reasonable,” President Obama called it in an interview aired on Sunday,
referring to the multiparty deal being negotiated on Iran’s nuclear-weapons
program. When the talks began, Mr. Obama said it was “unacceptable” for Iran
to acquire nuclear weapons. Now it isn’t clear whether that is actually his
On Capitol Hill, distrust of the president is
intense, fueled by resentment that he doesn’t intend to submit the nuclear
deal for congressional approval. Forty-seven Republican senators on Monday sent
a letter to Tehran explaining that a future U.S. president or Congress could
easily revoke an agreement not validated by this Congress. Mr. Obama responded
testily, accusing the signers of making “common cause with the hard-liners in
Under the pending deal, Iran can maintain
large nuclear facilities and continue enriching uranium. Mr. Obama says this is
fine because Iran would have to allow inspections of specified nuclear sites. In
response, also on TV Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said,
“I do not trust inspections with totalitarian regimes. What I’m suggesting
is that you contract Iran’s nuclear program, so there’s less to inspect.”
The key, in Mr. Netanyahu’s view, is to
pressure Iran to dismantle major facilities. That way, if Tehran eventually
decides to abandon the deal, the regime would have to work much more than a year
to produce a nuclear weapon. In addition, Mr. Netanyahu says, sanctions should
remain in place until Iran stops threatening its neighbors and supporting
terrorism. Mr. Obama says such demands are unrealistic. They would kill the
talks, he asserts, and leave only a military option.
But at the heart of the Obama-Netanyahu
dispute—and of the president’s clash with Congress—is not diplomacy versus
war. It’s the difference between cooperative diplomacy and coercive diplomacy.
By taking a cooperative approach, Mr. Obama
insists, the U.S. and others can persuade Iran’s ruling ayatollahs to play by
rules that all parties voluntarily accept. In contrast, the coercive option,
which Mr. Netanyahu favors, assumes that Iran will remain hostile, dishonest and
dangerous. The coercive approach sees Iran’s nuclear program as a symptom of
the hostility between Iran and the West, but not as the source of the hostility.
Coercion means America and its friends would use trade and financial
restrictions, diplomatic isolation and other methods (short of military strikes)
to pressure a resistant Iran into changing its behavior.
When Mr. Obama says the Israeli leader has
offered “no viable alternative” to the deal being negotiated, he is denying
that a coercive option exists. But Mr. Netanyahu’s point is that we can have
one if we try. U.S. officials would need to exert leadership by highlighting
Iranian threats, prescribing ways to limit them and soliciting other
There are two major problems with Mr.
Obama’s cooperative approach. The first is the nature of Iran’s regime. The
second is the history of attempts to constrain bad actors through cooperative
approaches such as arms control and peace accords.
The Iranian regime is theocratic and
revolutionary. It came to power in 1979 on a wave of extremist religious
ideology and remains committed to exporting its revolution. Its leaders despise
liberalism and democracy. They particularly hate Western respect for the rights
of women and homosexuals. The regime remains in power through torture and murder
of its domestic critics. It makes frequent use of public executions—the
numbers have increased lately even though President Hasan Rouhani is commonly
called a reformer.
Abroad, the Iranian regime acts as a rogue.
Its agents and terrorist proxies have committed bombings and other murders in
countries including France, Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Iraq. A U.S.
court convicted Iranian agents of plotting in 2011 to assassinate the Saudi
ambassador to the U.S. by bombing a Washington, D.C., restaurant. Iranian
officials foment hatred of the U.S. and Israel and call for the annihilation of
Iranian leaders have a long record of
shameless dishonesty. Their aid to the tyrannical Assad regime has been massive
since the Syrian civil war began, but they routinely deny it. And they make a
practice of lying to United Nations weapons inspectors. Commenting on how the
inspectors have repeatedly been surprised by what Iran hides, Olli Heinonen,
former deputy director-general of the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy
Agency, told this
newspaper in 2013, “If there is no undeclared installation today . . . it
will be the first time in 20 years that Iran doesn’t have one.”
Iran is a bad actor, and history teaches that
constraining bad actors through arms control and peace accords is a losing bet.
The arms-control approach is to invite bad actors to sign legal agreements. This
produces signing ceremonies, where political leaders can act as if there’s
nobody here but us peaceable, law-abiding global citizens. The deal makers get
to celebrate their accords at least until the bad actors inevitably violate
Nazi Germany violated the Versailles Treaty.
The Soviet Union violated the Biological Weapons Convention, the Anti-Ballistic
Missile Treaty, various nuclear-arms treaties and other international
agreements. The Palestine Liberation Organization violated the Oslo Accords.
North Korea violated the Agreed Framework.
Patterns emerge from this history. When
leaders of democratic countries extract promises of good behavior from bad-actor
regimes, those democratic leaders reap political rewards. They are hailed as
peacemakers. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was cheered when he
returned from Munich in 1938 with “peace in our time.” These leaders have a
stake in their deals looking good. When those deals are violated, the
“peacemakers” often challenge the evidence. If the evidence is clear, they
dismiss the violations as unimportant. When the importance is undeniable, they
argue that there aren’t any good options for confronting the violators.
In the end, the bad actors often pay little or
nothing for their transgressions. And even if the costs are substantial, they
are bearable. Just ask Russia’s Vladimir
Putin, or Syria’s Bashar Assad or North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
The Obama administration has wedded itself to
a cooperative policy toward Iran. The White House rejects the coercive approach
as not viable. But if Iran violates its deal with us, won’t our response have
to be coercive? President Obama insists that his policy is the only realistic
one. In doing so, he is showing either that he is naïve and uninformed about
the relevant history or that he no longer considers an Iranian nuclear weapon
Mr. Feith, a senior fellow at the Hudson
Institute, served as U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy (2001-05) and is
the author of “War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on
Terrorism” (Harper, 2008).