The Obama Administration's preference for diplomacy with Iran over military action is commendable. There is a chance that diplomacy may even achieve more than sanctions. This possibility lies at the root of the deal recently undertaken with regard to Iran's nuclear program.
No one knows for certain whether Iran is for real when it promises never to seek or develop any nuclear weapons in exchange for an end to sanctions and to its international isolation. No one knows for sure whether there is an internal struggle going on within Iran in which that issue is being debated and considered. No one knows for sure whether the deal recently signed will encourage those who favor ending Iran's quest for nuclear weapons (if there are any such) or whether it will strengthen hardliners who are simply playing for time. The only certainty is that we are uncertain about the true Iranian motivations underlying its willingness to enter into negotiations and to freeze its nuclear program for six months in exchange for a reduction in sanctions.
Diplomacy under conditions of uncertainty always entails risks on all sides. The United States is prepared to take the risk because it has far less to lose if it turns out to be wrong. Israel and Saudi Arabia are unwilling to shoulder the risk because they have so much more to lose if the American assessment turns out to be wrong.
Many American experts—diplomatic, nuclear, political, economic—believe that even the risks to the United States exceed the benefits, and that accordingly this was a bad deal for our country. Others disagree. The important point is that this is not only a dispute between the United States and Israel, as some seem to be characterizing it. It is a hotly disputed issue within the United States, within the Democratic Party, among nuclear experts and within the diplomatic establishment.
Nor should this be seen by those who oppose the deal, as I do, as a demonstration of bad faith on the part of the Obama Administration toward Israel. This a reasonable disagreement between friends as to the best course of action, both over the short and long terms. The stakes, however, are exceedingly high for Israel, because it cannot afford for the United States to be wrong in its assessment and balancing of the acknowledged risks.
I think the United States is wrong, because I believe that the supreme leader of Iran is determined to secure the ability to obtain nuclear weapons in its quest for hegemony over the Middle East. I do not believe that the smiling face of its newly-elected (with the approval of the supreme leader) president reflects the attitude of the current Iranian leadership. I also believe that one of the goals of the Iranian leadership is to drive a deep wedge between the United States and its allies in the Middle East, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia. This deal has helped to do that.
Now that the six month clock has begun to tick, what can be done to make the best out of a dangerous situation? First, Congress can hang two Swords of Damocles over the neck of Iran. It can now authorize the president to take military action in the event that Iran breaks its part of the deal and secretly begins to move toward developing nuclear weapons. Second, it can legislate harsh sanctions that would automatically go into effect if it became clear that Iran was simply buying time and had no interest in halting its nuclear weapons program.
The Iranians came to the negotiating table only because of a combination of harsh sanctions and a realistic military option. Both of these sticks must be kept on the table if the carrot of reduced sanctions is to have any possibility of working.
Israel too must maintain its military pressure on Iran, and the United States should make it clear that if Israel were to feel the need to deploy its military option as a last resort, it could count on the support of the United States.
These are tense and dangerous times. The risks on all sides are considerable. This is the time for allies to stick together and not to allow their differences to create the kind of wedge that Iran seeks to encourage and exploit. Unless there is a concerted commitment to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capacity, the end result will replicate the North Korean model, where the façade of diplomacy was used as a cover by North Korea to develop nuclear weapons.
If Iran ends up using this deal to help it develop nuclear weapons, the result would be a game changer that could cause a catastrophe. An Iran armed with nuclear weapons must be prevented at all costs, as President Obama has promised to do. We must keep our word and keep the military option on the table if diplomacy fails, as it may well do. The only thing more dangerous than a military attack against Iran's nuclear weapons program would be a nuclear-armed Iran.