The purpose of war, military or economic, is to get your enemy to do something it would rather not do. Over the past several years the United States and other Western powers have engaged in an economic, clandestine and political war against Iran to force it to give up its nuclear program.
Over the course of this siege, U.S. policymakers have been very explicit about their goals. Foremost, to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. Second, as Secretary of State John Kerry has said, to force it to dismantle a large part of its nuclear infrastructure. Third, to take away its power to enrich uranium.
Fourth, as President Barack Obama has said, to close the Fordo enrichment facility. Fifth, as chief U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman recently testified, to force Iran to come clean on all past nuclear activities by the Iranian military. Sixth, to shut down Iran’s ballistic missile program. Seventh, to have “anywhere, anytime, 24/7” access to any nuclear facilities Iran retains. Eighth, as Kerry put it, to not phase down sanctions until after Iran ends its nuclear bomb-making capabilities.
As a report from the Foreign Policy Initiative exhaustively details, the United States has not fully achieved any of these objectives. The agreement delays but does not end Iran’s nuclear program. It legitimizes Iran’s status as a nuclear state. Iran will mothball some of its centrifuges, but it will not dismantle or close any of its nuclear facilities. Nuclear research and development will continue.
Iran wins the right to enrich uranium. The agreement does not include “anywhere, anytime” inspections. Some inspections would require a 24-day waiting period, giving the Iranians plenty of time to clean things up. After eight years, all restrictions on ballistic missiles are lifted. Sanctions are lifted once Iran has taken its initial actions.
Wars, military or economic, are measured by whether you achieved your stated objectives. By this standard the United States and its allies lost the war against Iran, but we were able to negotiate terms that gave only our partial surrender, which forces Iran to at least delay its victory. There have now been three big U.S. strategic defeats over the past several decades: Vietnam, Iraq and now Iran.
The big question is, why did we lose? Why did the combined powers of the Western world lose to a ragtag regime with a crippled economy and without much popular support?
The first big answer is that the Iranians just wanted victory more than we did. They were willing to withstand the kind of punishment we were prepared to mete out.
Further, the Iranians were confident in their power, while the Obama administration emphasized the limits of America’s ability to influence other nations. It’s striking how little Obama thought of the tools at his disposal. He effectively took the military option off the table. He didn’t believe much in economic sanctions.
“Nothing we know about the Iranian government suggests that it would simply capitulate under that kind of pressure,” he argued.
The president concluded early on that Iran would simply not budge on fundamental things. As he argued in his highhanded and counterproductive speech Aug. 5, Iran was never going to compromise its sovereignty (which is the whole point of military or economic warfare).
The president hoped that a deal would change the moral nature of the regime, so he had an extra incentive to reach a deal. And the Western, Russian and Chinese sanctions regime was fragile while the Iranians were able to hang together.
This administration has given us a choice between two terrible options: accept the partial surrender agreement that was negotiated or reject it and slide immediately into what is in effect our total surrender — a collapsed sanctions regime and a booming Iranian nuclear program.
Many members of Congress will be tempted to accept the terms of our partial surrender as the least bad option in the wake of our defeat. I get that. But in voting for this deal they may be affixing their names to an arrangement that will increase the chance of more comprehensive war further down the road.
Iran is a fanatical, hegemonic, hate-filled regime. If you think its radicalism is going to be softened by a few global trade opportunities, you really haven’t been paying attention to the Middle East over the past four decades.
Iran will use its $150 billion windfall to spread terror around the region and exert its power. It will incrementally but dangerously cheat on the accord. Armed with money, ballistic weapons and an eventual nuclear breakout, it will become more aggressive. As the end of the nuclear delay comes into view, the 45th or 46th president will decide that action must be taken.
Economic and political defeats can be as bad as military ones. Sometimes when you surrender to a tyranny you lay the groundwork for a more cataclysmic conflict to come.
David Brooks writes for The New York Times.