident escalated to all-out war, or was even officially admitted. Crucially, neither country attempted to re-start its nuclear program. Even though the air strikes did not “bomb knowledge” or topple a regime, both Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Hafez Assad in Syria made the calculation that they are better off not retaliating and not rebuilding a nuclear infrastructure. Of course we (and the Israelis) could have known then how violent and chaotic the region would soon become. But is there any doubt that thwarting these regimes’ nuclear ambitions has saved us from a true calamity?

Again, this is not to argue for a military strike against the Iranian nuclear installation—we are very, very far from that discussion, and it would be irresponsible to advocate for one at this time. The point is simply that the nuclear agreement makes the Iranian regime and the Middle East more dangerous, not safer. And that not every “no-deal” alternative is military action, and not every military action is an all-out war. So what are, in fact, some viable alternatives? Stay tuned for the next chapter.


As always, I look forward to your feedback: Thoughts, additions, and rebuttals are welcome and actively solicited! Please send your comments directly to me.

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