Iran Deal Is Pause Button, No More or Less

Obama should tout nuclear deal's strength: It delays a potential war.

A mushroom cloud of lobbying.

Photographer: Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images

While President Barack Obama was making a speech in defense of the Iran nuclear deal today, a lobby for its rejection was pushing the following meme through the Twittersphere:


Here's another way to think of it: "As soon as Congress kills Iran nuclear deal, Iran can develop nukes in wks."

Obama was at his strongest today when he challenged his opponents to present a better, feasible alternative. Because without one, we would quickly face the same decisions as might be faced in a decade or more with the deal in place. And, really, what is the hurry?

There are good reasons to expect that the Iranians would conclude from a Congressional rejection that the U.S. is not serious about striking an agreement. Even without the political pressure to make a tough response, Iran would have little to gain by continuing unilateral restrictions on its nuclear program when sanctions aren't going to be lifted.

QuickTake Iran's Nuclear Program

Equally, it is likely (the disowned comments of one French official notwithstanding), that Russia, China, India and those European countries that have either imposed tough sanctions or cut their consumption of Iranian energy would draw the same conclusion. They would resume as much trade as they were doing with Iran two or three years ago (the continued threat of U.S. financial sanctions would prevent a return to the peak levels of investment and trade before that time).

With sanctions collapsing and Iranian nuclear fuel production ramped up, Obama was surely correct to say:

Does anyone really doubt that the same voices now raised against this deal will be demanding that whoever is president bomb those nuclear facilities?

I didn't think much of Obama's speech as a whole. It was too laced with the partisan politics and hyperbole that he accuses his opponents of using against himself and the agreement.

It is, for example, certainly true that many of the deal's fiercest critics are, as Obama claimed, the same people who pushed for the Iraq war. It's also true that the decision to topple Iran's most implacable enemy (Saddam Hussein) empowered the regime in Tehran to an extent that lifting sanctions never could. But this is an argument to discredit his critics, and like all ad hominem arguments it is weak. It says little about the substance of the deal.

Obama can also afford to be more honest about the agreement's limitations. It would make his pitch stronger.

He is mistaken to pretend that the deal has cut off all paths to an Iranian bomb, forever. Within its parameters, most nuclear experts find the agreement reached impressive, but those parameters are 10 to 15 years. Then it expires. His retort that a ban on Iran producing nuclear weapons (as opposed to fuel that can be used for civilian purposes) would stay in place forever is a canard. That's a rule under the 1970 Treaty on Nuclear Non-Proliferation, to which Iran is already a signatory and will presumably remain committed. As part of the recent nuclear deal, this language is mere boilerplate and not a restriction at all.

Here's the crude reality of the deal that diplomats from China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. reached with Iran last month: In exchange for lifted sanctions and an agreement that in 10 to 15 years Iran will have an internationally accepted uranium enrichment program, the Iranian regime has agreed to unprecedented restrictions for the interim.

It may be that Iran cheats and the deal collapses. It may well be that in 10 or 15 years, a future U.S. president will feel obliged to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities. It may also be that in the meantime, Saudi Arabia and others will prepare for the deal's expiration by building up nuclear capabilities of their own, fueling a regional arms race. And it is a certainty that Iran will go on supporting anti-U.S. and anti-Israeli activities in the Middle East, as it has done since 1979.

There's no magic here. This deal is an uncomfortable compromise, like all agreements negotiated with undefeated rivals. If it survives the U.S. Congress, it will at worst delay war. At best, it will defuse a problem which, for reasons now unforeseen, will become manageable without war by the time the deal expires. That's all Obama needs to say.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.