The Iran Deal and the ‘Problem of Conjecture’

Obama is hoping that the nuclear pact will lead to equilibrium in the Middle East. All the evidence points the other way.

By Niall Ferguson

The Wall Street Journal

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 war.”

This binary 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.”

The president 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.”

Listening to 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.

To illustrate 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.”

The analogy 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.

Whatever Mr. 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?

As the 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.”

This echoes 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.

“The really 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.

Why should 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.

Now ask 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.

Historical 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 Marxism.

What, by 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.

According to 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.

According to 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%.

President 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.

Mr. Ferguson’s first volume of a biography of Henry Kissinger will be published by Penguin Press in September.