The agreement over Iran’s nuclear program marks the end of an era. It makes many of the criticisms of the accord, as well as much of the praise, irrelevant—because they look backward.
There’s nothing to gain by looking backward. This is a turning point that leaves us pointing in only one direction: Let’s move on.
That requires us to examine axioms that have underpinned the 20-year-long effort to strip Iran of any ability to dabble in nuclear science, a policy that has now officially failed. They include the actual threat posed by Iran and its refusal to recognize Israel.
Is this accord “a historic mistake,” as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned? Maybe. Should he fight a rear-guard action against it in the US Congress, as he has pledged? No. That’s looking backward, though it’s understandably hard for him to change directions after two decades, even though his policy has clearly run its course.
First, let’s look at the agreement. I know that’s a terribly old-fashioned thing to do, reading a 159-page document that includes technical sections that a layman can’t unravel, but that’s really the first step. If you are inclined to do that, too, here’s the full text.
You can assume correctly that this is far from the first such document I’ve read cover to cover during my 43 years as a news correspondent in this region, as evidenced by this section of my office bookshelf. A thorough reading of this one reveals one of the most detailed and restrictive international accords that I’ve ever come across.
Here’s a quote from the first section of the Iran accord:
Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.
Here’s another one:
For 15 years, Iran will not engage in producing or acquiring plutonium or uranium metals or their alloys, or conducting R&D on plutonium or uranium (or their alloys) metallurgy, or casting, forming, or machining plutonium or uranium metal.
And just one more example, a long one, of how extensively the agreement limits Iran’s activities:
Iran will not engage in the following activities which could contribute to the development of a nuclear explosive device:
- Designing, developing, acquiring, or using computer models to simulate nuclear explosive devices.
- Designing, developing, fabricating, acquiring, or using multipoint explosive detonation systems suitable for a nuclear explosive device, unless approved by the Joint Commission for non-nuclear purposes and subject to monitoring.
- Designing, developing, fabricating, acquiring, or using explosive diagnostic systems (streak cameras, framing cameras and flash x-ray cameras) suitable for the development of a nuclear explosive device, unless approved by the Joint Commission for non-nuclear purposes and subject to monitoring.
- Designing, developing, fabricating, acquiring, or using explosively driven neutron sources or specialized materials for explosively driven neutron sources. (All the 82’s are in the original—ml)
There are pages and pages of restrictions like that.
A usually thoughtful Israeli TV commentator apparently didn’t have time to do what I just did—read the agreement. Instead, he determined that it’s bad by putting it on a scale. It’s 60 percent sanctions relief (including long lists of companies, people and products that will no longer be banned), but only 10 percent implementation, he moaned. In fact, the detailed pages of strict implementation include this clause on the next to last page, referring to the power to reinstate sanctions if necessary:
- UNSCR Termination Day
- UNSCR (UN Security Council resolution) Termination Day will occur in accordance with the terms of the UN Security Council resolution endorsing the JCPOA, which is 10 years from Adoption Day, provided that the provisions of previous resolutions have not been reinstated.
In contrast, the whole Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the basis for preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, takes up all of six pages. Of course the comparison with the Iran accord is flawed—but it makes a point.
This brings us to a more serious criticism: Iran can begin making nuclear weapons in just ten short years, even if it lives up to the accord. That plays into the assumption that Iran will try to violate the accord any way it can, because Iran cannot be trusted.
There are two ways to look at this criticism. One is to say, we are all in mortal danger, because Iran threatens Israel, supports terrorism and lies about everything. Therefore we must defend, resist and attack, keeping Iran isolated and hostile. It’s a formula leading to war, followed by “I told you so” from the critics who made it happen.
The other way is to say, all that may be true, so how do we go about changing the reality? That’s an example of looking forward, not backward.
Ten years is an eternity in the modern world. Ten years ago, Hosni Mubarak was in firm control of Egypt, Moammar Gadhafi presided over a calm, united and oppressed Libya, George W. Bush was pursuing a war on terror that dispatched hundreds of thousands of troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Western economy was bubbling along just ahead of the big pop.
The proper way to relate to the ten-year period is to use the decade to make it worth Iran’s while to maintain an open economy, trade its oil and benefit its citizens through relations with the West—with the full realization, as stated in the just-signed agreement, that violations could set it right back to where it was before.
Before, Iran’s currency, the rial, was being traded at nearly 30,000 to the dollar. Ordinary people could not afford basic products. Unemployment was high. True, the ruling elite found ways to siphon off enough money to live comfortably, but that’s the case in all such sanctions against nations. Among those who suffered were many in the educated middle class, the very ones the West hopes will one day overthrow the ayatollahs.
Naturally, Iranians are ecstatic about the agreement, even dancing in the streets. Their lives are about to improve. What’s puzzling is why that bothers us. Would Iran be more likely to honor an agreement that the people reject and the leaders consider oppressive? Of course not. So let them celebrate.
But let’s not overdo our own enthusiasm. A prominent Western analyst gushed that President Obama’s hidden goal is to make Iran a friend of the US. No, this isn’t about friends, buddies, kissin’ cousins. This is about interests. It’s not a zero-sum game, where if one side gains, the other side loses, which has been the Israeli perception for decades. It’s about everybody moving forward because it’s in their interest.
So let’s move beyond the accord itself and examine some of the other assumptions left over from 20 years of international efforts to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability.
Netanyahu took credit for preventing Iran from building nuclear weapons so far and pledged to press forward toward that goal. Obviously Iran is a dangerous enemy, and even Obama admitted that “Israel has legitimate concerns about its security” here. Netanyahu darkly implied that Israel might take military steps against Iran, though an attack would certainly trigger a region-wide war and make Israel a pariah state just as Iran is emerging from that sorry status.
Netanyahu and others justify the option of a military strike by pointing to the fact that Iran threatens Israel’s existence.
Except that it doesn’t, beyond its rhetoric. Even if Iran tested a nuclear weapon tomorrow, it would take years to refine it into a warhead for a missile. Then it would encounter the Arrow, a joint US-Israeli anti-missile system that’s the best in the world. And then Iran would suffer Israel’s second-strike capability. Writing from outside Tel Aviv, I can only quote foreign reports that insist Israel has hundreds of nuclear warheads and missiles that can deliver them, as well as a fleet of submarines capable of launching missiles with nuclear warheads. So even if everything goes south, even if the critics are right, Israel can deal with it.
Iran’s leaders know that. They are not suicidal. For years they have had the capability of producing a “dirty bomb,” a device that spreads radioactive material with conventional explosives—but they didn’t. Some Israelis in the know call Iran a “rational player,” a description that counters the image of a grave and immediate danger from crazy Islamist fanatics, an image nurtured carefully by a prime minister who has remained in office for six years largely by keeping his people constantly frightened.
There is something fundamentally wrong with Israel’s defensive attitude. It only starts with painting Iran as an existential threat. It extends into charging, with abundant loathing, that Iran (or Hamas or Hezbollah or a whole list of others) does not recognize Israel’s right to exist.
Perhaps that was a valid issue 60 years, even 50 years ago. It no longer is. Israel does not need anyone’s endorsement of its right to exist, any more than any other nation does. Do we hear French people worrying about whether someone recognizes their nation’s right to exist? Kenyans? Pakistanis? Of course not.
Nor does Israel need anyone’s recognition that Israel is a Jewish state. It is. It doesn’t matter who declares that Israel is a Jewish state any more than it matters who declares that the Vatican is Catholic.
It’s false issues like these that get in the way of moving forward. I would like to think that the people still banging away on these old drums are doing so from a sincerely mistaken view of a world they believe has not changed since 1950. Some would counter that these outmoded slogans are trotted out by politicians who need to force their people into a fortress mentality for their own political needs. The result is the same.
What is really threatening Israel’s existence? Iran? The Palestinians? ISIS? BDS? No, no, no and no. What threatens Israel’s future (though not its existence) is its inability to accept the fact that it is a Mideast economic and military powerhouse that can deal in this region from a position of strength and confidence, not fear. That’s not to say there are no threats at all, that there will not be military and terror challenges ahead. There will be—but Israel can handle them. That’s the key to forward thinking.
Now let’s take a worst case scenario. Soon after the signing of the Iran nuclear agreement, Iran begins to violate it. The emasculated world waffles on its obligations and does not crack down on Iran in punishment. Instead, it continues to trade with Iran, developing relations and interdependence.
One bright day, Iran has a nuclear weapon. Its leaders, whether ayatollahs or moderates, understand than even testing it, much less using it, will bring the whole world crashing down on Iran, militarily and economically. Iran loses everything. So it keeps its bomb on the shelf.
There is a precedent even for the scenario of a major treaty that collapses with no discernible harm done to the rest of the world.
In 1973, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and North Vietnamese Foreign Minister Le Duc Tho signed a peace accord that ended the war in Vietnam. It had all kinds of clauses about what North Vietnam was allowed to do and what it wasn’t. No matter. After US forces withdrew from South Vietnam, North Vietnam took it over. Everyone knew that would happen. The Nobel people must have known, too, but they named Kissinger and Le Duc Tho recipients of the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize.
Did the world collapse into conflict? Depression? Communism? No, the region realigned itself and went on with its life. So did the rest of us. Last week I found myself shaking hands with a Vietnamese scientist at an Israeli Foreign Ministry function. I had to chuckle. Once this guy would have been considered my bitter enemy. Now here we were, shaking hands in Israel.
Can we learn from looking backward at Vietnam, as a way of looking forward at Iran? Can we put aside our mostly unwarranted fears? Can we convert them into efforts to bring Iran into the 21st century as part of the developed world?
Or will we promote our own hostility to magnify Iran’s, carry out covert and overt attacks, trumpet perceived or imaginary slights—a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy to insure that the agreement will fail, and we will fail along with it?
There’s only one reasonable answer: Let’s move on.