Two Faulty Objections to an Iran Deal

by Ali Gharib

The closing months of an Iran nuclear deal were always bound to bring a hailstorm of criticisms from opponents of diplomacy. Well, it’s happening — and maybe “hail” isn’t the right kind of storm: critics of a deal seem be throwing shit up against a wall and seeing what they can get to stick.

Two lines of criticism here are worth exploring. First, that intelligence-gathering and inspections of Iran’s nuclear program will never be good enough to detect whether or not they are cheating. And, second, that other regional powers, namely Saudi Arabia, will seek to build their own nuclear program.

Let’s deal with the second of those first, because it’s in the news. David Sanger had a piece in The New York Times a couple days ago under the (web) headline “Saudi Arabia Promises to Match Iran in Nuclear Capability.” The title largely speaks for itself, so I won’t bother with most of the details. But this line from Sanger is worth noting: “It is widely presumed that Pakistan would provide Saudi Arabia with the technology, if not a weapon itself.”

Yet, as the Washington Post‘s PostEverything blog recently noted, “Pakistan has of late asserted its independence from Saudi Arabia, as evidenced by their refusal to aid Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.” Riyadh may be furious enough over the Iran deal to forsake the U.S., but Islamabad may not be—a point echoed by the scholars Dina Esfandiary and Ariane Tabatabai, who disputed the “nuclear cascade” theory in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists last month. So this isn’t quite the universal presumption Sanger presents it as.

Nonetheless, even if the nuclear dominoes, so to speak, do fall, it could be a boon to non-proliferation efforts. If Saudi Arabia does follow through on its threat to match Iran, perhaps it can be convinced to adhere to the same restrictions. “Given the nature of what Iran has agreed to, the appropriate response to such demands [to match Iran’s capability] 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,” Paul Pillar wrote recently.

Columbia University Iran expert Gary Sick echoed this notion. “I say let any Middle Eastern country sign on to an agreement with all of the same limitations included in the deal that has been negotiated by the P5+1 with Iran. That will be true equivalency,” Sick wrote in an e-mail. “And if all the Arab states should do so, that would be a powerful first step toward a nuclear free zone in the Middle East—which they all say they want.”

But there’s more to this objection than the failure to think it through to its conclusion. What’s most strange is that now Saudi Arabia getting a nuclear program is an objection to an Iran deal. Yet, before the interim deal and further negotiations, hawks had these sorts of things to say about why something must be done about Iran’s nuke program: “One certain result [of a nuclear-armed Iran] would thus be a nuclear proliferation spiral in the Middle East, in which Saudi Arabia, Turkey and probably Egypt would acquire nuclear arsenals of their own,” wrote the Wall Street Journal editorial board in 2011. (I won’t bore you with more examples—you can Google around for them.)

Never mind that at least one major think tank didn’t think so much of the Middle East nuclear proliferation cascade theory—despite the Journal‘s cocksure declaration of a “certain result.” What’s really galling is that the situation hawks have used to lament Obama’s supposed inaction on Iran before diplomacy is now being used to oppose diplomacy, Obama, in other words, is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.

If that leaves you scratching your head, let me help clarify what’s going on. In this case, too, the 2011 Journal editorial is instructive. The editorial board was insisting that Obama do something about Iran’s nuclear progress, but they weren’t asking for a robust diplomatic process and a deal that curtails Iran’s program. Instead, the Journal called for military strikes against Iran, arguing, naturally, that the negative consequences would be minimal.

With that, let’s move on to the second objection to the Iran nuke deal held up by Iran hawks. This one says that even the heightened regime of inspections on Iran’s nuclear program and the certainty that it’ll remain the world’s most watched program ever simply won’t be enough. Iran will cheat, we’re told, and it’ll get away with it because these methods of detection won’t cut it.

This notion has been proffered, again, by many über-hawks. “The deal’s success is fundamentally dependent on intelligence and inspections. Neither of these tools is reliable,” says Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official website. It’s no surprise that the neoconservative Washington Post blogger Jen Rubin shares this view: “Verification and detection are illusory,” she recently wrote.

There’s a grain of truth to the point: intelligence-gathering is never perfect, and neither is any inspections regime. But that obscures a more salient point about this objection to a diplomatic agreement.

Opponents of the proposed deal outlined in an April framework agreement constantly say they don’t want war as an alternative to this agreement. They just don’t want this deal, they want a better deal. That better deal, one where Iran gives up its enrichment program entirely, is a unicorn: it exists only in their imagination. Virtually every Iran expert on the planet agrees that there is no such deal to be had, because Iran would never agree to it. It’s a non-starter.

What’s so curious, then, about the positions of those opposing the current deal is that even their unicorn deal would rely on intelligence and inspections. If, as Jen Rubin wrote, Iran has a “history of lying [and] cheating” then why wouldn’t it cheat on a pledge to not enrich at all? It follows that such a pledge would, in that case, need to be backed up by robust inspection and intelligence-gathering. Then we’d be back at square one, up against this objection that inspections and detection don’t work.

WIth this objection, the logical fallacy runs so deep that it lays bare the intentions of the opponents of diplomacy who raise it. They don’t want a deal at all. Indeed, Rubin has already called for an attack on Iran—in 2010!

None of this is to say that there aren’t real concerns about an Iranian nuclear deal. But some of the objections are so completely hollow that they ought to be seen for what they are: throwing shit against the wall. We should recognize this from a mile away when it comes from the warmongers, and call them to account for it.

Photo: Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin

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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. re: “Verification and detection are illusory.”
    The NPT includes includes IAEA presence at declared nuclear sites to ensure non-diversion of fuel to weapons programs. Iran has been compliant in that regard, and the IAEA has consistently reported non-diversion.
    The US wants greater latitude for IAEA inspections, to allow IAEA visits to military installations which may be suspected of prohibited activities.
    But Iran is a large country, and the IAEA can’t ever be everywhere.
    So there can never be complete verification and detection of prohibited activities in Iran or anywhere else.
    Therefore the choice is between
    1. observations at declared sites, plus perhaps a few others (the Iran position)
    2. Iran opting out of the NPT and no inspections ( a weak possibility)
    3. invasion and occupation of Iran for regime change (Shah 2.0) — the US objective
    Pick a number. If 1 or 2, then sanctions remain as a separate possibility, but as time passes (which it always does) they seem more anachronistic, weaker and less enforceable.

  2. @Monty Ahwazi
    I know they won’t happen in the short and with the corrupt atmosphere that currently poisons the world. But they must happen because they are realistic, not otherwise. They must happen because they are mutually beneficial to all parties involved. And it will happen for the same reason other similar treaties and agreements. The series of Geneva Conventions that were signed by some of the most blood thirsty colonialists is one example. The arms reduction treaties between the U.S. and Soviet Union is another. Those actually started during even worse time, at the height of the cold war. If you recall, during one of the latter stages there was a good deal of opposition on the grounds that the Soviets could not be trusted, and it was none other than the Republican deity Ronald Reagan who coined the phrase “trust but verify”. They must and they will happen.

  3. Let’s take your logical fallacy argument one step further. Let’s say the hawks get exactly what they want and the US strikes Iran. If Iran’s ability to covertly develop a nuclear weapon is so great, then how would a strike stop them. To cheat, they would have to use facilities unknown to outside intelligence agencies. Those same facilities would not be hit in an attack.

  4. Ali, I have one minor quibble with you. You wrote:

    “Opponents of the proposed deal outlined in an April framework agreement constantly say they don’t want war as an alternative to this agreement. They just don’t want this deal, they want a better deal. That better deal, one where Iran gives up its enrichment program entirely, is a unicorn: it exists only in their imagination. Virtually every Iran expert on the planet agrees that there is no such deal to be had, because Iran would never agree to it. It’s a non-starter.”

    Actually, maybe…just maybe…Iran might be willing to give up its enrichment program under one circumstance. And that would be for the entire Middle East to become a nuclear free zone. That would include Israel. If Israel were willing to give up all its nukes and its right to enrich uranium then perhaps Iran would be willing to give up its enrichment program too.

    But since we know that any proposal to have Israel give up its nukes is DOA, I guess that in a roundabout way you are correct. Expecting Iran to give up enrichment because Israel has done the same is a non-starter since Israel will not give up its nukes.

  5. @Robin Messing, when Iran was ready to give up its enrichment rights and instead purchasing 3.5% uranium rods for their upcoming power plant operation on the shores of the Persian Gulf during President Khatami, President Clinton and Russia played games with Iran and eventually the west & East refused to do it! Khatami lost his 2nd term and Ahmadinejad was elected as president and of course the rest is history! The Iranian government made a decision at that time that they will never be humiliated again internationally. Now Iran won’t give up anything even if Israel gives up its nuclear arsenal because the trust has evaporated and technological advancement is that nation’s pride! I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Iran decides to go all the way should the stupid games continue to be played by the East and the West!

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