Iran: Yea or Nay?

When reps return from Labor Day break, Congress has nine days to scuttle President Obama’s no-nukes bet on Iran. The president has momentum and 29 physicists on his side, but he lost Chuck Schumer, the leader of his own party in the Senate.

It’s folks who say John Kerry et al denied Iran the bomb versus those who think our diplomats just handed it over. Gravely, the president said the only alternative is war. But Iran’s human rights crimes and proxy terrorism have many wishing for an alternative to the alternative. Despite all the teeth-pulling and high-dollar lobbying, this is one D.C. debate that’s not all bad faith. For a change, maybe the going has been hard because this question is so hard.

So, we looked beyond the lobbying, boosterism and #IranDeal tweet war to ask the weighty one-word question with no easy answer: yea or nay?

Samore (second from right) briefing the President in 2009.

Our guest Gary Samore was the arms control architect who made news when he quit a big lobby group that was against the deal — before he was for it. He’s no idealist:

…We were not going to convince the Iranian government that nuclear weapons were a bad thing. For reasons of their own, they see them as important — or at least the option to produce nuclear weapons — to defend themselves against the great Satan and to assert Iran’s primacy in the region. So our policy has mainly been based on trying to prolong their effort, to postpone their ability to produce nuclear weapons. And we’ve used a variety of tools, from sabotage, to sanctions, to export controls, military threats, and diplomacy. And I see this agreement as another element in a game of delay. Except, fifteen years is a pretty good delay — much better than we could achieve through most other instruments.

The administration, said Samore, reckons it’s buying more than time. When the deal expires, maybe a liberalizing, modernizing, Westernizing Iran will elect leaders who don’t want the bomb. Our friend Stephen Van Evera of MIT told us, chillingly, that the Middle East will be the last nuclear-free region on Earth. He said we should do this deal — it constrains Iran and lets us focus on the real nightmares:

The scariest scenario that we should focus on is that Iran will get weapons, and that will set off a domino effect in which other powers that, I think, are even less reliable as custodians of these weapons will get them. The Saudis have said very clearly, “if Iran moves towards nukes, we will do it, too.” I’m much more worried about the Saudis as a nuclear power than I am about the Iranians, because the Saudi state is shot through with radicals who have close ties to Sunni jihadists who have made clear they intend to take WMD against the West if they can acquire it — which Iran has not done.

How is it possible, though, that we made a good deal with bad people? Nader Hashemi reminded us that “Iran is the biggest backer of the Assad regime today” and the Islamic Republic will keep wreaking havoc in the region. But he’s a surprising “yea” vote on the deal, which could backfoot the hardliners and boost millions of Iranians who like human rights and hate Assad.

Jane Eisner, editor of the progressive Jewish daily The Forward, rounded out our roll call, voting a well-informed “present”. Eisner’s reporter Larry Cohler-Esses — the first Jewish journo welcomed in Iran since 1979 — came back with hopeful news about middle Iran. But the mullahs remain the mullahs, and Eisner can’t be sure what will happen during this fifteen year experiment:

It was a mixed bag. You like to believe that this is a country that is interested in moving ahead, in dealing with the problems of its citizens and opening up to the world. It’s very educated, very urbane in many ways. And you think, “OK, this could work.” And then there are other interviews which left me chilled left me really, really concerned about who is going to be in charge and what are they going to be doing in the future with weaponry and nuclear capability. That distinction, between the people and what Larry [Cohler-Esses] calls the “deep state” is really difficult.

Moments like the Greek bailout and Ireland’s marriage question have us wondering what would happen if we all got to vote on the new path with Iran. Tell us, then: yea or nay? And, either way, are you voting with a hopeful or heavy heart?

Guest List
Gary Samore
nonproliferation expert at Harvard's Belfer Center, advisor to Presidents Clinton and Obama, author of The Iran Deal: A Definitive Guide.
Nader Hashemi
Professor of Middle East & Islamic Affairs at the University of Denver, author of Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies.
Jane Eisner
editor-in-chief of The Forward, a nonprofit Jewish news outlet.
Stephen Van Evera
Ford International Professor of political science at MIT.

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  • Potter

    If either yea or nay is a gamble- I will go for yea because it’s positive and hopeful and has enough checks and incentives to push things in that direction. I believe the scientists too, not the fear mongers. The less we look at Iran as an enemy, the better.

    I resent the very heavy lobbying here by right wing Israel, especially Netanyahu. It’s effective and it’s interference. This interference has been so offensive from the beginning of this issue, an issue that Netanyahu instigated in the first place all the while he deflected attention to the real existential problem in Israel, it’s occupation of Palestinians and what is to be their state.

    I don’t believe Schumer’s reasoning was anything but politically pressured underneath the “reasons” to come out the right way: “pro-Israel”, unevolved, at that. It’s certainly not leadership.

    The comments and discussion in Satloff article in the Atlantic (about the alternative to the alternative) you link above should be read too.

    I thanked my congressman, Jim McGovern, for his position to vote yes on this.

  • Pete Crangle

    Count my vote as a yea. The answer to your question, yea or nay, depends not so much on risk assessment, risk management, or cultural chauvinism, but instead on one’s agenda and world-view (there are many exceptions, of course).

    My personal view dictates that weapons of war are anathema to survival, and WMDs are anathema to large scale, long term species survival, ergo, I am against their continued existence wherever they are located, or whoever has them. Add a ethical and moral dimension for our collective behavior, the imperative to treat fellow beings with a cooperative spirit if not compassionate ethos, and from my perspective, the question answers itself.

    My viewpoint could be considered naive and that of a dreamer. I offer the following rejoinder: the current ethos is doomed. It is a utopia. Its probability for long term survival a fool’s paradise. Nobody develops or procures a weapon as a deterrent (this is a strategic side-effect). Weapons are developed for deployment and usage. Scale is irrelevant. Mass destructive weapons and their delivery systems (nukes, biological, chemical, etc) or tactical weapons (drones, torture, cyber, surveillance, weaponized A.I., media propaganda) or the training and career development of personnel to fit within a national security apparatus, do not increase the probability for survival. It is folly to assume so.

    Any steps to dialing down the potential for violence, regardless of scale, is one that I embrace. The conundrum to this question is that neither answer guarantees safety or security. This is the world we have chosen to live in… or we’ve given this choice to political leadership.

  • Potter

    For some people the day comes

    when they have to declare the great Yes

    or the great No. It’s clear at once who has the Yes

    ready within him; and saying it,

    he goes from honor to honor, strong in his conviction.

    He who refuses does not repent. Asked again,

    he’d still say no. Yet that no—the right no—

    drags him down all his life

    What did Cavafy mean ?

    (Che Fece … Il Gran Refiuto)