by Paul R. Pillar
James Carden and Jacob Heilbrunn provided in the current issue of The National Interest an extensively documented review of how the ever-more-neocon editorial page of the Washington Post “responds to dangerous and complex problems with simplistic prescriptions.” The Post‘s most recent editorial about the nuclear negotiations with Iran is firmly in that same simplistic, destructive tradition. It is hard to know where to begin in pointing out the deficiencies in this effort by the Post‘s editorialists, but noting some of them can illustrate how the tendencies that Carden and Heilbrunn cataloged constitute, as the abstract for their article puts it, a crusade for doctrines “that have brought Washington to grief in the past.”
The current editorial offers a prescription that is so simplistic that it isn’t really a prescription at all. And that—the absence of any plausible proposed alternative—is its most basic shortcoming. Instead it is just a collection of ways of saying, “We don’t like where these negotiations are going.” Even though the writers claim that “we have long supported negotiations with Iran,” the effect of their piece is to add to the negative background music to which those determined to defeat and derailany agreement with Iran—including Benjamin Netanyahu and confirmed deal-saboteurs in the U.S. Congress—dance and from which they derive energy.
The editorial posits as one of its complaints a version of the familiar meme about the U.S. administration supposedly conceding too much to Iran—even though that image is quite at odds with the actual history of these negotiations, in which it is Iran that has made the most significant concessions. The editorial says the Obama administration supposedly “once aimed to eliminate Iran’s ability to enrich uranium,” although there is little indication that this administration ever believed that a zero-enrichment formula could ever be the basis of an achievable agreement. It is interesting to note, however, that more than a decade ago a different administration, evidently thinking a demand for zero enrichment was the proper policy, spurned an opportunity to negotiate an agreement with Tehran when Iran had only a tiny fraction of the enrichment centrifuges it does now—and we all know how that policy worked out.
On the subject of uranium enrichment the editorial writers play familiar and hazardous semantic games in positing a goal of “eliminating Iran’s potential to produce nuclear weapons” and “denying Iran the capability to develop a military nuclear option.” It is impossible to “eliminate” such a ”potential,” and Iran already has, after all those years of no negotiations, the “capability” to develop such an “option.” This kind of talk only helps the deal-saboteurs lay a trap by being able to say about any conceivable agreement that could emerge from any negotiations with Iran that it does not “eliminate” capabilities or potential or options.
The purpose of an agreement is to ensure that Iran does not exercise such an option. The most important element in providing this assurance is the unprecedented level of intrusive inspections that would make any move toward exercising such options immediately clear. The Post editorial pooh-poohs this by referring to “theoretically giving the world time to respond.” No—it’s not just theoretically; the inspection arrangements would actually given the world plenty of time to respond.
The Post also bemoans how “even limited restrictions would remain in force for only a specified number of years.” Most observers of the negotiations expect that the time spans involved, and especially for enhanced inspections, would be many years, and perhaps a decade or more. The editorial gives no reason to suspect that the Iranians after all this time would have any motivation at all to discard everything they had gained from remaining a certified, inspected, restricted, non-nuclear weapon state. Nor does the editorial comment on what it would mean for the conclusions we ought to draw about Iran’ s motivations and intentions if it demonstrated for several years its willingness to comply with an agreement that would be quite restrictive on Iran.
This gets to the issue of possible cheating or stealthy acquisition of a nuclear weapon. The editorial throws that up as another thing to get us worried. But it says nothing at all about why the possibility of stealthy building of a bomb would be any greater with a negotiated agreement than without one. It wouldn’t, and if anything probably would be less, given the enhanced inspections under an agreement.
A second line of attack in the editorial is another recently much-used meme by opponents: the notion of “increasingly aggressive efforts by Iran to extend its influence across the Middle East.” In this respect the editorial exhibits one of the same basic deficiencies that is almost always exhibited when the notion is used this way: it says nothing about why, if such Iranian regional activity is a problem, it would be any worse under a nuclear agreement than without one. If such activity really is as much of a problem as the editorial suggests, then the years-long keep-Iran-in-the-penalty box approach hasn’t worked very well, has it? The editorialists write that “rather than contest the Iranian bid for regional hegemony, as has every previous U.S. administration since the 1970s [again if that’s the case, how well has that approach worked out?], Mr. Obama appears ready to concede Iran a place in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and beyond…” It is not up to the United States, or in the power of the United States, to “concede” such things; Iran is in the region, and will have relations with other states in the region, and along with other states will compete for influence in the region, whether we like it or not. Is Iran, by negotiating with us, “conceding” a place to the United States in Iraq, Syria, or elsewhere?
On the “regional aggression” theme the editorial also exhibits most of the other misconceptions that are exhibited when this theme comes up, such as the idea that everywhere there is any turmoil involving anyone with any link to Iran, that the turmoil is the result of Iranian expansionist initiatives, when in fact it is not. Or the idea that Tehran is operating a Comintern-like Shia international, when in fact it is not. An additional twist that the Post gives to the theme is to state that “the White House has avoided actions Iran might perceive as hostile—such as supporting military action against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.” Getting more deeply involved in the Syrian civil war is, of course, something the Post editorial board has been calling for repeatedly over the last couple of years. Amid all that war-drum-beating, it apparently doesn’t occur to the board that the administration has very good reasons not to sink the United States into that tar pit, regardless of whether or not Iran would see such action as hostile.
The editorial calls for more Congressional involvement—another open invitation for more deal-killing activity by saboteurs on Capitol Hill. Although the editorial accurately quotes Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken about how the administration sees Congressional action as appropriate only later after Iran has demonstrated that it is living up to its end of a deal, it makes no mention of the logic behind that schedule. The logic ought to be appealing to anyone as distrustful of Iran as the editorial writers evidently are. The administration intends to limit any sanctions relief in the early phase of an agreement to executive action so that sanctions could be quickly reinstated in the event of any Iranian failure to observe the terms of the agreement—more quickly and easily than if new legislation had to be enacted.
The editorial near its end makes it sound as if there is some alternative that it is recommending by referring to how “the right response to the questions now being raised is to seek better terms from Iran…” Oh? How, exactly? Isn’t such seeking what the negotiators have been doing for months? This sort of suggestion might be a disguised way of giving more momentum to sanctions legislation that is rationalized as strengthening the U.S. negotiating position but in fact is designed to kill the negotiations. Or the suggestion may reflect naiveté that is somewhat akin to the Post editorial board living in what Carden and Heilbrunn describe as “a foreign-policy fairy-tale land in which nasty authoritarian regimes can be magically transformed by American leadership into democratic ones.” In the same fairy-tale land, American leadership and toughness can magically get other governments to accept terms that are contrary to their interests.
The last few words of the editorial correctly raise what ought to be the key question in any evaluation of an agreement that emerges from these negotiations, which is to consider whether it “is better than the alternatives.” Except the editorialists don’t examine what the alternatives really are. Indefinite continuation of the interim agreement currently in force would be helpful in fulfilling U.S. nonproliferation objectives, but the Iranians would be unlikely to accept being strung out like that, given that they are still under the economically damaging oil and financial sanctions. Besides, hardliners in the U.S. Congress have made it clear they would push hard for agreement-violating, deal-killing additional sanctions if there is no final accord by early summer. So the true alternative is no agreement at all—and that means no special restrictions on, and no intrusive inspections of, the Iranian nuclear program. Yes, let’s indeed compare whatever agreement is reached with the alternative.
We should remember the grief that the crusading doctrines the Post has supported have brought us in the past. In particular we might recall the Post‘s support for the Iraq War, which among much other grief it caused the United States also was the single biggest cause in recent years of the expansion of Iranian influence in the Middle East—specifically, in Iraq itself. Then we might ask where else in the Post‘s fairy-tale land its current undermining of the Iran negotiations is likely to lead us.
This article was first published by The National Interest and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright The National Interest.