The Obama administration’s accord with Iran is an important accomplishment. Iran will freeze its enrichment of uranium and convert its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium into a form that is not susceptible to further enrichment.  The significance of the pact is summarized succinctly by Slate’s Fred Kaplan: “The agreement makes it impossible for the Iranians to make any further progress toward making a nuclear weapon in the next six months—and, if the talks break down after that, and the Iranians decide at that point to start building a nuclear arsenal, it will take them much longer to do so.”  In return for these steps, Iran will get some relief from the sanctions that have crippled its economy and imposed tremendous suffering on its people.

While the immediate thrust of the deal is to contain Iranian nuclear ambitions, it is more important for the hope it offers of a rapprochement between our two countries after decades of hostility.  The Iranian nuclear “threat” has long been badly overblown.   Worst case scenarios have become the prevailing assumption, but contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence that Iran has ever actually decided to pursue nuclear weapons.  This assertion may seem surprising, if not mind-boggling, so it’s worth emphasizing: both US and Israeli intelligence remain uncertain whether Iran even wants a bomb.

Iran does want to enrich uranium, for reasons both practical and related to national prestige and pride.   The overwhelming majority of Iranians, including the many opponents of the theocratic dictatorship, support that objective.  But it is simply not clear that Iran aims to build a bomb.  Iran’s nuclear facilities have been undergoing inspection for years by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the inspectors have repeatedly certified that no uranium has been diverted to weapons purposes.  (The new agreement will increase the frequency of the inspections and widen their scope somewhat.)  In the summer of 2011, Mohammed El Baradei, the former IAEA director and future Nobel Peace Prize winner, stated that “I have not seen a shred of evidence that Iran has been weaponizing, in terms of building nuclear-weapons facilities and using enriched materials. . . . I don’t believe Iran is a clear and present danger. All I see is the hype about the threat posed by Iran.”

So why the hype?

Certainly, American national security is not at issue: the notion that Iran could pose a threat to the United States isn’t as absurd as was the similar claim regarding Saddam Hussein, but it’s still pretty absurd.   Nor does Iran pose more than a remote threat to Israel, whose arsenal of several hundred nuclear weapons is more than enough to deter Iranian aggression.  The clerics who run Iran have never demonstrated any suicidal tendencies.   That, undoubtedly, explains why both the current head of Mossad, Tamir Pardo, and his predecessor, Efraim Halevy, have explicitly denied that a nuclear Iran would pose an existential threat to Israel.

Here are two explanations which, taken together, go a long way toward explaining the hype, which ultimately comes mainly from our allies, especially Israel.  The first comes from Harvard’s Steven Walt, one of the leading proponents of the “realist” school of international relations analysis:

In fact, the real issue isn’t whether Iran gets close to a bomb; the real issue is the long-term balance of power in the Persian Gulf and Middle East. Iran has far more power potential than any of the other states in the region: a larger population, a fairly sophisticated and well-educated middle class, some good universities, and abundant oil and gas to boost economic growth (if used wisely). If Iran ever escapes the shackles of international sanctions…, it’s going to loom much larger in regional affairs over time. That prospect is what really lies behind the Israeli and Saudi concerns about the nuclear deal. Israel and Saudi Arabia don’t think Iran is going to get up one day and start lobbing warheads at its neighbors….No, they’re just worried that a powerful Iran would over time exert greater influence in the region, in all the ways that major powers do. From the perspective of Tel Aviv and Riyadh, the goal is to try to keep Iran in a box for as long as possible — isolated, friendless, and artificially weakened.

Israeli historian Gershom Gorenberg offers an explanation that is more psychological than structural.  Bibi Netanyahu, he says, suffers from Agreement Anxiety Disorder (AAD), which he defines as “a reflexive certainty that any time an antagonist is willing to make an agreement to end or manage a conflict, the deal is a deception. “  Gorenberg goes on to explain that for sufferers of AAD,

The only safe agreement would be one in which you make no compromises or concessions, so that you are ready to fight the inevitable next round. Since agreements sans compromises are rare, the very thought of making a deal ignites something between panic and fury, and any friend who advises you to accept the agreement is betraying you.

Gorenberg warns that “Agreement Anxiety Disorder does not lead to good analysis. It doesn’t produce advice that American senators or representatives should accept when choosing their own response to the Iran deal.”  Unfortunately, a good number of our senators and representatives themselves show symptoms of AAD.  There is a significant possibility that the US Congress will manage to screw this deal up.


PS  Highly recommended: Roger Cohen’s excellent op-ed in today’s New York Times.

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