The case for the Iran nuclear deal, which the US and other world powers are currently negotiating, is pretty straightforward. The deal would significantly reduce and heavily monitor Iran's nuclear program, making it much more difficult for the country to ever build a nuclear bomb (Iran gets relief from economic sanctions in return). And, in the most optimistic reading, it could be the beginning of the end of decades of Iranian hostility and isolation.
The case against the Iran deal may not be as obvious, and in many ways has been obscured by the antics of people like Sen. Tom Cotton. To understand it, I spoke to Michael Doran, who oversaw Middle East policy on George W. Bush's National Security Council from 2005 to 2007 and is currently a scholar at the Hudson Institute.
Doran made waves in February by writing, in a lengthy article in Mosaic Magazine, that the Iran deal is part of Obama's secret strategy to initiate a detente with Iran and remake the Middle East in its favor. Whether or not you find that argument persuasive (it is not widely held by regional analysts), he makes a number of points along the way about how this could all backfire, potentially disastrously. Even if the deal works, he points out, it will give Iran more freedom and money to wreak havoc in the region. If the deal falls apart, it risks leaving Iran in a far stronger position than it's in now. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.
Max Fisher: The first thing I want to ask you about is the basic assumptions underlying Obama's Iran policy. One seems to be that the Iranian regime is rational, such that its behavior can be shaped by incentives and deterrents. Another seems to be that for the right deal, Iran would be willing to give up its ambitions for a nuclear weapon entirely. Do you think these assumptions are right?
Michael Doran: I don't think that's exactly the way I would characterize the assumptions that the administration is making. I think the key assumption the president is making is that the vital interests of Iran overlap to a very significant degree with the vital interests of the United States, and that if we can move to a relationship of detente, we can create an environment in which we will mutually benefit from those overlapping vital interests. Detente is the strategic goal, and arms control is the means to achieve it.
Max Fisher: Whatever the end strategic goal, certainly there may at some point be an agreement on arms control. And a goal of that is for Iran to surrender its ambitions for a nuclear weapon. That specific objective seems worthwhile, but is it achievable?
Michael Doran: I don't think it is achievable without a significant coercive component. I think this is one of the most faulty assumptions of the administration. What makes the administration believe Iran has made a strategic shift away from a desire to have, if not a weapon, then a turnkey capability?
I rarely see any attempt to analyze these negotiations from the Iranians' point of view and to ask, "What are their fundamental goals, and why do these negotiations make sense to them?" In that context, I don't believe they have made a strategic shift, and I don't see why the administration believes they have.
If the argument is that the very willingness of the Iranians to sit down and negotiate with us and to stick to the agreement over the last 18 months is proof of a strategic change of some kind, I don't buy it for a second. It's just proof to me that they want sanctions relief and they're going to get it, and they see that they're going to get it, and they will stick with this process as long as they get direct, immediate, and very desirable benefits from it.
Max Fisher: What is it about Iran, you think, that makes it so bent on a nuclear weapons program that it would take so much to deter them from that?
Michael Doran: First of all, there's just the record of what they've done. They have pursued this program doggedly and at enormous cost to themselves. They have been willing to take their economy to the brink of disaster in order to preserve this program.
They belong to a category of regimes, like the North Koreans, that calculates that if they can get this weapon then the world will treat them differently.
We need to look at the fundamental nature of the regime, the ideology of the Islamic Republic, and the mindset of the men who run it. They have a very well-known ideology that is hostile to the American order, that is hostile to the system in the region. They have a vision of Iran's place in the world, in the Islamic world especially, that they have not given up on.
If I were going to talk about basic assumptions of the Obama administration that are wrong, one is that Iran is a fundamentally defensive power. This reads Iran's nuclear program in a rather bilateral fashion, to think that a show of a desire to cooperate and find common ground on the part of the United States would generate an equal and opposite reaction on the Iranian side.
In fact, the starting point is that the Iranians want hegemony in the region, and they're reading American policy with respect to their regional aspirations. The goal of Iran's nuclear weapons program is not to defend against the United States or Israel — it's to advance its regional agenda.
From an American point of view, in 2011 or 2012 we had them in a very advantageous position. Because the sanctions were really biting.
Max Fisher: But the size of Iran's nuclear program was growing, the number of centrifuges was growing.
Michael Doran: But at a greater and greater cost to them, every step they took.
Max Fisher: But if the right course would have been for the US to maintain or increase sanctions even as Iran was growing its nuclear program, to stick to the status quo, then where does that lead?
Michael Doran: I'm in favor of a vigorous containment program across the board, and I'm also in favor of a policy that says we have all options on the table and we mean it. The president says all options are on the table, but he doesn't actually mean it, and I think we should mean it.
For a time the Iranians certainly believed all options were on the table. They abandoned their weaponization program, or they put it on hold, in 2003. Well, what happened in 2003? The United States went into Iraq, and I think they were probably very concerned at that point about all options being on the table.
Max Fisher: I wanted to ask you about that, about coercion. Under any reading of what Iran ultimately wants, their incentive to stick to a nuclear deal would be the fear that if they cheat, they'll be caught and then they'll be punished for it.
Arms control analysts I've spoken to say the inspections regime described in the framework would be very effective at catching Iran if it cheats. But they acknowledge that the agreement is not going to talk about enforcement — it's not going to spell out what happens if Iran cheats — because that's just not how these agreements work.
So then you have this big question mark of what happens if Iran gets caught cheating. It's not just us wondering; the Iranian leaders are surely gaming this out, as well. And I honestly don't feel like I know what the answer is.
Michael Doran: First of all, I thank you for asking the question, because I think it is the crucial question.
The way the president has set this up, he has incentivized Iran to pocket huge benefits up front. This has put them in a position to be able to go for a bomb when they want in a position of much greater economic strength and diplomatic strength. Because the very process of the negotiation is destroying the sanctions regime we established, which is the greatest nonmilitary instrument we have for coercing them. This is the fundamental flaw at the heart of the coercion strategy.
He's going to use his waiver authority to free up all this money that is in escrow accounts across the globe that is going to pour into Iranian coffers nearly immediately. At the same time, the United Nations Security Council is going to bless the agreement, which is then going to free up the Europeans and others, including the Russians and the Chinese, to engage in commercial activity with the Iranians. And so we will have effectively gutted the sanctions regime.
Iran's status in the international community is going to be greatly improved, and then there's going to be an international commercial lobby and a diplomatic-military lobby, which includes the Chinese and the Russians, in favor of the new order in which Iran is a citizen in good standing in the international community that they can do business with.
Max Fisher: But Russia and China have both assented to a number of rounds of sanctions against Iran before over its nuclear program. Why wouldn't they again?
Michael Doran: Well, they might. They might not. It all depends on how they read their interests at the time. The point is that it's going to be a heavy diplomatic lift with partners whose goodwill and whose honesty we cannot assume ahead of time. In other words, it's a lot easier to hold this thing in place than it is to put it back together.
One of the greatest advantages of sanctions as a coercive tool is their effect over time. Dismantling this thing, which in a way is what we're doing, is kind of like taking money out of your retirement account early. As we let these sanctions work over time, by the time we got to 2012, they were really in dire straits. If a deal is signed this year and then in 2017 they cheat, it would take years and years and years of penalizing them before we could ever get back to the situation we had in 2012.
Max Fisher: You've written about the idea that Obama's real strategic goal here is detente with Iran. What makes you say that?
Michael Doran: I began to think this in 2011 and 2012. What happened was the rebellion in Syria.
In 2011, especially by the summer of 2012, the Saudis and the Jordanians and the Turks (and sort of the Israelis, but not really) were all complaining vociferously to the White House about the Iranian role in Syria [aiding Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad's brutal crackdown on protesters, and later in his war against the rebels]. I never heard a peep from the Obama administration about that. And that started to make me suspicious.
Max Fisher: But why would Obama want to pursue detente with Iran?
Michael Doran: Because it starts from his fundamental assumption that the United States should pull back from the Middle East. The biggest decision he made about the Middle East, he made before he ever set foot in the Oval Office, before he ever talked to an ally, or had a [National Security Council] meeting, or got a classified briefing. And that was that the United State should pull back from the Middle East, and he was going to go down in history as the guy who ended wars and didn't start new ones.
The minute you say you're going to pull back, then you have to answer the question, "What new order am I going to leave in the region?" You have to have some notion of how you're going to stabilize the region and keep its worst pathologies from affecting the United States.
The only answers are either "I'm going to build up my allies as a defense against my enemies," à la the Nixon doctrine, which he didn't do, or "I'm going to put together a club of stable powers, and we're going to have a concert system." [A concert system, like the 19th-century Concert of Europe, is a set of countries with roughly equivalent power that balance one another to create a stable international system.]
Max Fisher: But if Obama wanted to do that, then why not do it by promoting allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel and perhaps Turkey, all of which are already quite powerful in the region? If his goal is to be as risk-averse and as uninvolved as possible, it seems to me that dramatically revising a decades-old order in the Middle East by promoting Iran would be the opposite of that.
Michael Doran: He did, for a while, have the idea of [Turkish leader Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan as a pillar of his concert system. That was a very important concept that he had around 2010 and 2011, at the same time that he was seeking to start a negotiation with the Iranians about their nuclear program.
From the beginning, he had identified the nuclear program as the key to unlocking the relationship with the Iranians. Erdoğan was willing to play along. That was the Turkish "no problems with neighbors" policy, and the Turks wanted to be the intermediary with the Iranians and the Syrians. But the breakdown of order in Syria changed everything for the Turks, and so the Turkish pillar of the concert fell away.
Taking care of the Syria problem would have meant working against the Iranians and organizing the region against the Iranians, which, for whatever reason, he decided not to do. From that point on, it was pretty clear to me that he was seeing rapprochement with Iran as the great prize in the region.
Max Fisher: It is true that if you look at Syria and Iraq today, you see an American strategy in both that is not pro-Iranian to my eye, but it's certainly not anti-Iranian. In Syria, the US is increasingly tolerant of Iran's proxy and ally Bashar al-Assad because Assad is fighting ISIS, and then in Iraq the US and Iran's proxy militias are literally fighting on the same side against ISIS.
So I wonder if there's an alternate reading of your theory, where instead of Obama deliberately setting out on a secret strategy of detente with Iran, he was backed into it by the crises in Syria and Iraq, and he sees Iran as best positioned to uphold the status quo in those countries. That, to me, would seem to fold in with your view of Obama as looking for a concert of states in the region who can uphold a regional order, because if you want to preserve the status quo in Syria and Iraq, Iran is your best bet to do that, right?
Michael Doran: I would push it earlier in time than you're suggesting because the key question in that regard is, "When did he start to see Iran as a partner in Iraq?"
When the whole question of the status of forces agreement in Iraq was alive in 2010, [former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Leon] Panetta and [Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus and everybody are saying, "Keep forces on the ground in Iraq," and the president had a different inclination. Well, if the United States is not going to be directly involved in Iraq, then who is going to protect our interests and protect stability in Iraq? And I think that, although he's never admitted this, he assumed the Iranians would play that role for him.
Max Fisher: It seems to me the best argument for an Iran nuclear deal is that all of the alternatives are worse. The alternative I've heard the most is to maintain a kind of status quo containment.
But if that's the policy, then there are two possible outcomes. The first is that someday Iran just gives up and surrenders its entire nuclear program unconditionally. That seems optimistic, but, okay, it's a possibility. The second outcome is that Iran continues to build up its nuclear program as it has for years, and even if they never break out, one morning we wake up and realize Iran is closer to a bomb than we're willing to tolerate. Then what?
When I talk to people who are advocating containment, I often have a very hard time getting them to answer that question of "then what?" Do you let Iran go nuclear and try to contain it, à la North Korea? Do you launch airstrikes, knowing they'll only set Iran back temporarily and will have all these other potentially very dangerous knock-on effects? Do you go even further than that?
Michael Doran: First of all, a decision has to be made. Three presidents have said that a nuclear weapon by the Iranians is absolutely unacceptable and we will use all options to make sure that won't happen. If that's our policy, then we have to implement it. I don't see why the United States of America should be held hostage by a nuclear program of a regime like Iran's, a regime that is so much weaker than the United States.
President Obama is putting us and our allies before an ultimatum — either an Iranian nuclear program or disaster — and I just think we have many more options than that. I think we're much more powerful and influential than the president is giving us credit for on that score.
If the Iranian regime — and I do believe they are rational — were truly put before the choice, if Ali Khamenei was put before a choice of "Your nuclear program or absolutely crippling, debilitating economic sanctions," he would think twice. I think if he were put before a choice of "Your nuclear program or severe military strikes," he would think twice.
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