Two faulty objections to an Iran deal

The closing months of an Iran nuclear deal were always bound to bring a hailstorm of criticisms from opponents of diplomacy. Well, it’s happening — and maybe “hail” isn’t the right kind of storm: critics of a deal seem be throwing shit up against a wall and seeing what they can get to stick.

Two lines of criticism here are worth exploring. First, that intelligence-gathering and inspections of Iran’s nuclear program will never be good enough to detect whether or not they are cheating. And, second, that other regional powers, namely Saudi Arabia, will seek to build their own nuclear program.

Let’s deal with the second of those first, because it’s in the news. David Sanger had a piece in The New York Times a couple days ago under the (web) headline “Saudi Arabia Promises to Match Iran in Nuclear Capability.” The title largely speaks for itself, so I won’t bother with most of the details. But this line from Sanger is worth noting: “It is widely presumed that Pakistan would provide Saudi Arabia with the technology, if not a weapon itself.”

Yet, as the Washington Post‘s PostEverything blog recently noted, “Pakistan has of late asserted its independence from Saudi Arabia, as evidenced by their refusal to aid Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.” Riyadh may be furious enough over the Iran deal to forsake the U.S., but Islamabad may not be—a point echoed by the scholars Dina Esfandiary and Ariane Tabatabai, who disputed the “nuclear cascade” theory in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists last month. So this isn’t quite the universal presumption Sanger presents it as.

Nonetheless, even if the nuclear dominoes, so to speak, do fall, it could be a boon to non-proliferation efforts. If Saudi Arabia does follow through on its threat to match Iran, perhaps it can be convinced to adhere to the same restrictions. “Given the nature of what Iran has agreed to, the appropriate response to such demands [to match Iran’s capability] is probably: you’re welcome to it—although why any unsanctioned state would want to subject itself to such severe restrictions and intrusiveness is another question,” Paul Pillar wrote recently.

Columbia University Iran expert Gary Sick echoed this notion. “I say let any Middle Eastern country sign on to an agreement with all of the same limitations included in the deal that has been negotiated by the P5+1 with Iran. That will be true equivalency,” Sick wrote in an e-mail. “And if all the Arab states should do so, that would be a powerful first step toward a nuclear free zone in the Middle East—which they all say they want.”

But there’s more to this objection than the failure to think it through to its conclusion. What’s most strange is that now Saudi Arabia getting a nuclear program is an objection to an Iran deal. Yet, before the interim deal and further negotiations, hawks had these sorts of things to say about why something must be done about Iran’s nuke program: “One certain result [of a nuclear-armed Iran] would thus be a nuclear proliferation spiral in the Middle East, in which Saudi Arabia, Turkey and probably Egypt would acquire nuclear arsenals of their own,” wrote the Wall Street Journal editorial board in 2011. (I won’t bore you with more examples—you can Google around for them.)

Never mind that at least one major think tank didn’t think so much of the Middle East nuclear proliferation cascade theory—despite the Journal‘s cocksure declaration of a “certain result.” What’s really galling is that the situation hawks have used to lament Obama’s supposed inaction on Iran before diplomacy is now being used to oppose diplomacy, Obama, in other words, is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.

If that leaves you scratching your head, let me help clarify what’s going on. In this case, too, the 2011 Journal editorial is instructive. The editorial board was insisting that Obama do something about Iran’s nuclear progress, but they weren’t asking for a robust diplomatic process and a deal that curtails Iran’s program. Instead, the Journal called for military strikes against Iran, arguing, naturally, that the negative consequences would be minimal.

With that, let’s move on to the second objection to the Iran nuke deal held up by Iran hawks. This one says that even the heightened regime of inspections on Iran’s nuclear program and the certainty that it’ll remain the world’s most watched program ever simply won’t be enough. Iran will cheat, we’re told, and it’ll get away with it because these methods of detection won’t cut it.

This notion has been proffered, again, by many über-hawks. “The deal’s success is fundamentally dependent on intelligence and inspections. Neither of these tools is reliable,” says Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official website. It’s no surprise that the neoconservative Washington Post blogger Jen Rubin shares this view: “Verification and detection are illusory,” she recently wrote.

There’s a grain of truth to the point: intelligence-gathering is never perfect, and neither is any inspections regime. But that obscures a more salient point about this objection to a diplomatic agreement.

Opponents of the proposed deal outlined in an April framework agreement constantly say they don’t want war as an alternative to this agreement. They just don’t want this deal, they want a better deal. That better deal, one where Iran gives up its enrichment program entirely, is a unicorn: it exists only in their imagination. Virtually every Iran expert on the planet agrees that there is no such deal to be had, because Iran would never agree to it. It’s a non-starter.

What’s so curious, then, about the positions of those opposing the current deal is that even their unicorn deal would rely on intelligence and inspections. If, as Jen Rubin wrote, Iran has a “history of lying [and] cheating” then why wouldn’t it cheat on a pledge to not enrich at all? It follows that such a pledge would, in that case, need to be backed up by robust inspection and intelligence-gathering. Then we’d be back at square one, up against this objection that inspections and detection don’t work.

WIth this objection, the logical fallacy runs so deep that it lays bare the intentions of the opponents of diplomacy who raise it. They don’t want a deal at all. Indeed, Rubin has already called for an attack on Iran—in 2010!

None of this is to say that there aren’t real concerns about an Iranian nuclear deal. But some of the objections are so completely hollow that they ought to be seen for what they are: throwing shit against the wall. We should recognize this from a mile away when it comes from the warmongers, and call them to account for it.

This article was written by Ali Gharib for Lobe Log on May 16, 2015. Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia.