George Will’s false choice on Iran

George Will is a national treasure. But that doesn’t mean his columns are always persuasive. His latest column is not.

The column is called (in the print edition) “A deal with Iran or war?” Will seems to assume that without a deal, there would be a war — or, at a minimum, that President Obama’s deal significantly reduces the likelihood of war. But Will does not back this assumption up, and I believe it is incorrect.

Will starts from the premise, stated by Kenneth Pollack, that “going to war with Iran to try to prevent it from obtaining a nuclear arsenal would be a worse course of action than containing Iran, even a nuclear Iran.” This is a defensible position for the U.S. to take especially if, by “going to war,” Will means a land war as opposed to bombings. More on that later.

Will’s next step is to contend that President Obama’s deal with Iran — which he acknowledges is deeply flawed — “may prevent a war to prevent Iran from acquiring [nuclear] weapons.” He reasons, correctly, that the U.S. won’t attack Iran during the six-month period of negotiations and that Israel will similarly be constrained.

For Will, then, the deal is better than no deal because it precludes war, at least for now.

But Will does not look at the other side of the equation — the likelihood of war in the absence of the deal. He does not claim that if no deal were reached and the sanctions regime continued in force, Obama would take the country to war. Nor could such a claim be taken seriously. At the end of the day, Obama wasn’t willing to launch an “unbelievably small” air attack on Assad’s chemical weapons supply. Clearly, he would not launch an air attack on the much more formidable nation of Iran.

Obama likes to say he was elected to end wars, not to start them. He has no intention of starting a war with Iran. The sham deal is, in part, a manifestation of that unwillingness.

But what about Israel? Even without the deal it was already constrained by Obama’s unwillingness to attack Iran. As Will says, Israel “lacks the military capacity to be certain of a success commensurate with the risks of attacking Iran.”

This is not to say that Israel will never attack Iran. If the mullahs were “breaking out” towards weaponization, there’s a distinct possibility that Israel would attack.

But this is true whether or not Obama has made a deal with Iran. By breaking out, Iran would have violated any deal, and thus Israel would not be “constrained.”

Arguably, a deal with Iran actually increases the likelihood of an Israeli attack on Iran. Once sanctions have ended or been slashed, Iran may see itself as strong enough to make the dash to weaponization.

If I am right that Obama’s deal doesn’t reduce the likelihood of war, we need not consider Will’s argument that war with Iran would be worse than a containment strategy. However, I believe that Will overstates the case against war.

A ground war might well turn out as badly as Will says; here his invocation of the Iraq war resonates. But air strikes against nuclear targets are another matter.

Will argues that this course of action would not stop Iran from reconstituting its nuclear program. It’s far from clear, however, that the mullahs, having labored under economically crippling sanctions (absent a deal) and having seen their nuclear program set back substantially by an attack, would go back to the nuclear drawing board. It’s also not clear that the mullahs’ regime would survive this scenario.

In any event, if Iran did try to reconstitute its program, it could be attacked from the air again.

I’m not advocating an attack, at least not absent an attempted “break out,” nor do I believe it’s realistic to discuss an American attack while Obama is in office. I advocate maintaining the sanctions regime unless and until Iran dismantles its nuclear program.

That is not the path to war. Unfortunately, it also is probably not the path to Iranian nuclear dismantlement. But it has the virtue of containing Iran as a regional power (a country with a ruined economy can only be but so strong) and jeopardizing the mullahs’ hold on that country.

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