Frederick W. Kagan is the director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.
President Obama and his supporters have done a terrific job of framing the debate over the Iran nuclear agreement as a choice between taking the deal or opting for war. They continually challenge critics to articulate an alternative to the deal, claiming that there isn’t one. This is a superb debating technique, and it has put critics on the defensive. But it is a false dichotomy. The choice might conceivably be between a deal and war, although that is by no means certain — the Cold War, after all, ended with neither a deal nor war. But the choice at hand is between accepting this deal now or continuing to press and negotiate for a better deal later. Many critics of this particular agreement, including me, believe that it would be far preferable to sign a good deal with Iran than to go to war with Iran — but also believe that this is a very bad deal indeed.
There is historical precedent for thinking about the issue in this way. The Nixon administration signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) in 1972, and the Senate ratified it. The agreement did not have the desired effect. The Soviet nuclear stockpile expanded dramatically in subsequent years, and the period of detente supposedly ushered in by that agreement ended with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. That invasion came five months after the conclusion of another poor nuclear arms deal from the U.S. standpoint, SALT II. The Senate refused to ratify SALT II, ending the SALT process.
But war between the United States and the Soviet Union did not ensue. Both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan instead increased the pressure on the Soviet Union dramatically, including with enhanced economic sanctions and significant increases to the defense budget — begun by Carter — that forced the Soviet Union to spend more on its own military. Within a few years, Soviet leaders came to the conclusion that major internal reform was necessary and that a thaw in relations with the United States was desirable.
Moreover, the end of the SALT process was not the end of negotiations. NATO adopted a “dual-track” approach of deploying U.S. intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Europe and simultaneously trying to negotiate the elimination of all such weapons, including the Soviets’, from the continent in November 1979. Negotiations began in 1980, and formal talks started the next year. These talks were difficult, and the Soviets walked out in 1983 and 1984 as the United States followed through with the deployment of missiles to Europe and the development of Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, to which the Kremlin was violently opposed.
Yet negotiations began again in 1985, now including not only intermediate-range ballistic missiles but also a more comprehensive discussion about reducing — rather than limiting — strategic weapons. Reagan had announced his desire to pursue a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in 1982, but the Soviets only took it up three years later, after Mikhail Gorbachev took power. Reagan and Gorbachev announced a basic agreement regarding intermediate-range missiles at the Reykjavik Summit in 1986, and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was signed the next year. That agreement paved the way for additional negotiations that culminated with the signing of the START pact itself in 1991. These treaties, taken together, dramatically reduced the size of nuclear arsenals on both sides and accomplished far more than either of the SALT treaties to eliminate nuclear weapons and delivery systems.
Historical analogies are always perilous, and supporters of the deal with Iran have been quick to argue that Iran has not lost a war and so cannot be expected to sign too disadvantageous an agreement. It is true that Iran has not been defeated in war, but neither had the Soviet Union when Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty. Iran, moreover, has never had the military power the Soviet Union possessed even in 1991 as it collapsed — which included the ability to obliterate the United States and NATO with nuclear weapons. The lesson of Cold War arms reduction negotiations is not that good deals require defeating an enemy in war but rather that walking away from bad deals does not inevitably lead either to war or to the end of negotiations.
Opposing the current deal is thus not in any way equivalent to favoring war. It is not a rejection of the idea of a peaceful resolution of this conflict, nor is it a refusal to negotiate with Iran. One can quite rationally oppose this deal without opposing any deal. Given how bad this deal is, in fact, that is the only rational position to take.