Is war the only alternative to the Iran deal?

Michael Oren is Israel’s deputy minister for diplomacy and a former Israeli ambassador to the United States. Writing in the New York Times, Oren disputes the argument that “the only alternative to the Iran nuclear deal is war.” Noting that the same argument was made before the Iran deal was reached in 2015, he responds that, now as then, the alternative to the deal isn’t war, but a better deal.

Oren’s response was probably valid back in 2015, when Iran was trying to bargain its way out of crippling sanctions. But is a better deal a realistic alternative now that it has?

I’m far from convinced. Having received substantial sanctions relief, Iran is not in the dire situation of 2015. It has reason to doubt that the U.S. could rally key players to reimpose crippling sanctions. European nations eager to deal with the regime might well reject the idea that they should refrain from dealing just because America is unhappy with the terms it agreed to.

But even if they thought they faced the prospect of the old sanctions regime, Iran’s leaders would almost certainly reject America’s call for a do-over. The mullahs just aren’t into that sort of humiliation at the hands of America.

Moreover, it’s almost impossible to believe the regime would agree to the do-over Oren proposes which includes, “above all, eliminating the ‘sunset clause.’” That clause permits Iran eventually to produce nuclear weapons. If Oren thinks the regime will give that up, he seriously underestimates Iran’s determination to become a nuclear power, it seems to me.

Does this mean that war is the only alternative to the deal? Not necessarily. It’s possible that Iran, while refusing to negotiate, would continue substantially to abide by the agreement, or at least refrain from a full tilt effort to develop nukes. This approach might keep Iran on the good side of the Europeans, while isolating America. And it would virtually eliminate prospect of U.S. military action.

But it’s also possible that Iran won’t refrain. Oren says “the contention that Iran will rush to make nuclear weapons in the absence of an agreement is unfounded.” He notes that Iran could have made that rush before 2015 but did not — deterred, he says, by a tough talk from Benjamin Netanyahu and the implicit military threat that backed it up.

Perhaps. But it’s just as plausible to surmise that Iran didn’t rush to make nuclear weapons back then because the regime thought that it could induce President Obama into a deal that would preserve its right to develop them later and would lift key sanctions that were crippling the economy. This, of course, is what happened.

If the U.S. breaks that deal, I am not as confident as Oren that Iran won’t push ahead and develop nukes. Thus, while war isn’t the inevitable outcome of a U.S. pullout, we shouldn’t pull out of the deal unless we are prepared to wage war.

The Trump administration, by all accounts, will not pull out of the deal or urge Congress to vote for pulling out. Rather, the administration will refuse to certify the deal and, on that basis, push for tough sanctions that are not precluded by the deal. Having stayed in the deal, Trump will expect European cooperation.

The idea is to pressure Iran into renegotiating the deal without giving the regime cause to renounce it. As I argued above, it Iran is unlikely to renegotiate. However, tough sanctions will weaken Iran and, conceivably, weaken the mullahs grip on power.

Thus, the approach Trump is expected to take seems like a sensible one under the circumstances, assuming he wants to minimize for now the risk of war. But sensible is not the same thing as satisfactory.

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