The Best Case Against the Iran Deal Has Some Holes

by Ali Gharib

There’s a lot wrong in Vox‘s interview with Michael Doran, the neoconservative Hudson Institute scholar, on diplomacy with Iran, which bears the very Vox-ish headline “This is the case against Obama’s Iran deal that everyone should hear.” Let’s start with just one problem.

Doran’s analysis of President Obama’s Middle East aims begins with the premise that the administration sought off the bat to avoid wars in the region at any cost—Doran calls it Obama’s “fundamental assumption that the United States should pull back from the Middle East.” Never mind that Obama ramped up a covert war in Yemen or that he joined the Libya intervention. Still, there’s some truth to this Obama doctrine: the president clearly wants to avoid dumb wars of the sort that Doran’s former bosses in the George W. Bush administration got into (to which, in the case of Iraq, Doran lent encouragement before entering government service).

From here, Doran goes over the various ways Obama could accomplish his goal to “pull back” from the region. This from his interview with Vox‘s Max Fisher:

The minute you say you’re going to pull back, then you have to answer the question, “What new order am I going to leave in the region?” You have to have some notion of how you’re going to stabilize the region and keep its worst pathologies from affecting the United States.

The only answers are either “I’m going to build up my allies as a defense against my enemies,” à la the Nixon doctrine, which he didn’t do, or “I’m going to put together a club of stable powers, and we’re going to have a concert system.” [A concert system, like the 19th-century Concert of Europe, is a set of countries with roughly equivalent power that balance one another to create a stable international system.

Fisher’s follow-up question was so close to getting at what’s wrong with this argument:

But if Obama wanted to do that [pull back], then why not do it by promoting allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel and perhaps Turkey, all of which are already quite powerful in the region?

Oh, right! If only Obama had the common sense to do the easy things, like, y’know, make record military sales during several of the past years to our closest Gulf Arab allies! What’s that you say? Obama has made record military sales of advanced weapons systems to Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and the surrounding sheikhdoms, as well as Israel? And Obama’s security cooperation with Israel is, by all accounts, including Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s, “unprecedented”? He’s even supporting Saudi Arabia with intelligence in an ill-conceived war against Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen? Well, that hardly comports with what Doran is telling us.

Now, this is not to say Obama doesn’t want détente with Iran—he probably does: ending decades of enmity with a bitter rival has its own inherent value, not to mention hamstringing the country’s nuclear program. But if Doran is working off the binary of either building up allies or détente with Iran at any cost as a means of “pull back,” then the verdict is already in.

There’s some irony in that because, in the Vox interview, Doran rejects the binary supporters of diplomacy tend to haul out—that those who oppose diplomacy are pushing for war. (My own preferred rendering of this is that opponents of diplomacy are moving us back to the path to confrontation with Iran.) “President Obama is putting us and our allies before an ultimatum—either an Iranian nuclear program or disaster—and I just think we have many more options than that,” Doran tells Fisher.

And here lies the big problem with Doran’s argument. He vacillates between saying Iran is hell-bent on developing a nuclear weapon (the Iranians “belong to a category of regimes, like the North Koreans, that calculates that if they can get this weapon then the world will treat them differently”—how’s that going for North Korea?) and saying they’re rational and would give up their whole nuclear program if only we threaten them hard enough, which he expresses at the end of the interview:

If the Iranian regime — and I do believe they are rational — were truly put before the choice, if Ali Khamenei was put before a choice of “Your nuclear program or absolutely crippling, debilitating economic sanctions,” he would think twice. I think if he were put before a choice of “Your nuclear program or severe military strikes,” he would think twice.

That’s Doran’s alternative to the deal currently on the table. Sanction them harder (never mind that Doran goes on at some length about how hard it is to put sanctions on).Threaten them with force, and mean it.

When Doran’s big Mosaic magazine piece came out—the one where he synthesizes his theory about Obama’s secret, grand strategy of détente with Iran—Israel Institute head Michael Koplow largely agreed with the thesis. But Koplow demurred in one area, the utility of the nuclear deal with Iran:

Put more simply, option one is to allow Iran to resume its nuclear program in a hellbent manner and with no inspections or safeguards in place, and option two is to put inspections and safeguards in place to try and frustrate Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Isn’t the logical choice here option two, even if it is a less than perfect solution? Isn’t something in this case much better than nothing if the actual ambition is to stop an Iranian bomb (as opposed to regime change)?

Read that last parenthetical interjection twice. Then read this 2010 Wall Street Journal opinion piece where Doran lays out a plan for regime change in Tehran. Now there’s a clear alternative to the nuclear deal.

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.



  1. “Put more simply, option one is to allow Iran to resume its nuclear program in a hellbent manner and with no inspections or safeguards in place, and option two is to put inspections and safeguards in place to try and frustrate Iran’s nuclear ambitions. ”

    If we live in a binomial world and there are always two options, exactly constructed like that with no other qualifiers,

    then why are certain countries allowed to “resume their nuclear program in a hellbent manner” and not option two?

  2. Various Americans are still talking like the US controls events in the Middle East, but of course it doesn’t. Iran is the new power, courtesy of Uncle Sam. Now the sanctions regime will fall apart, Russia and China will increase Iran ties, and the US ships and bases in and around the Gulf will be obviously vulnerable.

    So whatever Hudson Institute “fellows” speculate is inconsequential. (Rebecca Heinrichs, another Hudson “fellow,” is spouting the same nonsense and lies on Breaking Defense.) They probably get paid well to do it, and there is no down side to putting a hate on Iran. The Persians are used to it, probably dating from their first empire in 500 BC. The US newcomers, what, a couple hundred years? Still teething.

  3. You couldn’t make up some of the garbage in Doran’s WSJ Iran regime change article. Beaming in a satellite broadcast of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger inviting Iranian youth to a tech conference in Silicone Valley; and then hoping they’ll overthrow the Iranian government because they can’t attend???!!! More like “Beam me up Scotty”!

  4. To Doran any departure from the thought of the regime change is disengaging from Middle East . But Iran isn’t Middle East .it is one piece among many. ( Aren’t Doran basically saying that Iran means the entire ME and in the process laying the ground of an Iranian empire in his thought?) Continued military activities aren’t disengagement either unless the words have lost meaning and have acquired fluid understanding attached to them by the exper like Doran as they see fit as demanded by the political needs of person like Doran.

    It is obvious that though the lies of Netanyahu have become obvious and laughable , not everybody has suffered same fate and a lot out there are still trying to inseminate same poison chalice down the future generation of both the nations with new embroidery of words and with new kaleidoscopic imagination.

  5. Author assumes that Doran is misinformed or suffers from the inability to connects to realities. He is well informed and he knows the past,present and knows what future he would like see.
    He is not lying . He is rearranging the toys in the sand box ,losing some ,hiding some,and coloring the rest for the Americn kids . This what is called BS or gerrymandering of the thought Only certain type of thought would be allowed to emerge victorious .

Comments are closed.