As the Iran talks reach a critical point in Switzerland, the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has been trying to suss out the talking points of both critics and supporters of the deal. Fortunately, Rosie Gray’s excellent BuzzFeed report illuminates the positions of both the pro and anti-deal advocates working the press in Lausanne. In essence, advocates of a deal argue that the most likely counterfactual of no deal — a military strike on Iran — is unthinkable because it’s such a bad outcome. Meanwhile, critics argue that the most likely counterfactual of no deal — a weak agreement that Iran can easily evade — is unthinkable because it’s such a bad outcome.
Lest you think I’m caricaturing these positions, the Wall Street Journal’s Carol Lee and Jay Solomon report on the narrative that the Obama administration is starting to feed its supporters in Congress:
White House officials have encouraged liberal groups to put U.S. lawmakers on the spot with the question: “Are you for solving this diplomatically or being forced…to war?” Ben Rhodes, one of Mr. Obama’s closest foreign-policy advisers, used those words at a January 2014 meeting with dozens of representatives from liberal political organizations, according to a transcript reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
At the time, the Obama administration had just signed an interim agreement with Iran that called for Tehran to freeze parts of its nuclear program in return for suspension of some economic sanctions.
While a coalition in the Senate, including some Democrats, was pushing for more financial penalties in an effort to win additional concessions from Iran, Mr. Rhodes told attendees that lobbying against more sanctions wouldn’t be politically effective. Instead, lawmakers had to be challenged on whether or not they supported another war, he said at the meeting.
That message helped delay congressional action on a sanctions bill, allowing the diplomacy to continue.
So that’s the binary proposed by the administration — deal or war. And if you’re looking for the worst-case counterfactual from an Iran hawk, well, just go to the ur-text for the arguments that you’ll see this week.
As things in the Middle East fall apart, however, I’m beginning to wonder if either rationale will hold up. Indeed, the more that you think about it, the more that the deteriorating situation across the Middle East actually undercuts both supporters and detractors of a nuclear deal with Iran.
Take the “deal or war” perspective. The prospect of the U.S. having to use air power against Iran does sound pretty bad. Well, it did sound bad, back before the U.S. was using air power in Iraq. And Syria. And providing support for others to use air power in Yemen. And lengthening the stay of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
When you think about it that way, does adding another country to the bombing list really matter all that much?
The answer, from a foreign policy perspective, is that of course it does. Bombing Iran is an order-of-magnitude difference that what the U.S. is doing in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. But my point is that the optics of greater U.S. use of force in the Middle East doesn’t look as problematic as it did, say, in January 2014. The disastrous counterfactual does not look too far removed from reality.
At the same time, however, the “no deal or nuclear Iran” counterfactual is also ringing a bit hollow nowadays. This two-step argument says that a deal will not stop Iran from becoming a nuclear state, and once Iran acts like a nuclear state, it will act in a bellicose manner. That sounds pretty bad. Well, it did sound bad, back before Iran had bolstered its influence over the Iraqi government. And before it did the same in Syria. And Hamas. And the rebels in Yemen.
When you think about it that way, will Iranian foreign policy change all that much if it does become a nuclear-capable state?
The answer, from a foreign policy perspective, is that of course it does. A nuclear Iran will trigger a cascade of nuclear capable Sunni states in the Arab Middle East. The more militaries that have poor command-and-control systems over nuclear forces, the worse for everyone (click here, here, and here to see what I mean). But my point is that the optics of a nuclear-armed Iran in the Middle East does not look as problematic as it did, say, when these negotiations started.
The policy debate about any deal will continue, and I’d strongly recommend looking at Jeffrey Goldberg’s checklist to see if any agreement reached in Switzerland is worth the paper it is printed on. But for both hawks and doves lobbying in Lausanne, their problem is that their worst-case counterfactuals no longer look so bad compared to the maelstrom that is the current Middle East.