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The Iran Deal

March 27, 2018

 

Our reality TV presidency is nearing its zenith. With John Bolton joining the inner sanctum of our national security team, we will have officially reached the point where most of our country is run not by experts and professionals, but rather cable TV talking heads. Say what you will about the Rex Tillersons of the world, but the knowledge that nobody leaves the Trump administration with their dignity intact has clearly put a damper on the number of people willing in the White House. This has left the door open to primarily charlatans and cranks.

 

Maybe none of this will matter. Larry Kudlow has been impressively wrong about everything during an unimpressive two-decade span of playing an economist on TV, but outside a financial crisis the economy will chug along no matter who is the director of the National Economic Counsel [sic]. However, occasionally our government actually must make a decision about something - a decision with consequences. With the departures of Tillerson and McMaster from the White House, two of the administration's key supporters of the Iran nuclear deal framework. The administration will soon need to decide whether the United States will keep up its end of that bargain.

 

When thinking about the Iran deal, I always go back to one of the core principles of LobbySeven - developing nuclear weapons is just not that difficult. It takes money, time, and effort. But a modern nation with a strong scientific infrastructure will be able to build nuclear weapons, as long as it is able to allocate the resources. The ancestors of today's Iranians - Persians, Seleucids, Achaemenids, Elamites - have an long and storied history of scientific advancement. Persians were inventing algebra when Western Europe faced five more centuries of Dark Ages. Moving to today, the University of Tehran has the world's 45th best engineering program, according to US News rankings. If Iran wants nuclear weapons, it is only a matter of time.

 

And why wouldn't they want nuclear weapons? Iran's leaders are well aware that American presidents have long grouped them with rogue nations such as Iraq and Libya; Iranian leaders are well aware of what happened to Hussein and Qaddafi. Had these leaders held nuclear arsenals, the world would not have been quite as sanguine about deposing - and killing - these murderous dictators. As with North Korea, Iran is not being irrational when it develops nuclear weapons for national defense.

 

If it wished to prevent these developments, the rest of the world had few potential ways of doing so. Airstrikes could have impacted Iran's development schedule. They have been long been threatened, by both the United States and by Israel. Unfortunately, they have been threatened for long enough where most of Iran's development is underground, impervious to bombs. Some space could be added to Iran's nuclear timetable, but it is a temporary solution at best.

 

A full invasion, igniting regime change, would likely put the kibosh on Iran's nuclear ambitions. But those who push for this fourth war in the Middle East are, as usual, massively underestimating the cost in both lives and treasure. Iran has more than twice the population, and nearly four times the land area of its neighbor to the west. The Iraq War lasted almost 9 years and cost $2.4 trillion (by some measures). 4,500 American soldiers, and 300 additional coalition soldiers, were killed, along with about 18,000 members of the Iraqi Security Forces, and at least 100,000 civilians - possibly many more. Even with these great losses, the result of the War is hardly an unqualified success. We can only guess what a war with and occupation of Iran might cost, but it would likely be more than we are willing to bear.

 

Fully aware of the limited military options, President Barack Obama followed the only rational plan. He, along with many other nations, imposed ever tightening sanctions against Iran. As this caused economic distress, Iran was forced to the negotiating table. Eventually, the deal reached the only plausible framework: Iran committed to halt work towards nuclear weapons and allow inspections to ensure compliance. Sanctions would be lifted and, as Trump will repeat constantly, impounded offshore Iranian funds were released. Now, feel free to complain about the deal - but I have never seen reason to believe that the Obama Administration didn't get the best deal possible. Our negotiating position was far from impregnable, and we gave up what we had to give up in order to get the commitment and inspections.

 

And, Iran could be doing a better job of following the spirit of the agreement. The inspectors have been limited in where they have been allowed to inspect. However, every country other than Trump's United States agrees that the agreement has halted Iran's inexorable march towards a weapon. Trump's main opposition to the deal seems to be that it was an accomplishment of President Obama; he has never clarified a "better deal" that Iran would have plausibly accepted. Under the guidance of his new Cable War Cabinet, it seems likely that the United States will exit the deal.

 

This would be an exceptionally stupid action, on all levels, even for Trump. First, all of the other participants in the deal have stated that they find Iran to be in compliance; they will not exit it with us. New sanctions imposed unilaterally by the United States would have no teeth - Iran could just trade with the rest of the world. Second, without American backing, the chances of Iran seriously breaching the agreement would greatly increase. Leaving the agreement could easily put us back on the road to a nuclear Iran. Or, if we want to prevent it, to the terrible war we discussed above.

 

But worst, what would a unilateral abrogation of the Iran deal say to other nations who might want to negotiate treaties with the United States in the age of Trump? That our President is misinformed and capricious? That our President is malicious and vindictive, more interested in spurning the achievements of his predecessor than forging his own? That his win-loss view of the world, while perhaps relevant to bankrupting investors, is incompatible with the world of international diplomacy, where the "best deal" isn't always the optimal solution? That for all of these reasons, you can not trust his word, you can not make a deal with him.

 

Paying closest attention to this will be the nation of North Korea. While he will have plenty of time to weasel out, Trump has apparently agreed to sit down with the leadership of this state, which already possesses nuclear weapons. Trump apparently wants to make a deal with Kim, but any deal will necessarily look a lot like the Iran deal Trump loathes so much. In fact - North Korea will almost certain get more. With functional nuclear weapons in his possession, thousands of artillery pieces on the outskirts of the capital a major American ally, and little apparent concern for the deprivations of his citizenry, Kim holds all the cards. Add to this an inability to trust Trump's word, and a potential Second Korean War that would be far more destructive than the potential Iranian War - and during which nuclear weapons could potentially be used against United States' territory, as well as that of South Korea and Japan. I don't know what Trump thinks he is going to get out of this, but when his National Security Advisor has famously pushed for unilateral North Korea airstrikes, I hate to guess what he will actually get.

 

Is there anybody left at the White House to explain this? Even if there were, would he listen, when other advisors are telling him what he wants to hear? Maybe, staffing the administration with the cast of Fox & Friends wasn't as brilliant an idea as it seemed.

 

 

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