global politics, relationally

Iran, Nukes, and Old-School Arms Control: Lessons from the Past


Now that the “P5+1” (but mostly, in our media, the United States) and Iran have signed a framework agreement for limiting Iran’s nuclear development, the debate has intensified over whether this represents a “good deal” or not. Some, notably Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and some members of the US Senate, had already thrown down their marker even before the framework deal was reached: they clearly regard any agreement as a bad one. That debate isn’t going to go away, although I suspect that the Obama Administration will use the power of Executive Agreements to limit the immediate say which Congress has on the matter.

We’ve been down this road before. It’s worth remembering that once upon a time, the United States had a great deal of experience and expertise in arms control negotiations. Shelves of books were written on the subject, and arms control was one of the great issues of the day. In this latest debate over Iran, at least in public, we seem to have forgotten everything we once knew.

A tip of the hat here to Steve Saideman, who as usual got there first. What follows is more of an elaboration and a reminder that we used to know things we’ve since forgotten.

There are various criticisms and demands being lobbed about with regards to the framework deal and the final agreement it points towards. The current kerfuffle over the deal with Iran is that they should recognize Israel before we sign any kind of agreement with them. Clearly, Israel is heavily in favor of this (it seems to be Bibi’s idea, although he doesn’t have a seat at the negotiating table), if only because such a demand would almost certainly represent a poison pill which would sink the whole thing.

This kind of demand is tantamount to our asking the Soviets during the SALT talks to renounce Communism – ain’t gonna happen, and it’s beside the point. The purpose of the negotiations with Iran is not to change the Iranian regime, or to affect Iranian behavior across the board, or to turn Iran from an enemy back into a friend (or, depending on your point of view, a lap dog). The purpose is to work out a relatively simple deal: Iran verifiably and reliably refrains from developing nuclear weapons or the stepping stones thereto, in exchange for which we and the West lift many if not most of the economic sanctions we have placed on Iran in recent (and not-so-recent) years. That’s it: no nukes in exchange for better economic ties.

We worked similar deals with the Soviets many times. We negotiated limits on above-ground nuclear testing, on anti-ballistic missile systems, on the future development of strategic nuclear weapons systems, and eventually on real weapons reductions – first on intermediate- and theater-range nukes and then on strategic forces. In every case, the negotiations were challenging and contentious and took place in the context of the Soviets doing things (in Afghanistan, or Angola, or Vietnam, or where have you) that we didn’t like and wished they wouldn’t do. Moreover, unlike Iran the Soviets represented a very real threat not only to the security but also the very existence of the United States – a level of threat that, in the current rhetoric about Iran, we seem to have forgotten ever existed.

None of these deals was perfect, and many had verification procedures laughably weaker than those being discussed with Iran today. The Soviets violated some – the phased-array radar at Krasnoyarsk, for example, was a pretty clear violation of the ABM treaty. But on the whole, US security was better off for these deals and having them helped manage a relationship on which, without exaggeration, life on our planet depended.

So why the insistence by critics of the Iran deal (inside or outside the US) that it solve all of the problems of the US-Iranian relationship? One suspects that the criticism is a disingenuous ploy to score political points – Republicans in Congress can’t stand the thought of Obama doing anything that might be good for the country, while Bibi has his own domestic political challenges after squeaking out an electoral victory in part by fear-mongering. But the critics are also relying on bad criticism – saying that this is a bad deal because it doesn’t fix everything is ahistorical nonsense.

Many details remain to be worked out, and the old Reagan adage (Trust but Verify) remains very much in force. The inspection and verification arrangements of this deal matter a lot, as they will determine how easy or hard it is for Iran to cheat on the side and try to develop some weapons capability undetected. But if the goal of the US (and the other outside powers – we forget that Russia and China are also at the table, as are our major European allies) is to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons capability, this is clearly the best bet. Starving Iran is unlikely to succeed – witness North Korea, which is still starving but has nukes. Selective bombing is likely only to accelerate the process by giving Iran more motivation to develop a nuclear deterrent, while all-out war is not a serious option for anybody. There are, in short, very few good options here – a decent deal is far more likely to achieve our goal than the status quo or any punishments we can threaten.

We should remember, too, that in our long history of arms control agreements with the Soviets there were very few failures and none that substantially decreased the security of the United States. Our track record on these things has been remarkably good. Arms control doesn’t solve the problems of the world, and it doesn’t turn enemies into friends. But it’s a pretty good way to manage bad relationships. If only we could remember our own history.