U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told The Financial Times, shortly after announcing the nuclear agreement with the Iranians, that “when I left college, I went to war. And I learnt in war the price that is paid when diplomacy fails. I made a decision that if I ever was lucky enough to be in a position to make a difference, I would try to do so.”
Noble words, and Kerry is the kind of person who may actually believe them. But whatever Lt. Kerry learned in Vietnam, the narrative whereby the deal is the only alternative to war is a fraudulent one.
It has nothing to do with the debate over whether the accord has the potential to prevent Iran’s nuclear ambitions and perhaps even ease regional tensions, or whether it’s a shameful capitulation of Munich 1938 proportions by weak Western leaders to an Iranian-Russian axis. There is absolutely no certainty that if the agreement had not been reached, war would have broken out. Actually, it probably wouldn’t have.
Arguing, as U.S. President Barack Obama has, that it’s either the deal or war, accusing opponents of being the same as supporters of the 2003 Iraq War, is both a fraudulent argument and a threat to the agreement’s eventual success. There are ample grounds to argue that the deal has the potential to produce a more peaceful outcome, but making overblown and baseless claims is the wrong way to do it.
There are two major flaws to the claim that the alternative is war. The first is the assumption that war is an option for the potential belligerents — the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran. The second is to equate a military operation, even a major one, with a full-scale war.
What would have happened if after all those days and nights of talks, the sides had been forced to announce that they could not bridge their differences and that a deal limiting Iran’s nuclear program was a compromise too far? As the diplomats returned to their capitals, the Iranians wouldn’t have begun fueling their Shahab missiles and the Americans wouldn’t have gone to DEFCON 3.
If a nuclear agreement had not been achieved, Iran and the potential belligerents would still be far from shooting. Tehran and Washington have been at loggerheads for 36 years and they have never gone to war. While the Iran deal’s supporters blithely speak of avoiding war, they have yet to come up with a plausible scenario for one actually happening.
The breakout threshold
So how would that war with Iran start? It would most likely be triggered by an Iranian “breakout” — a quick dash of uranium enrichment and related efforts to let Iran, in a few months, accumulate the necessary fissile material to build a nuclear weapon. But would Iran do this? For at least a couple of years the country has been at the breakout threshold, but it hasn’t gone down that path for an array of reasons. The P5+1 process was one.
There is no proof that if the process broke down, Iran would have taken the multiple risks and initiated a breakout. Yes, the supreme leader might have decided to do so, and either Israel or the United States would almost certainly have launched an attack on Iran’s nuclear installations. But would this necessarily mean war?
Some will say a series of air and missile strikes on Iran is of course a war, but that depends on how you define a war. Legal definitions and media headlines aren’t the only parameters — the human toll and knock-on effects of a military campaign are no less important.
An operation against Iran’s main nuclear installations may be an act of war, but set on its own, with the likely limited number of casualties — technicians, security personnel, and perhaps a small number of airmen (on either side) and air-defense troops. This is not to belittle the value of lives lost, but such a scenario is not in itself war.
Whether an Israeli or American strike on Iran’s nuclear program would lead to war depends on what happens next. Iran does not border either of these countries, and its small and dilapidated air force and still-limited arsenal of long-range missiles wouldn’t let it carry out a direct war against either country. Iran could wage war against Israel or the United States only by attacking its interests or by using its proxies. Either way, this wouldn’t be a full war.
If Iran decided that it had to retaliate, it could either order Hezbollah in Lebanon to fire thousands of rockets at Israel, or it could attack shipping in the Persian Gulf. But neither of these options are automatic. Hezbollah is already overstretched fighting in Syria for Iran — this would be the worst timing to open up yet another front.
Unleashing the missiles could have disastrous results for Iran’s most potent proxy; it might lose its standing in Lebanese society (since Hezbollah has always claimed its rockets are for defending Lebanon, not Iran) and its tactical advantage in Syria.
Likewise, an attack on shipping, which particularly means oil shipping, isn’t a simple instinctive response. The world is awash in cheap oil and could withstand a temporary halt in supplies without a global energy crisis ensuing. In addition, a U.S. strike on Iran would also entail a significant deployment of the U.S. Navy, capable of blocking Iran’s ports and most of its attempts to disrupt shipping — and of course capable of crippling retaliatory strikes. That would mean war, a war Iran could only lose.
It’s hard to imagine Iran would not seek revenge for an attack on its nuclear assets, but the path of war would be near suicidal for the regime. It could choose this path, but it isn’t suicidal.
Another factor is that it’s not only the United States that’s war weary after over a decade of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Iran-Iraq war may have ended 27 years ago, but an eight-year war in which an estimated million Iranians were killed is a trauma that doesn’t disappear after a generation. And the sanctions on Iran that have existed to various degrees over the decades have badly slowed the rebuilding of the country’s economy and infrastructure.
So Iran is less likely now than ever to seek war, whether by provoking an Israeli or American strike by a nuclear breakout or in responding to a strike. It could of course do a lot of harm by continuing to arm and direct proxies, but that’s not war.
The nuclear accord is a diplomatic agreement that if adhered to could be an important step to reducing tensions in the region and prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability. And perhaps with time it could encourage more freedom and democracy in Iran and help it engage with the world.
These are all very positive objectives, but for now the deal is just a piece of paper and the real threat to implementation is not the U.S. Republicans, Benjamin Netanyahu or hard-liners in Tehran. It’s the evangelists of the deal who are portraying it as a panacea to war and bloodshed without admitting that it’s true value can only be gauged over years.
With the false argument that it’s either the deal or war, the evangelists are chipping away at Iran’s incentive to comply, because if the only alternative is war, it’s clear nothing will be allowed to stand in the deal’s way, not even noncompliance. Sure the agreement includes a cumbersome “snap-back” mechanism that theoretically could reapply the sanctions, but by saying it’s either a deal or war, the evangelists are making clear they won’t go down that path.
And even if they were to, the renewed sanctions would never be agreed upon by all the P5+1 parties. Besides, Iran has shown it can withstand the worst sanctions and low oil prices at the same time, so this option won’t necessarily be enough to convince them to comply. There have to be other options.
Acknowledging that there are other options to the deal and that military action does not necessarily mean full-out war are essential to ensuring that the deal succeeds at least in achieving what it is designed to do — curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions through diplomacy and without the need for military measures. The agreement can be a good thing one day; insisting that it’s already a wonderful thing and the only way to avoid war makes this eventuality less likely.
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