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Iran hawks' refusal to discuss alternatives is incredibly telling

The nuclear deal with Iran is, obviously, not completely ideal from the standpoint of US interests. That's because it's a deal. Which is to say there are multiple parties to the deal, and it needs to be acceptable to all of them even though they all have different ideal outcomes. When the USA and the UK and Iran and Russia and China and France and Germany all agree to something, it is bound to be less than perfect from the standpoint of any one of the countries. That's how deals work.

Which is why proponents of the deal have been challenging critics to explain what their alternate plan is. Leon Wieseltier tried to answer this challenge in a recent and rather verbose Atlantic essay and revealed just how hollow the hawkish alternative is:

But what is the alternative? This is the question that is supposed to silence all objections. It is, for a start, a demagogic question. This agreement was designed to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. If it does not prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons—and it seems uncontroversial to suggest that it does not guarantee such an outcome—then it does not solve the problem that it was designed to solve. And if it does not solve the problem that it was designed to solve, then it is itself not an alternative, is it? The status is still quo. Or should we prefer the sweetness of illusion to the nastiness of reality? For as long as Iran does not agree to retire its infrastructure so that the manufacture of a nuclear weapon becomes not improbable but impossible, the United States will not have transformed the reality that worries it. We will only have mitigated it and prettified it. We will have found relief from the crisis, but not a resolution of it.

In the first sentence of this paragraph, Wieseltier acknowledges that people reading his criticisms of the deal might be interested in knowing about alternatives.

In the second sentence of this paragraph, he acknowledges that proponents of the deal have really been leaning on this point argumentatively.

In the third sentence of this paragraph, he suggests that it's somehow inappropriate for proponents of a course of action to ask detractors what alternative course of action they would prefer.

He then proceeds to completely depart from the subject of alternatives. Then in the final two sentences of the paragraph, he concedes the entire ballgame to proponents of the deal. The deal, he says:

  1. "will ... have mitigated" America's problems with Iran, and
  2. will provide "relief from the crisis"

Mitigating problems and providing relief from crises are the kind of thing that constructive policymakers tend to want to do. A mitigated problem is better than an unmitigated problem, and relief is better than the absence of relief. Of course, in life one might hope for something better than that. And Wieseltier himself makes it clear that he is hoping for a deal in which Iran dismantles 100 percent of its nuclear infrastructure and is barred until the end of time from engaging in any nuclear research activities.

But the question for hawks is: What are the proposed means of achieving this? It's not something Iran is prepared to agree to, and it's not a negotiating stance that the rest of the P5+1 are willing to endorse. And why is it somehow preferable to blow up the deal and get nothing than to get what the deal provides, which is to impose severe limits on Iran's nuclear program for 10 to 25 years, as well as the inspections and monitoring to verify Iran's compliance?

This is the essence of the debate.

Many of us have drawn the inference that hawks are reluctant to articulate their alternative because their actual alternative is a war. And not just a small war, either, since a limited bombing raid would at best offer the kind of relief from an Iranian nuclear program that is even more temporary and partial than what the Iran deal offers. But the leading hawks in the press deny that this is the case. They deny it rather angrily, and regard it as a kind of vile smear.

Personally, I've been trying to be generous in my view.

A lot of the hawkish voices on this debate have clearly thought long and hard about Iran over the years and have very strong feelings about it. That makes it a little hard for me to believe that they have literally never thought about any alternative courses of action, and has kind of pushed me toward the conclusion that their refusal to articulate one is an effort to hide the ball. But it might be better to take things at face value. Wieseltier simply says it is "demagogic" to consider whether alternative courses of action would or would not produce a better outcome. If so, then I guess I'm a demagogue.

But it still strikes me as an important question. If I were a member of Congress considering whether to reject the deal or not, I would really want to know whether rejecting the deal would make things better or worse. To me, it looks like the answer is "worse." To the hawks, the question just isn't worth asking. They don't care, I guess.