Putting Strategic Interests First with Iran

by Peter Jenkins

It is striking how often opponents of a nuclear agreement with Iran resort to an ethical non-sequitur. They are fond of arguing that, because the Iranian government tortures political prisoners or supports entities that commit violent acts for political ends, the same government is bound to breach whatever non-proliferation pledges it may offer.

This is akin to arguing that, because your neighbor beats his wife, he must surely be stealing from his employer—or because he cheats at poker, he must surely be a drug addict.

The intention behind this fallacy is to harness emotion to the anti-Iranian cause. The opponents of a deal are trying to arouse indignation and aversion in the hope that these emotions will cloud judgments. Another emotion they seek to arouse is fear. For that purpose they summon up the “regional hegemon” bogey, the mysteries of the military site at Parchin, and Iran’s development of medium-range missiles and a cyber-warfare capability.

There is hope to be drawn from all this. It suggests that opponents have despaired of winning the debate about a nuclear deal through reasoned argument. It suggests they have come to understand, consciously or unconsciously, that they have no rational counter to the administration’s case for an agreement.

Interests Trump Ethics

That said, the argument that the United States ought not to be cutting nuclear deals with a government that has a grisly human rights record and has sponsored terrorist acts is not vacuous. There is more to it than an appeal to emotion.

The argument can be rephrased as follows: can there be any justification for negotiated agreements with state or non-state actors who violate fundamental norms of behavior?

An answer can be found in the French concept of raison d’état, which equates to “paramount interest.”

The post-1945 period—an age in which Western democracies have tried harder than ever to promote Western values worldwide—offers many instances in which those democracies have put strategic interests ahead of ethical promotion.

In the 1970s, for example, the United States was happy to do business with anti-communist military regimes in Brazil, Argentina and Chile, though these regimes were known to be torturing and murdering political opponents. Washington’s overriding interest was to minimize Soviet penetration of Latin America.

In the 1990s the British government was ready to negotiate with the Provisional Irish Republican Army, which had the blood of many innocents on its hands, to put an end to political violence in Northern Ireland and English cities.

For decades the French government has held its nose and cozied up to African strongmen although the latter have paid scant regard to Western values. In that region France cannot afford to be ethically fastidious.

In 2003 the United States and Britain supped with Muammar Qaddafi to obtain the surrender of his chemical weapons and crates full of uranium centrifuge components.

Of course this pursuit of strategic interests has not gone unquestioned by idealists. But these idealists have been outnumbered in each case by pragmatists, for whom the defense and promotion of ethical values is a luxury compared to a nation’s interest in peace, security, and prosperity.

US Interest in an Agreement

When it comes to Iran in 2015, the Western democracies have much to gain by holding their noses. The prospective agreement will minimize the risk of Iran’s elite using uranium enrichment technology or plutonium-breeding reactors to produce the fissile material needed for nuclear weapons.

The only alternative to risk minimization in this case, experience has taught us, would be the armed invasion and lengthy occupation of Iran. The huge costs that this alternative would entail cannot be justified in the absence of evidence that Iran is hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons.

In fact, the contrary seems to be the case. Iran’s foreign minister told Charlie Rose on nationwide TV: “We have taken a decision not to acquire nuclear weapons.” Able diplomats—highly able in this case—may refrain from telling the truth through equivocation, but they do not volunteer lies. They know that diplomatic credibility does not recover from being caught out in a deliberate falsehood.

A nuclear agreement with Iran can also:

  • bring to an end a dispute that has damaged the International Atomic Energy Agency by politicizing its Board of Governors and laying the current director-general open to the perception that he has been too ready to listen to malevolent allegations.
  • demonstrate that the permanent members of the UN Security Council are capable of acting unanimously to uphold the global nuclear non-proliferation regime;
  • encourage Iran’s leaders to look for other areas in which they can benefit by cooperating with the West;
  • secure a return to the Iranian market for Western traders and investors;
  • open up the possibility, over time, of changes to the political climate in Iran that will reduce toleration for the mistreatment of domestic opponents and for sponsoring political violence abroad.

When there is so much to be gained by holding one’s nose, pragmatism and expediency must prevail. Winston Churchill, as so often, showed the way. In 1941, desperate for allies, he remarked of Stalin: “If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”

Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.



  1. What about Israel’s fear of having its strongest enemy cozying up with its main friend?
    What about Sunni Saudi Arabia’s visceral hatred, fear and jealousy for Shia Iran?
    These two entities will not spare any efforts to prevent a deal that will certainly weaken their demonizing discourse. Actually these two entities do not give a damn about the USA or world peace, they think about what they are about to lose and how they will have to compose in a new and challenging situation.

  2. Chamberlain perceived that he was, legitimately, putting GB’s strategic interest ahead of any ethical considerations in entering into an agreement with Hitler. The problem, of course, was that Hitler had a very different “moral compass” than did Chamberlain and then, there was no effective enforcement mechanism.

    We certainly do have a legitimate national security interest in arriving at an effective agreement with them irrespective of their support of terror and obvious human rights violations. However, the open question is how much can we rely upon them to keep to any agreement?

    This, of course, brings back the Reagan dictum of “trust but verify” and therein lies the rub. How much can we actually verify and to what extent is there a “realistic stick” to make sure that the agreement is adhered to?

    Chamberlain and the other Europeans had Hitler’s known history. We have Iran’s history of breaching agreements.

    Caveat Emptor!

  3. Virgile says a lot in his post, to which I agree, for what it’s worth. Considering the alternatives, both countries would do it’s peoples a service if they stopped with the fear mongering. It should be clear that Israel has played that game so much, that the world is tired of being reminded of the suffering of long ago, as it does to the Palestinians what the NAZI’s did to the Jews. This is the 21st Century, the M.E. is still stuck in the past, with its peoples mostly on to low side of the economic spectrum. Both S.A. & Israel have the ability to bring the standard of living up, but do seem afraid to do so. Fear needs a bogyman, which Iran fits the bill today. We still don’t know the results of the recent Gulf/”O” conference, but lets hope that S.A. isn’t being led down the primrose path by Israel insofar as war with Iran.

  4. @Fred Taylor,
    Since every time I turn someone is saying “appeasement”, “Chamberlain”, “Munich 1938”, I wonder. Let me ask you. What did Chamberlain do and what would you have done differently if you were in Chamberlain’s shoes?

    As for Reagan’s “trust but verify”, do you think we’re in a worse position to try the same thing vs Iran than back then against USSR?

  5. Hafez,the popular Iranian poet says. “..Suppose I am guilty of all your accusations, but are you as innocent as you claim ? .,”
    Suppose Iran is hiding something is that worst than Israel’s actual ownership of about 200 A-Bombs and openly threatening Iran with nuclear bombs ?
    Suppose Iran is helping “terrorists” secretly,which I don’t know which , Is it worst than Israel’s defying several UN resolutions and international conventions and its own agreements as regards to Palestinians?
    Suppose Iran has a bad human rights record,which it has, but is it worst than Saudi human rights record or Israeli apartheid,mal-treatment of palestinian prisoners, ….. Would the Iranian human rights record have a better chance to improve with the agreement or without the agreement ?
    And last ,suppose the deal with Iran is abandoned and as a last resort the war option is chosen to please Israel and Saudis . Is Iran as easy as Iraq to defeat without damage to Israel, Saudis , western interest in the area, western allies in the area ……??
    The peaceful deal option has to be given a fair full chance with optimistic treatment of what might happen afterwards. Did the west and the world win in dealing with N.Korea ?

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