Paul Pillar

Bait-and-Switch Sanctioning of Iran

Paul Pillar

The idea of Iran as a regional marauder that is gobbling up other countries in the Middle East and against which pressure must therefore be unrelenting has become one of the favorite themes of those determined to kill the nuclear agreement with Tehran. As an argument for rejecting the nuclear deal, this approach has always suffered from major factual and logical flaws. Given the casual and automatic manner in which references to Iran supposedly sowing mayhem all over the region are routinely worked into almost any discussion of policy toward Iran, it perhaps is too much to expect many people to stop and study the flaws. Perhaps we should just remind people who make those casual references that if Iran really were bent on causing all that mayhem, that is all the more reason to support an agreement to assure that the marauder does not get a nuclear weapon.

But let's not abandon facts and logic just yet. The main fact on this subject is that Iran hasn't been doing anything close to the country-gobbling, capital-controlling, instability-creating stuff in the Middle East that it routinely gets accused of doing. Its regional activity is best characterized as the understandable and unsurprising reactions of a major regional state to an assortment of conflicts in its neighborhood that are not of its own making. As Jon Alterman has put it, “The reality is the Iranians don’t control any Arab capital, and they couldn’t if they tried. Iraqis have a strong sense of nationalism and self-interest, as do Syrians, Lebanese and Yemenis. If you were an Iranian trying to impose your will, you’d be tearing your hair out. There is no Iranian 'order' in the region.” Instead, there is a lot of disorder, and amid that disorder the Iranian goal, says Alterman, “is to survive in a hostile world.”

There is no fundamental difference between most of what Iran actually is doing in the region and what either the United States or its regional Sunni friends are doing in reacting to the same disorder. Yet when the latter step into something like the confusing sectarian/tribal/personal conflict in Yemen, as the Saudis have done with their U.S.-supported military intervention replete with airstrikes, it is looked on benignly, but when the Iranians provide lesser assistance to one of the players in the same conflict, this gets described as country-gobbling trouble-making. Such inconsistency is all the more glaring when Iran and the United States are weighing in on the same side, as they are in Iraq.

A particular variant of the Iran-as-marauder argument that has featured prominently in the most recent efforts to kill the nuclear agreement is the notion that granting Iran relief from some of the sanctions to which it currently is subjected would give Iran more resources for more trouble-making in the region, and this would mean Iran would in fact cause more trouble. This assumes that any extra funds in the Iranian bank account would go into whatever foreign activities the anti-agreement people want us to think of as trouble-making, rather than toward meeting the demands and high expectations of the Iranian public for domestic improvement. That assumption does not square with what Iranian leaders know their political future depends upon; they fully realize that the crowds that greeted Foreign Minister Zarif upon returning from the negotiations in Lausanne expect that improvement in their way of life at home; people in the crowds were not cheering Zarif because they believe there will be more money for foreign adventurism. The assumption also does not square, as Juan Cole points out, with the actual record of how the Iranians have apportioned their resources. And the assumption that Iranian regional activities will be a function of the balance in Iran's bank account is certainly inconsistent with the image of Iranian leaders as ideologically-driven hotheads who are out to inflame and destabilize whatever they can. In fact, the assumed connection between sanctions relief and greater regional activism makes the Iranians look much more like cool-headed green eyeshade types than are the Americans who promoted the biggest destabilizing, country-breaking, terrorism-stimulating event in the Middle East in recent times: a war that turned out to cost trillions.

Note a further inconsistency in what the deal-killers are saying. Many of the same people (the Israeli prime minister is a prominent but by no means the only example) who are saying that Iran should not be given sanctions relief lest the Iranians have more resources for regional trouble-making are also contending that continued pressure through sanctions is the way to get a “better deal” on the nuclear issue. Even if either of these contentions were valid (and neither one is), they could not possibly both be valid. The sanctions from which Iran will get relief were enacted for the clearly expressed purpose of inducing concessions from Iran on the nuclear issue. With the framework agreement that was announced last week, that purpose has been achieved. But opponents of the deal are suggesting that the United States should now say, “Well, that's not really what we had in mind for those sanctions. We're going to keep them in place indefinitely because we don't want to give you resources for doing other things.” How is that supposed to give the Iranians incentive to cooperate on anything, and specifically on nuclear matters? And for those who whine a lot about damage to U.S. credibility (many of those opposing the nuclear deal are among the principal habitual whiners), how will this switcharoo affect how other nations view U.S. credibility, and how much they will believe the United States the next time it tries to use a tool such as economic sanctions to persuade someone to change a policy?                 

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

The Importance of the Iran Agreement

Paul Pillar

A dominant reaction to the framework agreement on Iran's nuclear program, based especially on the State Department's fact sheet about the deal, is that it is remarkably detailed and thorough. The lead article in the New York Times described the agreement as “surprisingly specific and comprehensive.” Immediate reaction in much of the Israeli press was typified by the comment of widely read columnist Nahum Barnea, who wrote that “the details of the agreement that were reported yesterday are surprisingly good.” Irreconcilable opponents of doing any business with Iran were thrown off balance, reduced mostly to reciting old talking points that seemed all the more stale amid the news of the moment. Some notable people who were not among the irreconcilables but had expressed skepticism about a nuclear deal and could be expected to line up with the opponents have instead, seeing the terms, expressed at least mild support for the agreement. These people range from Bill O'Reilly of Fox News to King Salman of Saudi Arabia, not to mention the former head of Israeli military intelligence.

Over the next three months as the negotiators work on the still-challenging task of ironing out the remaining details, the opinion pages and airwaves will be filled as well with details, about types of centrifuges and inspection arrangements and much else. Some of that commentary will reflect genuine and legitimate concern that the final agreement be as carefully constructed and free of loopholes as possible. Probably more of the commentary will consist of the irreconcilable opponents raising as much doubt as possible about as many provisions as possible in the hope that the net effect will be to increase political support for killing the deal. All that the opponents will really be telling us is that this agreement, like any international agreement, is not perfect and does not meet the farthest-reaching goals of either party. They will continue their doubt-promoting campaign as they always have, without offering up any feasible alternative for similar detailed and skeptical scrutiny. Almost every detail the opponents address, about uranium enrichment and inspection access and much else, is a detail on which the agreement gives the United States more than it would get from the alternative, which is no agreement.

Amid all the wallowing in details, it behooves us to step back and to contemplate the big picture of what this agreement means and why it is important. The agreement, if completed, will be a major inflection point in U.S. foreign policy, particularly U.S. policy toward the Middle East. This moment is one of those times when it is especially useful for discourse and debate to be strategic and to address the overall direction of U.S. foreign policy rather than getting bogged down by a preoccupation with details.

The agreement has strategic importance for U.S. foreign policy in at least the following four respects.

First, it sets a direction for a major player in the Middle East—i.e., Iran, the second-most-populous nation in the region—that is consistent with U.S. interests and also in the interests of trying to make the Middle East a less tense and conflict-prone region than it already is. That direction is one in which nuclear weapons have no role in Iran's future and, inextricably linked to that restriction, Iran slowly and partially sheds the stigma of a pariah. The leadership of Iran, including the supreme leader, evidently have decided—and if they had not, it is inconceivable that they would have taken the negotiations as far as they have and made the concessions they have—that it is more in their interest and Iran's interest to move in this direction, even at the price of the restrictions they have accepted on Iran's nuclear program, than for Iran to be a bomb-building rogue. This decision gets to the all-important matter of Iranian intentions, which is so often ignored amid fanciful speculation about what Iran might conceivably do with its nuclear capabilities. The agreement, if completed and implemented, will confirm Iran's decision to move in the non-rogue direction and reinforce—because Iran would have that much more to lose if it departed from that trajectory—its decision. By contrast, defeat of the agreement and an indefinite prolongation of pariah status would instead give Iran more motivation to do the sorts of things pariah states do, including possibly trying to make a nuclear weapon.

The consequences of the Iranian leadership's direction-setting decision—if confirmed by a completed and implemented agreement—go well beyond the immediate matter of the nuclear program. The pragmatic inclinations represented especially by President Rouhani will be strengthened politically if his big bet on completing a nuclear deal succeeds, and will be weakened if he fails. The pragmatic inclinations will extend to many other aspects of Iranian foreign and security policy, on which Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif will be much better positioned to challenge Iranian hardliners than they have been as they have concentrated on getting the nuclear deal. A similar dynamic will extend to domestic policy, which is why those especially concerned with advancing human rights in Iran have welcomed the nuclear agreement. It is also why, bearing in mind the longer term effects of more pragmatic Iranian politics and more normal interaction with the West, longtime Iran watcher Gary Sick comments, “If you want regime change in Iran, meaning changing the way the regime operates, this kind of agreement is the best way to achieve that goal.”

Second, the agreement is a significant stroke in support of nuclear nonproliferation. Even though Tehran evidently stopped over a decade ago whatever work it may have been doing on developing a nuclear weapon, the agreement still is an important step on behalf of global nonproliferation given that Iran is a nuclear-capable state that probably has had active interest in a bomb and lives in a dangerous neighborhood of rivals to itself, including one state that nearly everyone believes already has nuclear weapons and whose leadership frequently talks about militarily attacking Iran. No state has ever willingly negotiated special restrictions on its own ongoing nuclear program as severe as the ones Iran has accepted. No state has ever previously negotiated inspection arrangements on its own facilities as intrusive and extensive as the ones that Iran has accepted. This agreement sets the bar high for any other future nonproliferation agreements or arrangements anywhere in the world.

We should consider in light of all this the often-voiced fears about a proliferation cascade in the Middle East and comments by people like the Saudis that “we want whatever the Iranians get.” Given the nature of what Iran has agreed to, the appropriate response to such demands 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.

Third, this agreement partially releases U.S. foreign policy from restraints that have too long inhibited the ability of the United States to use all available tools, especially the diplomatic tool, to pursue its interests in the region. Abstaining from even talking to officials of one of the most important states in the region, as was the case with the United States and Iran until only a couple of years ago, is not an effective way to pursue one's national interests. The nuclear issue itself has already demonstrated the value of finally using the diplomatic tool—after years of failure of the approach of only pressuring and not talking. Cutting the cord that has kept one hand of the United States tied behind its back and following up the nuclear agreement by being able to conduct (even in the absence of full diplomatic relations) something more like normal business with Iran will be valuable to the United States in addressing such regional problems as the civil wars in Iraq and Syria and the violence of ISIS.

The nuclear deal has the beneficial quality of simultaneously supporting both the pursuit of U.S. regional objectives and the global nonproliferation objective. In this respect it is happily different from the nuclear cooperation agreement with India signed several years ago, in which U.S. policy debates tended to pit the nonproliferation community, which was wary of the signal that this agreement would send, against South Asia specialists who believed that this means of nurturing U.S.-Indian relations was worthwhile. The difference between that situation and the Iranian case, of course, is that the Indian agreement in effect accepted India's previous roguish behavior in developing nuclear weapons and operating outside the international nonproliferation apparatus, whereas Iran does not have nuclear weapons, is a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and is now committing itself more than ever to remaining a non-nuclear-weapons state.

Fourth—and by no means last in importance—this agreement is a step toward liberating U.S. foreign policy from three baleful influences that overlap considerably in terms of the people involved and the causes they espouse. One of those influences is a crude exceptionalism that believes the world is divided rigidly into allies and enemies, that the United States shares interests on everything with the former and nothing with the latter, that the only proper approach toward the latter is pressure and isolation, that what passes for diplomacy consists of the United States making demands and other nations being expected to accede to them, that throwing one's weight around is the way to get things done, and that because the United States has more weight and especially military weight than anyone else it ought to be able to get its way on just about anything. Another influence is partisanship that has become so intense and overriding that because the nuclear negotiations with Iran are an Obama project it is de rigeuer for any Republican seeking the presidency to oppose the agreement reflexively.

The last baleful influence is the extraordinary influence that the rightist government of Israel, along with the lobby in the United States that works on its behalf, has on U.S. Middle Eastern policy. The Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu has been the most unrelenting and implacable source of opposition to any agreement with Iran, for reasons largely other than preventing an Iranian nuke, and its supporters in the United States have been in step with its opposition. Peter Beinart was asking a pertinent question when he wondered how different debate in Washington (and Jerusalem) on the deal with Iran would be “if Sheldon Adelson had a different hobby.” The lobby's influence has manifested itself in especially blatant and ugly ways on the Iranian nuclear issue, including inviting a foreign leader to address the U.S. Congress for the express purpose of denouncing a major U.S. foreign policy effort, and a prominent Republican senator and former presidential nominee going so far as to urge the same foreign leader to treat the president of the United States with "contempt".

The influence of the lobby ultimately rests on fear—of losing access to contributions from Adelson and other billionaires favoring the Israeli Right, or of some other kind of political payback in the next election campaign. Taking a cue from what Franklin Roosevelt said about fear, we should realize that a demonstration of successfully flouting and overcoming the fear is one of the best ways to diminish the effect of the same fear in the future. Given the prominence of the Iranian nuclear issue and the intensity with which Netanyahu and the lobby have been trying to kill an agreement, implementing an agreement over that opposition would serve as such a demonstration. The demonstration, and any resulting dilution of the fear and lessening of the strength of the lobby, would pay dividends not just concerning relations with Iran but with regard to other U.S. interests to which Netanyahu's government is opposed. This may be one of the biggest lasting contributions to the U.S. national interest that Barack Obama will be making if he manages to carry through the nuclear agreement to completion. It is also another reason for Americans who have that national interest at heart to support the agreement.

But the deal is not yet done. The die-hard opponents will keep raising every objection they can about every detail they can. They may not know the difference between an IR-1 centrifuge and an IR-2 and don't really care, but we probably will hear about such things anyway. The detailed objections need to be answered, and the announced framework agreement provides a strong basis for answering them, but in doing so we should keep in mind the really big reasons this agreement should be completed and supported.                       

TopicsIran nuclear weapons RegionsMiddle East

Fearing Success of the Iranian Nuclear Agreement

Paul Pillar

Those determined to kill any agreement with Iran have trotted out a succession of rationales for doing so but have kept their focus firmly fixed on the U.S. Congress. That is hardly surprising, given that both houses of Congress are now controlled by the anti-Obama party and Congress is where the lobby that acts on behalf of the right-wing government in Israel exerts its power most directly. There have been multiple legislative vehicles that the anti-agreement forces have tried to use. Earlier ones had to do with using new sanctions to throw a wrench in the negotiating process, but currently the opponents' most viable vehicle is a bill sponsored by Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that would call for the Congress to do a quick vote on an agreement well before any legislation to implement the agreement was actually required.

By the standards of Congressional Republicans, Corker seems relatively reasonable and pragmatic, as reflected in his being one of the few senators in his party to abstain from signing that outrageous letter telling the Iranians not to trust the United States to keep its word in international agreements. But let's be honest about the game that is being played; it's still the same game that has been played all along, which is to take as many whacks as possible against the nuclear agreement and the negotiations leading to it and to hope that at least one of the whacks will be fatal. There is no way that the Corker bill—given the posture and approach of the majority party on this issue as indicated by the letter to the Iranians—could strengthen the basis of the agreement, or show that the United States is united, or have any positive result. The best result that could be hoped for from the kind of hasty vote that the bill calls for would be that an attempt to override a presidential veto of a resolution of disapproval would fall a few votes short—hardly the sort of scenario that makes foreign interlocutors more willing to take risks in dealing with Washington.

The nature of the game comes through clearly in some of the details of the bill, which contains booby-traps designed to maximize the chance of killing the deal. One provision, for example, requires the president to certify every 90 days that Iran “has not directly supported or carried out an act of terrorism against the United States or a United States person anywhere in the world.” So if, for example, Israel hits Lebanese Hezbollah and Hezbollah retaliates with a bomb somewhere that damages a U.S.-owned commercial property, the president cannot make that certification and poof, there is no more nuclear agreement.

The Corker bill does not even do what the bill purports to do, which is to give Congress a say on the nuclear agreement that it supposedly otherwise would not have had. Congressional action will be required in any case to enable any later sanctions relief that goes beyond what could be granted with a presidential waiver. Even before then, Congress could—with or without Corker's bill—pass a resolution of approval, or disapproval, or indifference regarding the nuclear deal any time it wants. What the bill does is to make it seem obligatory for Congress to pass a resolution hastily, as well as to make it clearer to the Iranians and to everyone else that Congressional disapproval would in fact kill the deal.

The bill calls for a rush to judgment. One of the provisions that demonstrates this is the bill's requirement for the executive branch to present to Congress within five days after an agreement is reached a comprehensive, fully coordinated assessment of the ability to verify all the agreement's provisions. Such an assessment is indeed an important part of evaluating the deal. But the timetable is ludicrous, and is one of the best indications in the bill of a lack of seriousness about wanting to consider the deal carefully. Those in the executive branch who will have analyze the verification issues will be fortunate just to get an authoritative copy of the agreement within five days after it is signed.

If members were really to be pragmatic and reasonable, they would ask: “Why the rush?” The risks of hastiness are nearly all on the side of hasty disapproval rather than letting implementation of the agreement begin. Hasty disapproval would mean collapsing the whole diplomatic process associated with the agreement, losing the restrictions on the Iranian program embodied in the Joint Plan of Action reached more than a year ago, and losing allied support for continued sanctions given that Washington clearly would be responsible for killing the arrangement. Letting implementation of the agreement begin, on the other hand, would be only the start of what will be a very gradual process in which most of the sanctions relief that Iran seeks would only come later, after perhaps a couple of years of Iranian adherence to the deal. The early phase of implementation will be an extension of the testing period (already begun under the Joint Plan of Action) in which Iran will have to demonstrate its commitment to live by severe restrictions on its nuclear program and to keep that program peaceful. Anyone in Congress or anywhere else who really wants to deliberate carefully on the deal ought to welcome that testing period rather than trying to short-circuit it.

The real answer to the question, “Why the rush?” is that opponents of any agreement with Iran want to kill this particular agreement before it has a chance to demonstrate its success. If a couple of more years go by in which Iran continues to observe stringent restrictions on its nuclear program and its commitment to a non-nuclear-weapons future, it will become harder than ever for opponents to argue with a straight face that it would be in U.S. interests to destroy the arrangement that had brought about that result.

This dynamic involves another parallel with the politics surrounding the Affordable Care Act, in addition to that act being, like a nuclear deal with Iran, one of the biggest achievements for President Obama and thus among the biggest things that the anti-Obama party would love to kill. As successes of the ACA have continued to become clear, the fear has grown among members of that party that, as newly declared presidential candidate Ted Cruz has put it, Americans will come to like Obamacare so much that it will be more difficult than ever for Republicans to repeal it. As with Obamacare, what opponents of a nuclear agreement with Iran fear most is not the agreement's failure but rather its success.  

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

Netanyahu's Latest Challenge to Obama

Paul Pillar

Faced with an unexpectedly tough electoral challenge, (at least according to Israeli opinion polls, however unreliable they later turned out to be) Benjamin Netanyahu in the closing days of his campaign decided that his best chance to stay in power would be to tack firmly to the Right—the hardest, narrowest, most intractable, and most prejudiced Right. After all the alarming and scaring that this prime minister has done, one of his final scares was to warn that Arab citizens of Israel would actually—you'd better sit down before you read this—vote. This was an even more blatant, and openly racist, approach to the subject of voter turnout among opposing parts of the electorate than the enactment of voter suppression laws in the United States. But Arab citizens constitute only 20 percent of the Israeli population, so if there was any negative effect on Netanyahu's re-election chances of this insult to those citizens it would have been less than the effect was, say, for Mitt Romney when Romney insulted 47 percent of the U.S. electorate.

In any event, Netanyahu's political calculation was correct; he won.

For the United States, the most significant of Netanyahu's statements in his appealing to the intractable Right of the Israeli electorate was to declare clearly and unequivocally his opposition to a Palestinian state. In so doing, and in affirming his determination to hold on to occupied territory, he offered no honorable alternative way to deal with the trilemma of how Israel cannot hold onto all that land and be a Jewish state and be democratic. Evidently he sees things the same way as his billionaire backer Sheldon Adelson, who said, “Israel isn't going to be a democratic state—so what?”

Of course, there is no surprise in the substance of Netanyahu's statement. It has long been abundantly clear from the conduct of himself and his government that he has had no intention of acceding to creation of a Palestinian state, and that past remarks suggesting that he did were only window dressing. But to move from window dressing and polite fiction to open declaration nonetheless has consequences, not only for the one making the declaration but also for others who have to deal with him. There is no longer any room for plausible denial about who is opposed to a two-state solution, or for proceeding with peace processing that is based on the presumption that both parties genuinely want a deal and it is just a matter of finding the right formula and a third party making the right guarantees.

No U.S. administration, including the current one, can dodge the reality that the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which multiple U.S. leaders have acknowledged is damaging to U.S. interests, is unresolved because one of the parties to that conflict—the one with the military power and with control of the land—does not want it resolved, and is now even openly admitting that it does not want it resolved.

The administration also needs to realize that this is not just a problem with Netanyahu. The prime minister's explicit rejection of a Palestinian state was part of a winning electoral strategy. With all due respect to the many Israelis who do understand the trilemma, who do want to live in a democratic state, and who accept the implications regarding resolving the conflict with the Palestinians, the Netanyahu/Adelson way of looking at things will dominate Israeli policy for the foreseeable future.

A big question for the Obama administration now is: what are you going to say, and more importantly do, about all this? How will you square the realities of the continued damaging effects of the unresolved conflict, the determination of the Israeli government not to resolve it, and the extraordinary relationship that government enjoys with the United States, with the many billions in aid and all those vetoes at the United Nations? (And remember, Mr. President, that you are in the final two years of your administration and will never have to run in another election.)

A more specific question the administration is going to face in the near term is how it will react to the Palestinians' effort to press their case for statehood. Netanyahu's admission strips away any remaining rationale for criticizing Palestinians for advancing that case at international organizations. The rationale wasn't valid in the first place; Palestinian endeavors in multilateral organizations to work toward self-determination never were “unilateral” moves that jeopardized bilateral negotiations in any way. Now it is clearer than ever that the Palestinians do not have a serious negotiating partner.

TopicsIsrael Palestinian Territories RegionsMiddle East

Why Nations (Including the U.S. and Iran) Comply With Their Agreements

Paul Pillar

Much of the latest discourse about a prospective nuclear agreement with Iran—with commentary on whether future U.S. presidents could renege on an agreement, on whether an agreement would be binding or non-binding, and so forth—reflects misconceptions on why nations observe international agreements to which they are party, and misconceptions even of the very nature of international agreements.

It may help to understand this by contrasting observance of international agreements with observance of domestic laws. I may believe a particular law enacted by the jurisdiction in which I live to be bad, and I may see no way in which compliance with this particular law, by myself or even by others, protects or advances my interests—except that I nevertheless am apt to comply because otherwise the sovereign authority involved, in the form of police, prosecutors, and courts, may punish me. At the international level there is no sovereign authority to exact such punishment. What we call international law is basically a set of understandings about international conduct that have come to be seen in general as in the interests of the society of nations. What may motivate a state to comply with international law is not enforcement by some sovereign authority but rather the prospect of reciprocal action by other states—action that will hurt the interests of the first state either because the tenet of international law at stake breaks down or because other states make other harmful responses. In other words, compliance comes from self-interest, defined more broadly than merely avoiding the sort of punishment I would receive for violating a domestic law.

An international agreement reached by two or some small number of states is a codification of some understanding about each state's behavior that is in those states' mutual interest to observe. Such understandings do not need to be codified, and many never are. The international system operates more smoothly and peacefully than it otherwise would because states observe countless unwritten understandings about behavior that would be of interest or concern to other states—regarding, for example, where military forces will be deployed. Codification nevertheless offers important advantages (regardless of what particular form—treaty, political agreement, etc.—the codification takes). It provides greater clarity and precision than is possible with unwritten understandings, and this is especially useful when getting into matters more technical than, say, an understanding that the naval forces of country X always will stay north of latitude Y. Codification makes it easier for states not just to observe current standards of behavior but to move to new patterns of behavior; without a written agreement, such a transition is likely to run aground on concerns about who moves first and uncertainty about exactly where the new limits of acceptable behavior will be drawn. A written agreement also sends clearer and stronger messages to domestic constituencies and provides a framework for any complementary changes in domestic law.

Just as with unwritten understandings, compliance with a written agreement ultimately depends on each of the states involved seeing compliance to be in their own interests. The chief interests concerned in an agreement by two or a handful of states are apt to be more parochial than the interests applicable to the whole community of nations that are involved in most international law. The dependence on continued consistency with self-interest is reflected in the very common use in such agreements of sunset clauses—a recognition that how states perceive some of their interests and the best way of serving them might change with time and changing circumstances. A further reflection of the same thing is another very common provision in international agreements: a clause explicitly providing for withdrawal from the agreement, usually with some advance notification required.

Consider one of the issues raised by that ill-conceived senatorial letter to the Iranians that was aimed at screwing up the negotiations by feeding doubts about U.S. credibility. This was the issue of whether a future U.S. president could or would reverse commitments that the current U.S. president made to Iran. Of course a future president could do that, but as others have observed, this sort of reversal of international agreements made by U.S. presidents has been very rare. It is rare not because of fear of punishment by a sovereign authority, and not even because of some warm fuzzy feeling about international law inside the tummies of presidents. It is rare because it has not been in U.S. interests to do such reversals. The interests involved include the interest the United States shares with others in having some predictability and reliability in international diplomacy—an interest somewhat similar to why stare decisis is an important principle in jurisprudence. The interests also include the more specific benefits that the agreement in question brought the United States in the first place. In the case of the Iran nuclear program, it is hard to conceive of any defensible reason that, if Iran had complied for at least a couple of years with an agreement that kept that program tightly restricted, heavily monitored, and entirely peaceful, any U.S. president would say it was in the U.S. interest to destroy that agreement.

As for the reasons Iran would comply with such an agreement, it again is all a matter of self-interest. The talk about differences between binding and non-binding forms of agreement are mostly beside the point. Iranian leaders will sign an agreement and will comply with it if they see the future that it prescribes—of a tightly restricted, heavily monitored, and entirely peaceful nuclear program coupled with relief from economic sanctions and international ostracism—as being more in their interests than the alternative. The fact that they have entered these negotiations and already observed for over a year the restrictions placed on them in the preliminary agreement of November 2013 indicates that they do see their interests that way.

Understanding these principles about international agreements clarifies why it is a fundamental mistake to try to squeeze and punish Iran still more in the hope that it would capitulate on outstanding issues about the nuclear program—and a mistake not only because there is no prospect that such capitulation would ever happen. Even if it were to happen, the result would be an agreement that Iran would have meager incentive to observe for long. The future of such an agreement would be bleak. U.S. interests will be served by an agreement that protects U.S. nonproliferation objectives and that Iran, as well as the United States, wants to uphold.                                           

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

International Organizations and Congressional Recalcitrance

Paul Pillar

Reminders of Congressional resistance getting in the way of the execution of U.S. foreign policy and the effective pursuit of U.S. interests abroad are not hard to find. The most recent reminder is not nearly as blatant and direct as that senatorial letter telling Iranians not to trust any commitments that the United States makes. Instead the reminder comes from an inappropriate statement by the Obama administration: its public criticism of the United Kingdom for deciding to become a member of a new Chinese-initiated international organization, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. That criticism is misplaced; Britain has legitimate and understandable reasons to take this step, and major roots of what is going on here regarding China are traceable not to London but to Washington, and more specifically to Capitol Hill.

The new bank is one of several international financial institutions that China recently has taken the lead in creating and that appear as alternatives to existing institutions with similar missions whose governance has been dominated by the United States, Europe, and Japan. Those existing institutions include not only the Asian Development Bank but also the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. It is impossible to say what moves China would or would not have made if the governance of those existing institutions had been different, but clearly at least a large part of the motivation for what Beijing is doing is the outdated nature of those governance arrangements, which have not kept pace with change in the global economy. The economic rise of China itself is the most conspicuous part, but not the only part, of that change.

The structure of the International Monetary Fund has been perhaps the leading issue in recent years. Negotiations reached agreement five years ago on a package of reforms of the IMF that coupled changes in members' monetary quotas and the Fund's lending authority with changes to members voting strength—the latter change in keeping with the principle adopted at the birth of the IMF to have voting weight reflect economic weight. The Obama administration played a leading role in conducting those negotiations and in protecting U.S. interests in the process.

Since then the administration has been pushing for Congressional approval of the package but has been unable to get approval from the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. The situation has gone on long enough that now the only thing standing between an outdated IMF and a reformed one is the U.S. Congress. Would-be reformers in other countries are now talking about possible ways to work around the U.S. resistance.

It is hard to find any good reasons for that resistance, given that the reform package does not harm the U.S. interests at stake. The United States would neither pay a larger share of the institution's budget nor lose its veto-capable voting strength (the increased voting share for rising powers like China would be coming mostly at the expense of the Europeans). The resistance in Congress seems to be a matter of old ideologically-laden habits—of disliking international organizations in general, of holding strange concepts of sovereignty when it comes to relations with international organizations, and of believing that the only way to deal with countries we dislike is to reject any of their proposals and not to do any business with them.

Such ill-founded recalcitrance harms U.S. interests in several ways. One concerns what role an increasingly powerful China is to play in the international system. It is in the interest of the United States for that role to be incorporated as much as possible, peacefully and without resentment, in existing structures rather than for a frustrated China to reject those structures or to compete with them.

A second interest concerns U.S. relations with other developing countries. It is not just the Chinese but also Brazilians, Indians, and others who are dissatisfied with outdated governance arrangements.

Finally, a failure to accept updating of institutions such as the IMF loses sight of the significant advantages that they provide the United States as long as the institutions themselves remain relevant. John Ikenberry has explained how the United States, by submitting to rules and principles of international organizations that it took the lead in creating at the end of World War II, has been able to extend its disproportionate global influence longer than other measures of national power would have enabled it to do. That big advantage may be lost altogether if the United States is unwilling to permit the institutions to keep pace with change in the rest of the world.                         

TopicsChina IMF RegionsEast Asia

The Damage to U.S. Interests Abroad of Domestic Political Intemperance

Paul Pillar

Tom Cotton's sophomoric stunt of an open letter to the Iranians telling them not to have confidence in whatever the United States puts on the negotiating table has received the broad and swift condemnation it deserves. Some of the strong criticism has come from editorial pages and other sources of commentary that generally are not very friendly toward the Obama administration in general or even to its policies on Iran in particular. A bright side to this incident that embarrasses and disgraces half of the United States Senate comes in the clarity it provides in terms of what games are being played and what is at stake. Even before this latest antic, Cotton deserved credit for being more honest about his objective than most of his colleagues who are engaged in the same destructive efforts to undermine diplomacy on Iran. Cotton has stated openly and explicitly that his goal is to kill off any agreement at all with Iran. Unlike many others, he has not tried to fool us with the subterfuge that legislative sabotage is aimed at getting a chimerical “better deal” with Iran. Now with the letter, the unwritten alliance between American hardliners and Iranian hardliners in opposing any agreement is made more open than ever.

What is going on here is not just the work of Tom Cotton. The outrageous letter to the Iranians flows naturally from a broader ongoing process. The fact that the great majority of Republican senators signed the letter is the most obvious indication of that. There no doubt is today much regret in the senatorial offices involved, but the fact is that 47 of them signed it. There are a couple of possible interpretations of what took place among the members, neither of which makes those members look good. One is that they are so distracted or careless that they can let a 37-year-old who has been in the Senate only two months rope them into doing something this stupid. The other, which is the more plausible interpretation, is that Cotton's letter was only the latest vehicle for a journey that the whole party has already been taking for some time.

The letter was a natural next step after bringing Benjamin Netanyahu to the Capitol for the express purpose of denouncing and opposing U.S. policy toward Iran. In each case it was a matter of Congressional Republicans enlisting foreigners to try to sabotage a major element of current U.S. foreign policy. Because Israel is considered an “ally,” Netanyahu got to use the podium in the House chamber whereas Iranian hardliners do not get that privilege. But the fundamental nature and purpose of what was taking place was the same.

The impact of all of this on the immediate prospects for completing a nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran is certainly important and has been the subject of much of the immediate commentary about the letter. There is a basis for optimism that this clownish overplaying of their hand by some of those who would like to sabotage the diplomacy will lessen the danger of such sabotage. The episode at least demonstrates why, if one wants U.S. policy toward Iran to be formulated and executed in a responsible and adult way, then for the time being the less Congressional involvement there is the better.

We ought to reflect also, however, on how the kind of irresponsible behavior we have just seen is part of a bigger pattern that goes well beyond policy toward Iran and has deleterious effects on U.S. interests abroad besides what happens to an Iranian nuclear deal. This behavior damages U.S. credibility. There is an irony here in that some of those who signed Cotton's letter have been among those who have bemoaned supposed diminishing of America's international credibility because of other matters, usually involving issues of whether the United States should persist in prosecuting overseas military operations where any direct U.S. interests being protected are questionable. U.S. credibility is not determined by military doggedness in such situations. It is partly determined by the United States living up to negotiated multilateral agreements that are clearly in its interests, as would be the case with a P5+1 agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program. Probably the single most remarkable—and egregious—aspect of the Cotton letter is that it was blatantly and expressly designed to damage U.S. credibility. In the future, it will lack credibility for any signatory of this letter to complain about alleged damage to U.S. credibility regarding anything else.

The connection between the sort of behavior we are talking about and the standing of the United States overseas, however, is even broader than that and extends to the handling of domestic policy. Foreigners and foreign governments observe how the United States, the superpower with the world's largest economy, handles its own affairs, and they draw conclusions about how viable and reliable an interlocutor the United States would be on international matters. The foreigners are looking to see whether there is consistency and rationality in how the U.S. political system pursues U.S. national interests. If they do see those things, then the United States is someone they can do business with, whether as a rival or as an ally, even if U.S. interests differ from their own. If they do not see those things, then opportunities are lost for doing business that would benefit both the United States and the foreign state.

A nation does not represent itself as a viable interlocutor, whose execution of policy can be trusted by other nations, if passionate internal divisions supersede sober pursuit of the nation's interests. As an outsider we encounter such situations in, say, Iraq, where sectarian loyalties and hatreds make it impossible to rely on a government in Baghdad consistently pursuing an Iraqi national interest. We also see it in Bangladesh, where the personal animosity between the “two begums” who head each of the major political parties there have made Bangladeshi politics so dysfunctional that in the recent past the military has had to step in.

A pattern that is similar in some respects has, tragically, come to prevail in the United States. Foreigners could hear the then minority (now majority) leader of the United States Senate state a few years ago that his number one priority was not any particular U.S. national interest in either domestic or foreign affairs but instead the prevention of a second term for the incumbent U.S. president. Foreigners then were able to see the senator's party act along the same lines, using extortionate legislative methods to push a partisan agenda even at the expense of damaging the country's credit rating and causing disruptive interruptions to government operations. Once the same party achieved a majority in both houses of Congress there was much talk about how this would lead to newly responsible behavior, but the opening gavel of the new Congress had hardly fallen when once again there was the tactic of holding the operations of a government department hostage to press a specific partisan demand (this time on immigration) in opposition to the president's policies.

Foreigners can see today in the same party an animosity toward the other party and especially to the current U.S. president that is as passionate as the sectarian hatreds in Iraq or the personal hatreds between the begums in Bangladesh, and that leads to at-all-costs efforts to defeat any achievements by this president. The biggest such achievement in foreign policy would be an accord to restrict the Iranian nuclear program—hence all the pulling out of stops, aided by the role of Netanyahu and the Iranian hardliners, to defeat such an agreement. The biggest achievement in domestic policy has been the Affordable Care Act—hence while those proverbial crumbling roads and bridges in the U.S. infrastructure continue to crumble, the House of Representatives spends its time and effort on voting 56 times to repeal the Act. The campaign to destroy Obamacare has become an Ahab-against-the-white-whale obsession that is being endlessly pursued despite mounting evidence of the Act's success; observant foreigners must be shaking their heads wondering how a country in which such obsessions govern the political system ever got to be a superpower.

The closing of eyes even to the performance of public programs within the United States is but one example of an all-too-conspicuous denial of reality on other matters. Senator James Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, gave another demonstration of this the other day when he tossed a snowball in the Senate chamber to emphasize his disbelief in climate change, a prank that rivals what the youngster Cotton has done in demeaning the world's supposedly greatest deliberative body. The foreign perceptions of all this that matter include not only whether CO2-belching China will live up to its side of international agreements to save the planet but also more broadly what foreigners think about the prospect of doing any business on anything with a government that has a major part of it so far apart from the reality-based community and so disinclined to work responsibly on behalf of its own national interests.

Senator Cotton's letter deserves all the scorn it has received as far as the Iranian nuclear issue is concerned. It also should dismay us because of the bigger problem it illustrates of domestic political passions undermining the standing of the United States in the world and its ability to do business with the rest of the world.                                                   

TopicsIran Congress RegionsMiddle East

The CIA and the Cult of Reorganization

Paul Pillar

Re-arranging bureaucracies has long been a favorite Washington way of pretending to make improvements. It is a handy recourse in the absence of good ideas to make real improvement. Revising a wiring diagram is the sort of change that can be made visible to the outside world. It does not require reaching consensus about significant increases or decreases in the priority given particular programs or their budgets. It offers a basis for convincing ourselves that the bureaucracies involved will perform better, even if the main reasons we don't get everything we would like to get from those bureaucracies are to be found in the inherent, unavoidable challenges of the tasks they are assigned to perform.

The urge to reorganize is not limited to government. Revising wiring diagrams is alluring to senior managers in private sector organizations as well. It is a way of showing initiative and appearing to be dedicated both to improving the organization and keeping pace with changes in the outside world. It is one of the most visible ways for any senior manager to leave a mark and establish a legacy.

Now the Central Intelligence Agency is being hit again with the reorganization bug, with changes that director John Brennan announced last week. The intelligence community has been subjected to this sort of thing at least as much as other parts of the federal bureaucracy. The most notable instance was a reorganization of the community a decade ago as the most visible part of the 9/11 Commission's response to a popular demand to shake things up after a terrible terrorist attack. That change added new bureaucracy on top of continuing old organizations, and in the years since has given us little or no reason to believe that it was a net improvement.

The principal feature of the changes that Brennan announced is to move all of the agency's operational and analytical work, and not just selected parts of it, into integrated “mission centers” covering issue areas defined either geographically or functionally. As with most other reorganizations, both criticism and praise tend to be overstated. Any change in a bureaucracy's performance, for good or for ill, resulting from changing the wiring diagram will not be nearly as pronounced as either critics or promoters usually would lead us to believe.

A criticism of this newest reorganization, for example, is that it would lead to still more focus on current doings at the expense of longer-range analysis. But within each issue area there is no reason to believe that worthwhile long-range analysis cannot be done in the mission centers. Another line of criticism involves a feared compromise of the integrity of analysis because of overly close association of the analysts with operators. This would only be a problem, however, where covert action is involved. Although some unfortunate experiences involving Central America in the 1980s demonstrate the corrupting potential, covert action—despite the public image of what the CIA does—constitutes a small (and usually well-compartmented) portion of the agency's work. There is a substantial hazard of policy preferences influencing analysis stemming from relations with policy-makers, but that is a separate matter from relations between analysts and operators within an intelligence agency.

The justification for the changes is also overstated—or fuzzy and hardly compelling. Mark Mazzetti's article in the New York Times about the announced changes mentions that Brennan relied heavily on “management jargon” to try to explain and justify what he was doing. There were all the unsurprising buzzwords about needing to “wring efficiencies” out of the system and having to modernize and about not wanting to become as obsolete as Kodak, but how this makes one particular wiring diagram better than another one is difficult to see. Brennan talked about the “array of very challenging, complex and serious threats to our national security”—the sort of language that any CIA director, at any time, uses—but what does that say about the supposed advantages of a particular organizational scheme? He said a central aim was to eliminate “seams” in coverage, but aren't there seams in any organizational arrangement, including the seams that will exist between the mission centers?

The particular organizational issues involving the CIA entail, as many such issues in other organizations do, inherent trade-offs, with each possible wiring diagram presenting both advantages and disadvantages when compared to other possible schemes. The main advantage of the announced new arrangement is to make the interface between analysts and collectors working on the same substantive issue as close and smooth as possible. This helps the analysts to understand better the sources of some of the information on which they are relying, and it helps the collectors to understand how the information they are collecting is being used and where are the most important information gaps that still need to be filled.

A significant disadvantage is that bureaucratizing whatever is considered at the moment to be worthy of its own mission center makes for a less flexible and less nimble organization as issues change and especially as new (and sometimes difficult to recognize initially as important) issues emerge. The seeds of future intelligence failures can be found in the seams between the centers. Interface is important not just between collectors and analysts but also between analysts working issues that are different but may turn out to be related in important ways.

Another set of disadvantages stems from breaking up what would otherwise have been critical masses of people working in the same discipline and with the same skill set. Doing so is generally not conducive to enhancing specialized skills, whether those skills involve the craft of espionage, or of analysis, or something else. Particular mission centers, depending on who leads them and what are the relative weights of different types of people assigned to them, may tend to be co-opted by certain disciplines at the expense of the necessary professional care and feeding of those in other disciplines. The further separation of missions and operational control from the management of employees' careers (and the new scheme will retain existing directorates, including those for operations and for analysis, for that latter purpose) will tend to exacerbate issues of personnel management, including loosening the tie between effective contribution to a specific assigned mission and reward in the form of promotions. Retention of the existing directorate structure in addition to more mission centers also makes the whole organizational structure of the agency more complicated.

A principle too rarely recognized is that the advantages of a new organizational structure are uncertain (when compared to the existing structure, which is apt to have to have evolved over time as experience has shown what works and what doesn't), but the costs and disruptions associated with any major reorganization are certain and substantial. The disruption involves everything from having to forge new relationships with bosses, co-workers, and customers, to having to figure out exactly where new lines of responsibility are to be drawn. Rather than impeding accomplishment of the mission with such disruption, it often is better just to let people get on with their jobs—although anyone who makes this observation risks being rebuked as a stuck-in-the-mud resistor of change.

In the face of the inevitable trade-offs, the current organizational arrangement in the CIA, in which there are some integrated centers for selected issues such as terrorism but not for everything, is probably a reasonable compromise. Unmentioned in much of the commentary so far on the announced changes is how much had already been done, outside the centers, to enhance communication and cooperation between collectors and analysts. This includes physical changes made years ago to locate in adjacent office space the analysts and operations officers working on the same geographic areas.

What we most need to be wary of with these latest announced changes in the CIA's organization is not some wave of corrupting influences that will destroy the integrity of analysis. We should instead ask whether this is yet another of the many examples of a senior manager using reorganization to try to make his mark and leave a legacy, especially a legacy that won't be centered on unflattering matters such as strained relations with Congressional oversight committees.                           



TopicsIntelligence RegionsUnited States

The Dressing Up of Bibi's Speech

Paul Pillar

There was so much that was improper about one political party giving a foreign leader a privileged platform in the U.S. Congress for the purpose of undermining U.S. foreign policy, and so much understandable criticism of this improper action, that what now sounds like a responsible and “sober” thing to say, as Shai Feldman presents himself as saying at The National Interest, is that we should not get distracted by all the commotion over how Benjamin Netanyahu came to give his speech, even though there may be grounds for criticizing his strategy in giving the speech, but instead should take seriously the substance of what he said. This posture sounds so reasonable that one can plausibly imagine Netanyahu and his American acolytes welcoming controversy over the unrespectable way in which the speech came about so that the substance of the speech would, by comparison, sound more respectable than it really was.

We should not be deceived by any such framing strategy. No matter how successfully we can put out of our minds the impropriety of giving any foreign leader this platform for this kind of purpose and the underhanded way the platform was given, the most sober possible appraisal of the speech is that it was (besides being in some respects a skillful oration) a scaremongering, internally inconsistent rant aimed at tying the hands of the makers of U.S. foreign policy. President Obama was stating the obvious when he remarked that Netanyahu offered no alternative to what the United States and its five foreign partners have been endeavoring to do for the past year and a half in negotiating an agreement to keep Iran's nuclear program peaceful.

Feldman states that a reading of the speech shows that “Israel's Prime Minister did not travel to Washington to prevent any deal with Iran.” Of course Netanyahu didn't say that was his purpose; if he had said that, he would have been blatantly and stupidly presenting himself as an incorrigible obstructionist. It makes much more tactical sense for him to sustain the impression that with the right terms he would accept an agreement with Iran—somewhat like how he has tried to sustain the impression that with the right terms he would accept an agreement creating a Palestinian state. But the only plausible interpretation of Netanyahu's behavior throughout on this issue is that preventing any agreement with Tehran is precisely his objective. Actions speak louder than words in understanding what he is trying to do, especially the action of trying hard to kill the best, and probably for the foreseeable future the only, opportunity to place restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program.

So what is supposedly the alternative formula that Netanyahu would accept? According to Netanyahu, and to Feldman, it's a “better deal.” That's it; don't expect anything more specific. Of course everyone would like a “better deal”; what do you suppose the U.S. Secretary of State has been spending an enormous amount of time and effort trying to achieve in those long negotiations? Whatever are the terms that Netanyahu supposedly would bless, all we know is that they would not be whatever terms emerge from the current negotiations. And given the prime minister's history of goalpost-moving, we have good reason to expect that no agreement, no matter what the terms, would ever get his support. When he was displaying his cartoon bomb at the United Nations, stopping Iran's medium-level enrichment of uranium was supposedly the main concern, but he later denounced a preliminary agreement with Iran that achieved, along with other measures, exactly that objective. Once a one-year “breakout” time sounded like it would be acceptable to Netanyahu in comparison with the couple of months without an agreement, but now that the Obama administration appears to be sticking firmly to that one-year figure Netanyahu seems to want more (but just how much more we are left to wonder). Formerly the sine qua non of any agreement of Iran was to halt the advance of the nuclear program, but now that the negotiators seem on the brink of achieving a deal on that supposedly overriding issue, Netanyahu is talking more (as Feldman himself notes) about bringing in other issues involving other forms of Iranian behavior. And so on.

According to Netanyahu, achieving a “better deal” is a simple matter of pressuring Iran with more sanctions. But the entire history of the nuclear issue and of Iran's other behavior, along with the realities of human nature, strongly suggest that this notion is a fantasy. We have direct, compelling experience of failure with this; when the sanctions screws were applied to Iran after the United States rejected the last previous opportunity to strike a deal on the subject with Tehran, the result was substantial expansion of the Iranian nuclear program over the subsequent decade.

Nancy Pelosi accurately commented that Netanyahu's lecturing about threats from Iran and about nuclear proliferation was an “insult to the intelligence of the United States.” It would be an insult to the intelligence of Benjamin Netanyahu to suggest that he doesn't understand fully that there is not some “better deal” that somehow would materialize and that rejection of whatever agreement emerges from the current negotiations would mean having no agreement at all.

Feldman turns to another theme that anti-agreement forces have increasingly seized upon of late, and he tries to make Netanyahu sound reasonable about that, too. This is the certainty that an agreement will have “sunset” provisions such that Iran would not be kept in international purgatory forever. Feldman's excuse for Netanyahu believing that Iran should be kept in purgatory forever is that “Iran remains committed to Israel's destruction.” Any discussion of policy toward Iran that claims to be sober would be well-advised to dispose of that trope. Iran is not committed to Israel's destruction, although it has had leaders who have used language that in the retelling and mistranslation gets so construed. Even if Iranian leaders did want to destroy Israel they realize it would be impossible for them to do so. They also realize that any attempt to do so would lead Israel to wreak far greater destruction on them in return.

With or without the tropes, the whole anti-agreement line of argument resting on sunset provisions is no more logical coming out of Netanyahu's mouth than it has been coming out of others. The principal reasons the argument doesn't make sense are nicely reviewed in John Allen Gay's dismantling of a similar line of argument from Ray Takeyh, who posited a strange scenario of the Iranian supreme leader planning to lie in ambush for a decade before springing a nuclear weapon on the world. One of the most glaring illogicalities of the whole anti-sunset idea is that to use this as an excuse for opposing the product of the current negotiations is to say that, while assuming the worst about Iranian intentions, we would rather face the consequences of an unrestrained Iranian nuclear program today than face it after it has been under ten years of restrictions. Besides, sunset provisions are standard diplomatic stuff, even in agreements that have been reached with Evil Empires.

Feldman talks about the need to “test” Iranian behavior over time. That is exactly what any nuclear deal, with a sunset provision, would entail. Whatever the time period involved, at the end of it Iran would face all the same disincentives, involving economic sanctions and maybe even military attack, against violating its continuing obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. In fact, if prospect theory is valid, the Iranians would feel even greater disincentive than they do now, given that such behavior would mean losing whatever economic gains they had gotten in the meantime in the form of sanctions relief.

Feldman, quoting Netanyahu, makes it sound as if there would be some open-minded “testing” of Iranian behavior, but they are not talking about observance of the provisions of a nuclear accord, and about how a decade or so of Iranian observance of the terms of the agreement would be a huge piece of evidence confirming Iran's commitment to a future without owning nuclear weapons. They are instead, in more goalpost-moving, talking about other Iranian behavior they say they don't like, and declaring that Iran should be required among other things to (in Feldman's words) “abandon...its commitment to Israel's destruction.” How exactly is Iran supposed to do that, especially if it is not committed to that objective in the first place? And how do you write something like that into an agreement?

Unmentioned in Feldman's piece are the glaring inconsistencies in Netanyahu's speech. Roger Cohen notes one of them, in which in one breath Netanyahu portrays Iran as a regional juggernaut that is “gobbling” up other countries and in a different breath says it is a “very vulnerable regime” on the brink of folding. “Well,” asks Cohen, “which is it?” One might also note inconsistency in portrayal of Iranian leaders as, on one hand, irrational, undeterrable religious fanatics who don't think like the rest of us and could never be trusted with dangerous weapons and, on the other hand, as people who, if faced with economic sanctions being cranked up a few more notches, would carefully count the hit to their foreign exchange earnings and make more concessions at the negotiating table. Again, which is it?

Feldman concludes with criticism of Netanyahu's political approach that has endangered Israel's relations with parts of the American political elite. But for U.S. citizens concerned about U.S. interests that is not the main problem in anything Netanyahu has done. The main problem is with a foreign government trying to prevent the United States from pursuing U.S. interests and international security with all the diplomatic and other tools available to it.                               

TopicsIran Israel RegionsMiddle East

An Agreement That Is Good for Israel, Bad for Netanyahu

Paul Pillar

One of the strangest aspects of the frantic crying of alarm over Iran's nuclear program—with the crying having reached its most publicized peak in Benjamin Netanyahu's Republican/Likud campaign rally in the House chamber—is that the chief crier is the government of a country that not only has the most advanced nuclear program in the Middle East but has kept that program completely out of the reach and scrutiny of any international control and inspection regime. It is hard to think of a better example in international politics of the pot calling the kettle black, and in this case the pot is much blacker than the kettle—and was so even before Iran put its program under the unprecedented restrictions and intrusive inspections to which it agreed more than a year ago in negotiations with the United States and the rest of the P5+1. As for any military dimensions (the focus, of course, of all that crying when it comes to Iran), although neither Israel nor the United States says publicly that Israel has nuclear weapons, just about everyone else on the planet who says anything on the subject takes it as a given that it does, and that it has a fairly sizable arsenal of such weapons.

The person outside government who has studied the Israeli nuclear program most extensively is Avner Cohen, an Israeli-born scholar currently based in the United States. Cohen has written two books on the subject, Israel and the Bomb and The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel's Bargain with the Bomb. He probably knows more than anyone outside the Israeli government about the Israeli program and the strategic thinking underlying it. It thus is especially interesting to hear what Cohen has to say about the current battle over the Iranian program. In a commentary just published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Cohen writes about how, as I discussed the other day, the actions and lobbying of Benjamin Netanyahu are at odds with his own alarmist rhetoric, and about what this implies concerning Netanyahu's motivations.

Cohen criticizes Netanyahu's drumbeat message that the agreement being negotiated would be very bad for Israel; he notes the “potential advantages” of the agreement, which is from the standpoint of Israel's interests a “reasonable compromise.” He points out that the demand to prevent any Iranian enrichment of uranium will never be realized, and that the demand has no basis in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Cohen goes on to state that the emerging agreement “also contains unique advantages barely discussed in Israel. It clearly distances Iran from a nuclear bomb—from a few weeks as was the case in 2012 to about a year. Most importantly, it establishes a regime of safeguards and transparency for almost a generation.”

Cohen concludes by pointedly describing what Netanyahu's scaremongering efforts are really all about, which have to do with Netanyahu having made such alarmism his political signature music, on which he relies both to maintain political power in Israel and to rationalize his policies to the outside world:

“Despite its flaws, the proposed agreement is far from bad for Israel—the only nuclear power in the Middle East—but it is very bad for Netanyahu. The agreement offers Israel almost a generation, or even more if it succeeds, in which Netanyahu won’t be able to sow fear about Iran as an existential danger. It would leave Netanyahu as a leader whose raison d’être has been taken away from him.”

Netanyahu's narrowly-motivated efforts to destroy the diplomacy with Iran are not only directly contrary to U.S. interests; they also are contrary to Israel's interests. Those who really do care about Israel and its security, rather than just ritualistically referring to them while swaying and bobbing up and down to Netanyahu's music, need to realize that. 

TopicsIsrael Iran RegionsMiddle East