foreign affairs

What Critics Are Saying About the Iran Deal

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a final press conference at the Vienna International Center on July 14, 2015. Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images

Following today’s historic international accord with Iran, there has been a lot of commentary analyzing the deal and its implications. On the right, many have claimed that the U.S. compromised too much in a rush to make a deal, putting national security and our allies at risk. While on the left, and among much of the foreign-policy Establishment, others have argued that the agreement was the best one Americans (and Iranians) could have hoped for and that it could lead to profound positive changes in the Middle East. Collected below are some of the more substantive arguments we’ve seen around the web.

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg sees the deal as a practical necessity when it comes to U.S. national security, but that doesn’t mean he likes it. In particular, he thinks the cash, which will available to Iran following sanctions relief, which could be as much as $150 billion, will simply exacerbate the problem of Iran’s sponsorship of violence in the Middle East:

It is hard to imagine a scenario — at least in the short term — in which Hezbollah and other terror organizations on the Iranian payroll don’t see a windfall from the agreement. This is a bad development in particular for the people of Syria. Iran, as the Assad regime’s funder, protector, and supplier of weapons, foot soldiers, and strategists, is playing a crucial role in the destruction of Syria. Now Syrians will see their oppressor become wealthier and gain international legitimacy.

He has larger concerns as well:

How much visibility will the International Atomic Energy Agency (and, by the way, the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies) have into the Iranian nuclear program? How quickly will inspectors be able to visit sites they want to visit?  I’m also worried about the time-based, rather than condition-based, lifting of arms embargoes (the United States should never acquiesce to a flow of arms to a terror-sponsoring state), and about Iran’s ability to continue its research and development on ballistic missiles and other aspects of a nuclear program. I also believe that so-called “snapback” sanctions are a fiction: The U.S. could reimpose sanctions on Iran if Tehran cheats on the deal, but it would be reimposing these sanctions on what will be a much-richer country, one that could withstand such sanctions for quite a while.

The American Enterprise Institute’s Danielle Pletka warns that “Iranian nuclear doctrine — if it even has one — is unclear, as is the final shape of its nuclear ambitions”:

[This is not] to suggest that somehow the Iranian nuclear weapons program is less dangerous than world leaders have argued. To the contrary, the program is more dangerous, more serious and ultimately more lethal than supposed. Perhaps Iran does not wish to erase Israel from the map this year. But the reality is that, down the road, should it so choose, the world will not be able to stop it, let alone retaliate without sparking far more carnage.

And then there is the matter of facilitating the inspections. At The Guardian, Julian Borger worries that the IAEA, though they claim otherwise, might not be up to the task when it comes to both funding and diplomatic stamina. Over at Hot Air, blogger Allahpundit shakes his head about how, even presuming the inspections regime is effective, the deal only delays Iran’s nuclear threshold:

The great shining “achievement” of the deal isn’t that it eliminates Iran’s program — it doesn’t — but that it removes any remaining domestic pressure on Obama to further escalate with Iran, either by sanctions or military strike, to stop it. … The grand irony of this capitulation is that Obama, a guy who campaigned against nuclear proliferation, is effectively removing the taboo against new nuclear states. If you want to build a bomb, that’s fine, but you need to do it gradually, on the west’s schedule.

He suspects another deal is coming as well:

Obama and Kerry have no choice now but to aggressively pursue a grand bargain with Iran, right? The only way to neutralize an Iranian bomb after this is to make them so friendly to the west that they wouldn’t think of using it. And the clock is ticking on that given the near certainty that (a) a Republican will return to the White House sometime before 2028, when the deal will be winding down, and (b) that Republican will be far less inclined towards detente with Iran than Obama is. If Obama wants to bind the hands of his successors (or at least make it much harder for them to start a new cold war with Tehran), he needs to strike that grand bargain himself.

Indeed, many analysts and supporters of the deal do see a detente with Iran as an ideal outcome. Longtime foreign-affairs commenter Marc Lynch thinks through that possibility, first noting that in the short-term, both the U.S. and Iran may pick a few fights with each other to save face domestically:

Over the longer term, though, the United States and Iran could very well begin to build common interests in cooperation on strategic issues beyond the nuclear realm. Iraq is one obvious arena in which interests converge around supporting the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and fighting the Islamic State. After the posturing ends and each side’s escalation has been matched, Iran might finally be willing to negotiate seriously over an endgame for Syria.

But as the New York Times’ David E. Sanger comments, assuming there will be a domestic sea change in Iran is a gamble:

Mr. Obama is essentially betting that once sanctions have been lifted, Iran’s leaders will have no choice but to use much of the new money to better the lives of their long-suffering citizens. … Ayatollah Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard generals, dedicated to preserving the principles of the 1979 revolution, are taking the other side of that bet: that they can use the money and legitimacy of the accord to advance their interests and to keep in check a young Iranian population that is clearly a lot less interested in next-generation centrifuges than it is in getting visas to visit and study in the West.

Elsewhere, the American Conservative’s Daniel Larison, who calls the deal a “significant achievement,” argues that the risk is worth it:

It is too early to know how the deal will affect internal conditions in Iran, but it is probable that Rouhani’s success in these talks will give him more room to push for some measure of economic and social reform. Sanctions relief will take some of the economic pressure off of the Iranian people, and especially the Iranian middle class, and that will gradually aid the cause of Iranian opposition groups that the sanctions have been helping to strangle. There aren’t likely to be any dramatic changes in Iran’s internal politics, but reducing sanctions can only help loosen the grip of the regime and the hard-liners that they have strengthened in the past.

Along those lines, foreign-affairs analyst Ian Bremmer makes a broader point, speaking with Vox about welcoming countries like Iran back into the international fold:

[O]ne of the ways you open countries is by removing sanctions and investing. This is why Kim Jong Un doesn’t want sanctions removed from his country. If North Korea became a functioning part of the international system, his regime would fall pretty quickly. Iran’s theocrats also know how dangerous this is. If Iranian expats begin going back to Iran, and Western investment starts flowing in, the likelihood that over a longer period of time the Iranian government opens a little and maybe a lot is much greater. Now, if you’re Obama, you can’t make the arguments for regime change and oil, because they’re not politically correct, but if you’re actually thinking about the impact of the deal over the long term, I think it’s fairly clear you’d rather have this deal than not if you’re America.

Looking at the domestic politics, the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin claims that the favorable terms Iran received in the agreement will ultimately poison the deal within the U.S.:

With a deal this bad, one that caved not only on nuclear-related issues but also on conventional arms restrictions, the chances that neutral, respected figures will oppose the deal goes up. Look for former officials and outside nuclear experts to weigh in with a host of objections. For sober Democrats in the Senate who signed their name to multiple statements demanding terms far stricter than the ones we now are presented with, a no vote becomes much more likely.

Hot Air’s Ed Morrissey, who is skeptical that enough Democrats will consider voting against anything considered an Obama peace treaty, is nonetheless annoyed, on principle, at how Obama has written off Congress with a veto threat:

Ahem. It’s not quite consistent to declare oneself welcoming of “a robust debate” while at the same time pledging to ignore everyone else’s advice on the subject of it. Obama isn’t welcoming a debate or scrutiny at all; he’s telling Congress to sit down and shut up.

Meanwhile at Politico, Nahal Toosi considers an alternative scenario to Congress or a future Republican president directly sabotaging the deal:

[A] U.S. president — and a hawkish Congress — also has the option of leveling new sanctions on Iran that aren’t necessarily tied to its nuclear program but rather to its support for terrorist groups. (Existing sanctions that target Iran over its support for terrorism and its abuses of human rights won’t be lifted under the nuclear deal.)

Writing at The Week, Peter Weber frames another possible pitfall for the accord:

Republicans do have one decent shot left at causing Obama’s historic diplomatic achievement to come unglued: Carefully calibrated political spitballs aimed not at Washington but Tehran.

The technical obstacles can be surpassed with goodwill and diligence, but political hurdles can turn into poison pills,” Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst at Crisis International, tells The Wall Street Journal. “Neither Iran nor the U.S. has ever implemented such a complex quid pro quo. In an atmosphere of mistrust, misunderstandings are inevitable — thus the need for preserving the positive diplomatic momentum even after the deal is sealed.”

Taking a broader view, The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart thinks he has identified the fundamental disagreement between Obama and the deal’s opponents:

When critics focus incessantly on the gap between the present deal and a perfect one, what they’re really doing is blaming Obama for the fact that the United States is not omnipotent. This isn’t surprising given that American omnipotence is the guiding assumption behind contemporary Republican foreign policy. Ask any GOP presidential candidate except Rand Paul what they propose doing about any global hotspot and their answer is the same: be tougher … If you believe American power is limited, this agenda is absurd. America needs Russian and Chinese support for an Iranian nuclear deal … Accepting that American power is limited means prioritizing. It means making concessions to regimes and organizations you don’t like in order to put more pressure on the ones you fear most.

He concludes:

Obama has certainly made mistakes in the Middle East. But behind his drive for an Iranian nuclear deal is the effort to make American foreign policy “solvent” again by bringing America’s ends into alignment with its means. That means recognizing that the United States cannot bludgeon Iran into total submission, either economically or militarily. The U.S. tried that in Iraq.

It is precisely this recognition that makes the Iran deal so infuriating to Obama’s critics. It codifies the limits of American power. And recognizing the limits of American power also means recognizing the limits of American exceptionalism. It means recognizing that no matter how deeply Americans believe in their country’s unique virtue, the United States is subject to the same restraints that have governed great powers in the past. For the Republican right, that’s a deeply unwelcome realization. For many other Americans, it’s a relief. It’s a sign that, finally, the Bush era in American foreign policy is over.

What Critics Are Saying About the Iran Deal