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Iran hawks finally presented a "better" Iran deal. It's complete gibberish.

Michael Oren on book tour.
Michael Oren on book tour.
Donald Bowers/Getty Images

In the weeks and months before world leaders completed the Iran nuclear deal, I did not make a secret of seeing the case for a deal as stronger than the case against, but I also tried to highlight the case against. There is no such thing as a perfect solution to the Iran nuclear problem, and a number of critics were making salient and important points about the downsides.

Since the deal was announced, though, many of those criticisms have declined from salient to overheated, or downright odd. And, bizarrely, critics of the deal who so often insist there is a better plan for peacefully limiting Iran's nuclear program never seem to put forward such a plan. This is too bad; having critical voices can be helpful in spotting problems and improving policy.

So I was glad to see a headline pop up last night on Politico, "What a Good Iran Deal Would Look Like." Finally, a critic of the Iran deal presents a complete, robust alternative, one that will ground us in a more rigorous policy discussion.

But I got nervous when I saw the byline: Michael B. Oren. Until recently the Israeli ambassador to the US and now an Israeli legislator, Oren has been on a very weird media tour that's included arguing that President Obama's childhood instilled him with a secret desire to appease Muslims. When I opened up the article and read it, though, it was so much worse than I'd anticipated.

What Oren has produced is a series of easily debunked falsehoods, distortions, and leaps of logic attacking the current Iran deal. It gets worse from there.

Oren's piece is typical of the hysterics that have greeted the Iran nuclear deal, and indeed that is what makes it so revealing. He does not bother to critically evaluate the pros and cons of the deal. He does not bother to formulate a clear, feasible alternative, much less walk through how it compares with the current deal. He spends a lot of time denying that the alternative to the deal is war, then demands that the US credibly threaten Iran with war.

There are three ways to read these sorts of criticisms. One is that Oren literally does not understand how agreements in general, arms control in general, or this deal in particular work, and has worked himself into a tizzy over his misunderstanding of the facts. Two is that Oren is knee-jerk ideologically opposed to any deal with Iran no matter what, even if that deal is on the merits great for Israel and tremendously effective. Third is that Oren actually does understand what's going on here, and is making a cynical and dishonest argument against the deal so as to further his agenda of starting a war against Iran.

The most revealing two lines in the article

Michael Oren (Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty)

Michael Oren (Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty)

On one important issue, Oren actually debunks himself. President Obama has repeatedly said that the only feasible alternative to an Iran deal would be war. (A third, bad option would be to simply let Iran get a nuclear bomb.)

Oren, like a lot of Iran hawks who want to go to war with Iran, insists that Obama has this all wrong — war is not a necessary alternative at all.

The deal’s advocates have accused Israel and other critics of failing to propose an alternative to the current agreement. And, most radically, they warn that either America accepts this deal or goes to war.

None of these assertions is true.

Then, a mere six or so paragraphs later, Oren demands that the United States make a "credible military threat" against Iran:

A combination of robust sanctions and a credible military threat by the United States would have compelled the Iranians to make more far-reaching and substantive concessions than the few largely symbolic gestures contained in this deal.

So Oren's position here is:

  1. There are many non-war alternatives to the Iran deal.
  2. The only alternative to the Iran deal is to "credibly" threaten war, thus committing the United States to go to war with Iran.

This inconsistency seems like an awfully conspicuous hint as to what Oren is actually after here.

Oren's falsehoods and misleading assertions

IAEA nuclear inspectors at Iran's nuclear facility at Natanz in 2014 (KAZEM GHANE/AFP/Getty)

IAEA nuclear inspectors at Iran's nuclear facility at Natanz in 2014 (KAZEM GHANE/AFP/Getty)

Here is a selection of misleading characterizations in the article meant to give you a sense of how seriously you should take Oren's arguments.

Instead of blocking Iran’s path to nuclear weaponry, the deal, in fact, provides two paths. Under its terms, Iran could develop advanced centrifuges capable of enriching uranium at 20 times the current rate.

It is true that after about a decade, Iran will be allowed to upgrade its small number of low-quality IR-1 centrifuges to less-outdated IR-6 and IR-8 centrifuges. It is not true that this will "provide" Iran a "path" to a nuclear bomb. Iran's nuclear program will become a bit less small, but it will remain very, very small and, more importantly, will remain under international inspections and monitoring. It will be just as easy to catch the Iranians cheating and just as easy to stop them.

By repeatedly exploiting the 24-day head start that the deal affords Iran before it has to let international inspectors visit a suspected site, the ayatollahs could cheat and make a bomb well within the deal’s 10-year time frame.

Inspectors will have ready access to all known Iranian nuclear sites, but if they suspect that Iran is conducting illegal nuclear activities at a secret site somewhere, they have to give up to 24 days' notice before charging in. It is simply false that Iran could exploit this to "make a bomb well within the deal’s 10-year time frame" without getting caught.

Oren's fever dream here is that Iran will secretly assemble a bunch of centrifuges (using the centrifuge facilities we have under constant monitoring), secretly mine and mill a bunch of uranium (at the mines and mills we have under constant monitoring), set this all up at a secret site somewhere, and then move the entire operation every time inspectors ask for access — all without the world ever finding out.

Let's put aside that Oren does not explain how Iran will manufacture secret centrifuges or dig up secret uranium at facilities under constant monitoring. Even if Iran somehow did this, any operation advanced enough to actually produce weapons-grade uranium would leave exactly the sort of radioactive traces that inspectors are trained to find. The world would spot this scheme very quickly.

Don't take my word for it. Mark Fitzpatrick, the head of nuclear nonproliferation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, explains how this actually works here. Aaron Stein, a Middle East arms control expert, explains here why this issue "was a red herring from the beginning."

In the interim, Iran would be released from the sanctions that took the world a decade to impose. These cannot be "snapped back" if Iran were to violate the deal, as its defenders contend, but reinstated only after a lengthy international process that excludes all the contracts signed by Iran before it were to cheat

Oren, oddly, does not explain why he believes the "snapback" process is not real, given that it is spelled out in great detail in the agreement and will shortly become international law. The "lengthy international process" is actually amazingly fast — only 30 days from the time it gets to the UN Security Council — and is almost entirely automatic. Oren seems to be implying that we should assume the sanctions will come off forever, or will come back so slowly as to be useless, but that's false. As with many of his assertions, it's telling that he does no real work to back them up.

The money could purchase the world’s most advanced weapons systems, all of which the deal would make available to Iran by eventually lifting the arms embargo.

The US negotiating team came under overwhelming international pressure to immediately lift the embargo on selling arms to Iran. The US got this delayed: the embargo on conventional arms will lift in five years, and the embargo on ballistic missile technology in eight.

Fortunately for the world, the Iran nuclear deal is not the first international arms control agreement ever signed in the history of the world. It turns out there are many such agreements limiting international trade in weapons. For example, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) prohibits or severely limits virtually all advanced countries — the countries with the really powerful equipment — from selling it to, for example, Iran. Even once the embargo lifts, it's not like Iran can just stuff itself to the gills with "the world's most advanced weapons systems."

Even if none of that were true, it turns out that big scary militaries are expensive and complicated; you can't really just materialize one out of thin air. Saudi Arabia alone already spends 13 times as much as Iran does on military procurement. One study estimates it would cost Iran $40 billion just to "refresh" its aging military. The idea that the country is somehow on the verge of acquiring lots of weapons it can't afford and is forbidden from obtaining is a fantasy.

Iran could invest in extending the range of its intercontinental ballistic missiles, the sole purpose of which is to carry nuclear warheads. Intelligence sources estimate that, in a few years, Iranian ICBMs will be able to hit the United States’ East Coast.

This is a nonsense claim that Israel has made in the past, though usually in more careful language, and has been roundly debunked. Oren is repeating a 1993 US intelligence assessment that Iran was perhaps a decade from developing a long-range missile — an assessment the US intelligence community no longer stands by, and hasn't for years.

So how is it that Iran was supposed to have completed this ICBM program back in 2003 and never did? The country is just not technically capable; it has suffered repeated failures and setbacks. Even if that were not the case, Iran will remain under a ballistic missile technology embargo for another eight years, and after that will remain permanently restricted under the MCTR.

The biting sanctions enacted by Congress, and approved by President Barack Obama, halted the Iranian nuclear program.

This is meant to argue that Obama should have just kept the sanctions in place in perpetuity rather than striking a deal, because the sanctions were great.

This is baffling for two reasons. First, in fact, the sanctions did not halt Iran's nuclear program. The opposite of that occurred: As presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama imposed ever more sanctions, Iran's nuclear program grew continually in size. Oren should know: His former boss, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, repeatedly pointed out that Iran's nuclear program was continuing to grow under the sanctions. The nuclear program only "halted" once Iran agreed to the 2013 Joint Plan of Action, a temporary agreement that largely froze the program while Iran and the world powers negotiated the final deal.

Second, the sanctions were biting because the US was joined in them by the European Union and the United Nations Security Council, which have far more leverage over Iran's economy. The EU and Security Council signed on to sanctions to get an Iran nuclear deal exactly like this one. If the US had opposed this deal as Oren wishes, the EU and Security Council would not have agreed to stay on in perpetuity. Rather, at some point, they would have quit the sanctions coalition in frustration with American intransigence — thus dismantling the sanctions that Oren insists were so great.

Which, by the way, is almost certainly what would happen if Obama took Oren's advice.

Here is Oren's big alternative plan

kerry zarif iran talk (RONALD ZAK/AFP/Getty)

Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. (RONALD ZAK/AFP/Getty)

Once you get through Oren's lengthy and inaccurate attacks on the deal, he finally unveils his alternative plan that is supposedly the point of the piece. And it is, shall we say, disappointing:

Israel would have embraced an agreement that significantly rolled back the number of centrifuges and nuclear facilities in Iran and that linked any sanctions relief to demonstrable changes in its behavior. No more state support of terror, no more threatening America’s Middle Eastern allies, no more pledges to destroy the world’s only Jewish state and no more mass chants of "Death to America." Israel would have welcomed any arrangement that monitored Iran’s ICBMs and other offensive weaponry. Such a deal, Israeli leaders across the political spectrum agree, was and remains attainable.

That's it. That one paragraph of a half-dozen or so vague demands — what does "threatening America's allies" even mean? — is his entire alternative to the 159-page, highly technical nuclear agreement. Here are Oren's provisions, in list form:

  1. Iran stops sponsoring terrorist groups.
  2. Iran stops "threatening America's Middle Eastern allies."
  3. Iranian politicians are barred from saying things that could be construed as a "pledge to destroy" Israel.
  4. The population of Iran is restricted from saying the words "death to America."
  5. There will be undefined "monitoring" of undefined Iranian conventional weapons.

It would be nice if these things happened, and perhaps the US will continue to engage on them separately. But all of these are politically impossible and, in some cases, physically impossible. And, with the possible exception of the fifth item, none of these even makes the remotest sense as part of an arms control treaty.

Try to imagine a US negotiator actually asking for this. "The inspections procedures of uranium mines look good here, and we are satisfied with the limits on centrifuge research and development. But we require a binding commitment that no one in your political system will speak certain combinations of words about Israel anymore." We might as well demand that Iran give us a unicorn that we can ride all the way to Candy Mountain.

What does Oren foresee as the verification process for confirming that no one in Iran has said "death to America" this week? What mechanism will the United Nations Security Council use for determining if an Iranian politician is high-profile enough, and if his or her verbal comment about Israel was hostile enough, to merit a deal-killing violation?

Is it really worth blowing up a historic nuclear deal — one that will substantially and verifiably limit Iran's nuclear program, with global cooperation — over the possibility that one of the Iranian ayatollahs might not be legally forbidden from saying the wrong words?

These are poison-pill demands, and very lazy ones at that. They are not designed to be implemented, but rather to raise the political bar for any nuclear deal beyond what can be achieved.

As for how the US would get Iran and the other negotiating world powers to agree to all this, to Oren's credit he actually does provide an answer. His answer is that the United States should threaten full economic sanctions against the world powers, including the entire European Union, if they don't go along:

Russia, China and others might have protested continuing sanctions on Iran but, in the end, it is highly unlikely that they would have forfeited access to America’s $17 trillion economy to cut oil deals with Iran.

This is indeed a specific proposal. But it is also insane. Oren is arguing that Obama should threaten to blow up the world economy, including America's own economy, just to secure some vague improvements to the Iran deal.

Michael Oren, like a lot of hawks, has no real alternative to the Iran deal

Even if Oren's criticisms were correct, they do not constitute a case against the deal. When you evaluate a policy, you do so by evaluating its pros as well as its cons, and by comparing it with the viable alternatives. Oren has not done that: He has offered no real-world alternative, and he presented no case that the downsides outweigh the upsides, because he refuses to admit any upsides exist.

There is no such thing as a 100 percent perfect policy; accepting trade-offs is part of how this works. In the case of the Iran deal, these trade-offs include, for example, that Iran will retain a small number of very old centrifuges and in about a decade can start upgrading those centrifuges to moderately less outdated models.

For Oren, and indeed for a number of hawkish Iran deal critics, the question of whether such trade-offs are ultimately worthwhile is totally irrelevant; their standard is that an Iran deal can only be acceptable if it involves zero trade-offs at all, which is not achievable.

Oren's successor as the Israeli ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, put this a little too plainly to some congressional Republicans he was lobbying to kill the deal. As reported by the Associated Press:

Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., said Ambassador Ron Dermer’s main argument during a nearly hour-long meeting with 30-40 House Republicans was "pay less attention to all the details" like centrifuges and years, and "pay more attention to who’s on the other side of the ethical debate, and that is Iran."

The fact that the deal exists and is with Iran is reason enough to kill it. That standard is definitionally impossible to meet, which is exactly the point. Rather than be honest about what they want and why they really oppose the deal, hawks such as Oren are throwing any old bit of nonsense against the wall with the hopes of misleading people into opposing it. Maybe it's time we stopped pretending not to see what they're up to.