President Barack Obama has had two overarching goals in the Iran crisis. The first was to stop the Iranian regime from gaining possession of a nuclear weapon. The second was to prevent Israel from attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Last weekend, the president achieved one of these goals. He boxed in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu so comprehensively that it’s unimaginable Israel will strike Iran in the foreseeable future. Mr. Netanyahu had his best chance to attack in 2010 and 2011, and he missed it. He came close but was swayed by Mr. Obama’s demand that he keep his planes parked. It would be a foolhardy act — one that could turn Israel into a true pariah state, and bring about the collapse of sanctions and possible war in the Middle East — if Israel were to attack Iran now, in the middle of negotiations.
On the other matter — actually preventing Iran from getting hold of a nuclear weapon — Mr. Obama and his Great Power partners have at least slowed the regime’s march across the nuclear threshold. If they’re not careful they could wind up legitimizing Iran’s nuclear ambitions (never forget that Iran’s leaders are lying when they insist they’ve built their nuclear program exclusively for peaceful purposes). But Mr. Obama and his partners seem to have bought a bit of time here.
To echo my Bloomberg View colleague Al Hunt, the temporary deal struck in Geneva seems, in many ways, like the least-worst option at the moment. There are four ways to neutralize the Iranian regime’s nuclear program.
The first is the military option, executed either by Israel or by the United States (most of the Arab states, which want a military solution very much, have never shown the desire to actually carry it out). A bombing campaign is a bad idea: It could very well destroy many of Iran’s nuclear facilities, but it also could kill innocent people and legitimize the program. The sanctions regime would collapse following a strike, which still would not wipe out Iran’s nuclear knowledge base and could rally the country around the cause of full nuclearization.
Crushing sanctions, the second option, have been effective at forcing Iran to the negotiating table, but years of sanctions have not placed the Iranian regime’s survival in jeopardy. The regime is willing to let its citizens absorb a great deal of pain on its behalf, and when those citizens get ornery, it hasn’t been shy about killing them. It seems unlikely that sanctions, which are already hard enough to enforce, will bring about Iran’s total nuclear capitulation.
The third path is a campaign for a complete regime change, but the American experience in Iraq has removed this option from the table. The United States has neither the stomach nor the competence to bring about the collapse of the regime.
The fourth path is diplomacy, and this interim deal may be the best the United States was going to get. The deal has many dubious features. It comes perilously close to recognizing Iran’s so called right-to-enrich. It makes it even less probable that the West will confront Iran for its nefarious behavior in Syria. It frees up billions of dollars for the regime to use in exchange for nuclear concessions that are reversible. It does not require a single centrifuge to be dismantled. Iran could still make a rush for nuclear breakout in eight weeks.
I’m fairly confident, however, that Iran won’t make such a precipitous move at the moment. I’m also reasonably confident that the Obama administration is still capable of walking away from the main show — the upcoming and more difficult final negotiations — if Iran refuses to dismantle those parts of its nuclear infrastructure that could be used to manufacture a bomb.
And the United States might just have to walk away because there isn’t much proof that Hassan Rouhani, the putatively reformist new Iranian president, or the foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, are authorized by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, to actually agree to a meaningful deconstruction of the nuclear program. Strategic pauses are fine, but actual dismantling?
It seems hard to believe, for any number of reasons, the simplest one being that it is in the best long-term interest of the regime to have the means to quickly build a nuclear weapon. It’s certainly not in the interest of the regime to agree to be disarmed by the United States, its arch-enemy and the country still often referred to as the Great Satan.
So everything that has happened over these past months may not amount to anything at all. Contra Mr. Netanyahu, who unrealistically seeks only total Iranian capitulation, it isn’t stupid for Mr. Obama to find out for sure what, if anything, the Iranians are willing to give up for good.
Jeffrey Goldberg is a columnist for Bloomberg View.