Paul Pillar

The Iran Agreement and the Meaning of Risk

The first few days of argumentation about the recently completed agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program have taken predictable directions—predictable not only because the shape of the deal was known well before all the drafting was finished in Vienna but also because the principal opposition to the agreement has little or nothing to do with the terms and instead is opposition to any dealing with Iran. A recurring pattern in discourse about the agreement this past week has been reluctance by opponents to talk about the alternative of no agreement—again, unsurprising, given that the alternative is patently worse on nearly all the points (inspections, duration, limits on enrichment, etc.) on which the agreement gets criticized. This has meant, as Peter Beinart has noted, much evasiveness and changing of the subject when opponents are asked about the alternative. The opposition approach has been dominated by two general lines of attack: shooting at provisions of the agreement as if the alternative were not the absence of an agreement but instead some perfect pact, notwithstanding the unattainability of that ideal; and reminding people of all the reasons they should dislike Iran, notwithstanding how far this gets from the nuclear nonproliferation objective that is what the agreement is all about.

Among the numerous obfuscating aspects of the public discourse on this subject are some more subtle ways in which the issue has gotten framed. One of these ways is to regard this agreement and its implementation as somehow riskier, or involving the taking of greater chances, than the alternative of no agreement. For example, David Sanger of the New York Times, who has made into an art form the weaving of his evident disdain for the agreement into reporting on the subject for the nation's premier newspaper of record, wrote after the agreement was reached about President Obama's “leap of faith” and “roll of the dice.” This sort of framing has already become so embedded in the discourse that even proponents of the deal, not to mention fence-sitters, have been using it, perhaps in part to insulate themselves from charges of being too gung-ho about the agreement. The president himself, in his interview this week with Tom Friedman, spoke of the agreement as “a risk we have to take.”

What risk, exactly?

Risk in taking a course of action implies that the course may lead to possible scenarios that were not possibilities before, that we cannot predict which of these scenarios may occur, and that at least some of them would significantly harm our interests if they did occur. The concept involves opening ourselves to some sort of loss to which we would not otherwise be open. It may be that the introduction of the vulnerability is worthwhile to get whatever benefit we hope to get from the course of action, but the added possibilities of loss or harm are intrinsic to the idea of risk. A risky investment, for example, is one that adds a significant possibility of losing money, a possibility that would not be there if we did not make the investment.

To understand how risk does or does not figure into the new Iran deal, compare it with international agreements that otherwise seem most similar to it, which are ones involving arms control. A classic arms control agreement is one in which two or more states agree to reduce or limit their own armaments in return for the other parties reducing or limiting theirs. This was true of the U.S.-Soviet agreements on reducing strategic nuclear forces. The element of risk involved is obvious. If the Soviets were not to live up to their side of the bargain while the United States, living up to its side, reduced its own forces, the United States could wake up to find itself in a position of strategic inferiority. Whatever one may have thought about the overall worth of such Cold War-era agreements or about how much difference any discrepancies in strategic nuclear forces of the time made to international politics, it made sense to talk about risk in embarking on those agreements, and specifically the risk of Soviet cheating. The details of inspection and monitoring arrangements associated with those arms control agreements were all the more important for that reason.

The agreement reached this week in Vienna is nothing like that. The only reductions and limitations, either of arms or of technical programs, are ones that apply to Iran. The United States is not giving up a single bullet. It will have every bit of its “military option” to hold over the head of the Iranians that it has now, and that it would have if there were no agreement. Neither are the rest of the P5+1 giving up anything in that regard, and neither are the regional rivals of Iran. Those rivals will have everything they have now and would have in the absence of an agreement, at either the nuclear level or the conventional level. At the conventional level, as Anthony Cordesman observes, Iran already is the loser in anything that can be called an arms race in the Persian Gulf region. If anything, implementation of the agreement will tilt the military balance even more in favor of the rivals to Iran because of the politically necessary compensation they will get from the United States in terms of more generous arms exports.