The Iran Deal and the ‘Problem of
Obama is hoping that the nuclear
pact will lead to equilibrium in the Middle East. All the evidence points the
By Niall Ferguson
July 24, 2015
In making the
case for his nuclear-arms-control deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran,
President Obama has confronted Congress with a stark choice. “There really are
only two alternatives here,” he declared at last week’s press conference.
“Either the issue of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon is resolved
diplomatically through a negotiation or it’s resolved through force, through
argument is so central to his administration’s case that the president
provided a second formulation: Without the deal, he said, “we risk even more
war in the Middle East, and other countries in the region would feel compelled
to pursue their own nuclear programs, threatening a nuclear arms race in the
most volatile region in the world.”
insists that the Iran deal is tightly focused on “making sure” that the
Iranians “don’t have a bomb.” It is not, he says, “contingent on Iran
changing its behavior” in any other respect—notably the funding of proxy
armies and terrorist organizations throughout the Middle East. “The
incremental additional money that they’ve got to try to destabilize the
region,” according to Mr. Obama, is not “more important than preventing Iran
from getting a nuclear weapon.”
all this, I am reminded of what Henry
Kissinger once called the “problem of conjecture.” Writing in
1963, before anyone had devised a way to slow down a Soviet nuclear-arms program
vastly bigger than any Iran will ever have, Mr. Kissinger summed up the dilemma
that faces any strategic decision maker: “the choice between making the
assessment which requires the least effort or making an assessment which
requires more effort.” The problem of conjecture is that if a statesman
“acts on the basis of a guess, he will never be able to prove that his effort
was necessary, but he may save himself a great deal of grief later on. . . . If
he waits, he may be lucky or he may be unlucky.”
The key point
of the problem of conjecture is that the payoffs are asymmetrical. A successful
pre-emptive action is never rewarded in proportion to its benefits because
“posterity forgets how easily things might have been otherwise.” Indeed, the
statesman who acts pre-emptively is more likely to be condemned for the upfront
costs of pre-emption than to be praised for its benefits in the form of averted
calamities. By contrast, playing for time is not absolutely certain to lead to
disaster. Something may turn up.
his point, Mr. Kissinger cited the classic example of the policy of appeasement,
which was designed to slow down, not to halt or reverse, the rearmament and
expansion of Nazi Germany. If the democracies had moved earlier to contain
Germany, Mr. Kissinger argued, “we wouldn’t know today whether Hitler was a
misunderstood nationalist, whether he had only limited objectives, or whether he
was in fact a maniac. The democracies learned that he was in fact a maniac. They
had certainty but they had to pay for that with a few million lives.”
with 1930s Europe is as overused as it is rarely applicable. But in one respect
it is relevant here. Like President Obama today, Britain’s Prime Minister
Neville Chamberlain was playing for time in 1938, reasoning that a conflict at
that point would be worse than a conflict in the future. The conjecture, then as
now, was that buying time would improve the relative strategic position.
Obama may say, the point of this nuclear deal isn’t just to postpone the
Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons by 10 years. For it to be more than a
mere deferral, it also must improve the relative strategic position of the U.S.
and its allies so that by 2025 they will be in a stronger position to stop Iran
from entering the club of nuclear-armed powers. How might the U.S. achieve this?
president put it, his “hope is that building on this deal, we can continue to
have conversations with Iran that incentivize them to behave differently in the
region, to be less aggressive, less hostile, more cooperative . . . in resolving
issues like Syria or what’s happening in Iraq, to stop encouraging Houthis in
Yemen.” His goal by the time he “turn[s] over the keys to . . . the next
president, is that we are on track to defeat ISIL . . . that we have jumpstarted
a process to resolve the civil war in Syria, [and] that in Iraq . . . we’ve
also created an environment in which Sunni, Shia and Kurd are starting to
operate and function more effectively together.”
Mr. Obama’s illuminating account of his strategy for the Middle East to the
New Yorker magazine in January 2014. “It would be profoundly in the interest
of citizens throughout the [Middle East] if Sunnis and Shias weren’t intent on
killing each other,” he mused. And “if we were able to get Iran to operate
in a responsible fashion—not funding terrorist organizations, not trying to
stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear
weapon—you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly
Sunni, Gulf states and Iran.”
In short, for
all the high-flown rhetoric of the president’s speeches, his goal is the
classic realist objective of a balance of power in the region. The
technicalities of the Iran deal—the number of centrifuges, the size of the
enriched-uranium stockpile, the rigor of the inspections regime—need not
detain us here. The key question is whether or not slowing down Iran’s nuclear
program will increase regional stability. Critics of the deal should acknowledge
that it might, for in the realm of conjecture there are no certainties. But the
president and his advisers should admit that the probability is very, very low.
important question,” Mr. Obama told the Atlantic magazine in May, is “how do
we find effective partners—not just in Iraq, but in Syria, and in Yemen, and
in Libya—that we can work with, and how do we create the international
coalition and atmosphere in which people across sectarian lines are willing to
compromise and are willing to work together in order to provide the next
generation a fighting chance for a better future?” The answer: Not this way.
Iran suddenly mend its ways? In return for merely slowing down its pursuit of
nuclear weapons, it is being handed up to $150 billion in previously frozen
assets, a commercial bonanza as sanctions are lifted, and the prospect of an end
to conventional arms and ballistic-missile embargoes after, respectively, five
and eight years. All Iran has to do is keep the International Atomic Energy
Agency happy that it is sticking to its nuclear commitments. There will be no
“snap back” of sanctions if Tehran opts to use its new resources to double
or quadruple its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, the Assad regime in Syria, and
the Houthi rebellion in Yemen.
yourself: How are Iran’s rivals likely to respond to this timeline of Iranian
rearmament: increased support for proxies this year, upgraded conventional
weapons in 2020, ballistic missiles in 2023, and nukes in 2025? The
president’s conjecture is that by buying time he also gets closer to a
regional balance. The alternative and much more likely scenario is that he gets
an arms race and escalating conflict.
analogies must be used with care. Last week the president boldly likened his
deal with Iran to Richard Nixon’s opening to China and Ronald Reagan’s
strategic-arms-reduction treaty with the Soviet Union. These analogies are
misleading. Mao Zedong and Mikhail Gorbachev did their deals with the U.S. from
positions of weakness. In the early 1970s, the Chinese Communists were
threatened externally by the Soviets and internally by their own crazy Cultural
Revolution. In the 1980s the Soviets were losing the Cold War not only
economically but ideologically. By contrast, though under intense economic
pressure because of the U.S.-led sanctions campaign, the Iran regime has been
gaining strategically since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and domestically
since the crushing of the Green Revolution in 2009.
In the Cold
War, communism posed a twofold challenge: the Leninist and the Maoist. The U.S.
had some success containing the Soviet version in Europe and the Middle East,
but struggled to contain the Maoist version in Korea, risked Armageddon to keep
Soviet missiles out of Cuba, and failed miserably to save South Vietnam. The
Kissingerian solution was to be closer to the two Communist powers than they
were to each other.
The U.S. used
a mix of détente and containment on the Soviets, and engagement with the
Chinese. But Washington also built very strong alliances in Europe and Asia. And
the U.S. overtly resisted the ideological challenge posed by both brands of
contrast, is the strategy today? Faced with two forms of Islamic extremism,
Shiite and Sunni, we are tilting toward Iran, the principal sponsor of the
former. We are alienating our allies, moderate Sunnis as well as Israelis. In
doing so, I fear, we are stoking the flames of sectarian conflict at all levels,
from the local to the national to the regional. And all the while President
Obama repeats the hollow mantra that “Islam is a religion of peace.”
To repeat: No
one can say for sure what will come of the president’s strategy. It may
magically produce equilibrium in the Middle East, as he hopes. But all the
evidence points the other way: toward a continuing escalation of violence in the
region, and indeed throughout the Islamic world.
the International Institute of Strategic Studies’ Armed Conflict Database,
total fatalities due to armed conflict increased world-wide by a factor of
roughly four between 2010 and 2014. The Middle East and North Africa accounted
for more than 70% of the increase.
the statistics on terrorism gathered by the National Consortium for the Study of
Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, the number of terrorist incidents
world-wide quadrupled between 2006 and 2013, while the number of fatalities rose
by 130%. In that period, the percentage of fatalities attributable to Muslim
groups rose to 92% from 75%.
Obama’s conjecture is that his nuclear-arms deal with Iran will somehow break
these trends. My conjecture is that the effect will be exactly the opposite.
Even before he hands over the White House keys to his successor, we shall see
that there was no simple, binary choice between peace and war. We bought time.
We postponed Iran’s nuclear breakout. But we also stoked the flames of a
conflict that doesn’t need nukes to get a lot more lethal than it already is.
Ferguson’s first volume of a biography of Henry Kissinger will be published by
Penguin Press in September.