Monday, November 25, 2013

The Iran Deal: Appeasement Or Armageddon!?

Uranium Enrichment Centrifuges
In what has been hailed as either the greatest mistake in the history of the middle east or, perhaps, what finally justifies Obama's Nobel Peace Prize and his place in the history books, a deal was struck with Iran providing a limited period of time (6 months) and economic inducement (7bn worth of lifted sanctions) with which to both ink a 'better' deal and to perhaps bring an end to the troubling Iranian nuclear program.

Click here for Buzzfeed's history and description of "the deal."

Is It Horrible? Or The Worst Thing Ever?
That's what Benjamin Netanyahu and the Republicans want to know. Just how bad is this thing? Should, like, Israel attack now? Or maybe ... I don't know ... wait a couple of days? What's so bad about it? Well ...
  1. We're paying now and getting permanent stuff later. Isn't that how Obama built the website?
  2. We leave them with the ability to enrich uranium--even if they stay within the limits of the agreement--up to 5%. It's a hop-skip-and-a-jump to 90% where they have a bomb (Note: while this sounds silly, it isn't false. It's about 8 days to go from 20% to 90% and 45 days to go from 5% to 90%)!
  3. It's weak: it acknowledges they get to have a nuclear program and who trusts them anyway?
  4. They agreed to inspections in 2003 and then reneged. We're making the same mistake AGAIN!
  5. Wasn't our stance supposed to be NO-ENRICHMENT-NO-WAY!?
  6. This just distracts from Obamacare melting down, doesn't it!? HEY! OBAMACARE SUCKS!!
There's probably more--but that's what I've seen thus far.

It's The Worst Thing EVER (ZOMG!)
Let's be clear about a couple of things that are not especially in contention:
  • Benjamin and Barack don't exactly like each other and have not been each other's biggest boosters. Netanyahu probably is on Obama's Christmas card list--but only because it'll piss him off.
  • The worst case scenario for congressional Republicans is if Obama inks a deal that goes down in the history books as a historic Nixon-Goes-to-China deal and kids wind up reading about him for decades.
Given these two truths it's not surprising there's fire coming from those quarters no matter how bad or how good the deal is. On the other hand, Canada doesn't like the deal--and Canada may have a right-wing government right now but, c'mon. They're not the Tea Party.

The worst-case scenario looks like this:
  1. Iran pockets the money.
  2. Iran reneges on the inspection requirement.
  3. Iran at some point either
    1. Takes 8 days to sprint to a small terrorist style Hiroshima device --or--
    2. Takes 45 days to build a bigger one.
  4. KA-BOOM (or maybe they sell it?)
This is certainly possible. Clearly Israel is concerned about it--but is it likely? Let's see.

It's Horrible!!1!
What if the deal is just horrible? What would that mean? Well, let's put some of this stuff in perspective.
  1. The pay-out is 7bn out of around 100bn in sanctions. These sanctions are tough and dangerous to Iran, potentially messing with its ability to sell oil at all in the Western world. This is inducement but it isn't the same thing as winning the Internet Lottery.
  2. It precludes a plutonium reactor which is their other potential path to a bomb (and a much more destructive one).
  3. They are destroying a lot of their 20% Enrichment as part of the deal. If the above situation is possible in the future it's possible right now. Iran would not just need the enriched uranium which they could (maybe) have in a month or so--but would probably need an estimated year to have a detonator and delivery system. If the worst case scenario could happen? It already basically has.
A Hard Look At The Deal
The deal, of course, isn't horrible or the worst thing ever: unless you believe that the 7bn was all that was standing between us and disaster it's just another step along a road of diplomacy that might or might not lead anywhere. 

If Obama now suddenly deserves his Nobel Peace Prize for this it's for having the conversation rather than the results of it. Having the conversation is a big deal geopolitically (see the Buzzfeed article above for the context) but if nothing comes of it Obama won't get much credit for it in the history books.

But here's a few things we should consider before. Remember Syria and its threat of chemical bombardment of Israel? Read this--the author writes about the stacks of gas masks he has under his desk (in Israel) and how Benjamin predicted disaster when America supported the 'weak' option of diplomacy over the 'strong' option of some kind of strike:
A couple of weeks ago, the usual nameless military sources told the local media that the Defense Ministry would recommend ending production of gas masks for civilians. According to the leaks, intelligence assessments said that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was successfully reducing Syria's poison-gas arsenal. In other words, the U.S.-Russia agreement on Syria's chemical weapons is working, and one result is a significant improvement in Israeli security.
If a Russia-initiated deal can lead to sufficient destruction of chemical munitions in Syria that Israel is considering reducing the gas-mask plan (and remember, these were the guys who built the only Zombie Retaining Wall in World War Z--Israel takes her safety seriously) then it is possible that a 5 nation plan and robust sanctions can, indeed, drive a regime to go for the silver (nuclear power) rather than the gold (nuclear bombs).

Additionally, there are a few things wrong with the worst-case plan:
  1. A sprint-for-a-bomb is visible. Don't ask me how: I don't get it--but apparently we think we can tell if Iran goes for the bomb. A lot of our planning is based around this. We could be wrong--but I'm not in a position to second guess this.
  2. Iran doesn't want a terrorist nuke. Say what? You read that right. A sold nuke can be traced back to them with cataclysmic consequences. They don't want to die in a retaliatory strike. What they want is a nuclear shield for their proxy agents. You can't invade them if they can launch a nuke at Israel or even just air-strike the heck out of them. Regime change is off the table.
  3. Nuclear power and weapons are aspirational. Iran has trouble at home and while it may not make sense to us, having nuclear weapons is a point of pride for the populace of Pakistan and probably also for Iran. They have domestic reasons to want a nuclear program that go beyond foreign policy. Interfering in that looks a lot to them like it would to us if they were pumping billions of dollars into, say, Ron Paul's presidential campaign. We wouldn't like it. The other piece to this is that Iran's population kind of likes us--in fact, they like us a LOT more than the "Arab Street" does. The idea that there could be a win-win here with a nuclear program isn't absurd. In other words, even if Iran got a bomb they might not change their behavior all that much.
I still don't think we should let them get a bomb.

The reality of this is that we're giving them some inducement to work with us. This sort of thing ought to be encouraged: The removal of earmarks from Congress is one of the things that strengthened gridlock--a great way to get reelected, even if you sometimes cast the 'wrong' votes, was to bring home the bacon for your constituency.

So this seems like (a) a decent first step and (b) a pretty important and valuable conversation to be having at all. As to whether it's worth anything ... we'll have to wait six months.

And that's another thing: objecting now just makes you look bad. The 7bn isn't all that much to a major power and while you can say "This is all talk and no action" the fact is that the deal struck at this point is, really, "just a start." If you object to "let's get talking" it makes you look like, well, you object to anything.

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