Why no deal is better than Obama’s deal

I found Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress persuasive in all but one respect. I question Netanyahu’s claim that the alternative to the deal Obama seems prepared to settle for is “a better deal.”

It believe that the Iranian regime’s overriding goal is to obtain nuclear weapons. If that’s the case, Iran will not agree to a deal that significantly impedes its ability to reach this goal. It follows that the most likely alternative to a bad deal with Iran is “no deal.”

Accordingly, President Obama and his supporters have a point when they demand to know how Netanyahu intends to thwart Iran’s ambition in the absence of their deal — one that at least would permit inspections, thus perhaps improving the ability of the U.S. and Israel to know whether Iran is “breaking out” and racing towards development of nuclear bombs.

The answer to Obama’s point is that the absence of a deal doesn’t mean the absence of a strategy for preventing Iran from obtaining nukes. In fact, the absence of a deal would facilitate two approaches that hold more promise of thwarting Iran than even a decent deal.

In theory, there are three scenarios under which Iran won’t get the bomb. First, military action might prevent it. Second, the right kind of regime change might prevent it. Third, a deal might prevent it.

The first and second scenarios are the most effective because the third depends on some level of cooperation and compliance by a notoriously hostile and unreliable regime. The second scenario is preferable to the first because military action might not be entirely effective and, in any event, carries collateral risks. But the second scenario depends on events beyond our control.

If, as seems likely, Netanyahu is wrong that tougher bargaining will produce a decent deal, then his approach rules out the third scenario — a non-nuclear Iran achieved through bargaining. But Obama’s deal also rules out this scenario unless regime change occurs before the deal expires. As discussed below, this is highly unlikely.

Moreover, even during its life, the deal wouldn’t prevent an Iranian nuclear breakout. It would only give Israel and the U.S. a half year to a year (according to most estimates) to invoke the first scenario, a military response. As discussed below, the existence of the deal makes such a response by the U.S. highly unlikely.

In sum, a non-nuclear Iran cannot, in all likelihood, be achieved through bargaining.

Regime change of the right sort would almost certainly mean an end to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, provided that Obama’s deal hasn’t already caused Iran’s neighbors to develop nukes. What, then, are the prospects for such regime change?

If Iran gets out from under sanctions, the prospects are slim. The Iranian regime has survived for more than 35 years through all sorts of hardship. The absence of sanctions would relieve Iran from much hardship, making regime change highly unlikely.

A tough sanctions system would significantly increase the prospect for regime change. We can infer this from the fact that, before Obama began to lift sanctions, the Iranian economy was in sufficiently bad shape that the mullahs sought out “the Great Satan” for talks. Surely, they did so because they saw their grip on power loosening. And this, as Netanyahu pointed out yesterday, was before oil prices plummeted.

The other way in which Iran’s nuclear ambitions might be thwarted is through military action. To be optimally effective, such action would require U.S. involvement. For Israel to take such action would probably require U.S. consent if hardliners like Netanyahu lose power.

Deal or no deal, Obama isn’t going to take military action against Iran. But in two years, such action by the U.S. might well be back on the table. So might consent to an Israeli strike.

However, if the U.S. and Iran reach a deal, U.S. military action is highly unlikely, even in a “breakout” scenario. As Ray Takeyh points out, the reaction to North Korea’s atomic provocations shows that the U.S. and its international partners deal with such arms control infractions through endless mediation: “Once an agreement is signed, too many nations become invested in its perpetuation to risk a rupture.”

Absent a deal, Obama’s successor will be less constrained when it comes to taking military action against Iran and to consenting to Israeli action. This, I suspect, is one important reason why Obama is so eager to reach a deal, even a manifestly bad one.

To summarize, there are three conceivable pathways to a non-nuclear Iran. Obama’s approach relies on the least effective of them — a deal — and effectively precludes the other two. Moreover, by all accounts, the deal he’s willing to settle for contains so many concessions as to nearly forfeit its status as a conceivable pathway to thwarting Iran.

The better course is to insist on a much better deal. If that deal can’t be had, we will retain two more plausible approaches to thwarting Iran — sanctions-induced regime change and the military option.

The Obama administration was correct, then, when it stated that no deal is better than a bad deal. And Netanyahu was correct when he compellingly explained yesterday why the Obama administration’s likely deal is a bad one.

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