How do you define a “bad deal” with Iran?

There’s been a lot of talk over the past year plus about the risks of a “bad deal” with Iran. “No deal is better than a bad deal,” we keep hearing. People are worried that the Obama administration will accept a bad deal if the alternative is no deal, even though the administration keeps insisting that it, too, believes that no deal is better than a bad deal. But look, what if “no deal” is actually the worst possible deal? Isn’t that possible?

Jeffrey Lewis, who has serious credentials in the arms control arena, went there today in Foreign Policy, and it’s a smart and badly-needed corrective to the “bad deal/no deal” rhetoric we’ve been getting from politicians (I think this may be behind FP’s paywall, and if so I apologize):

The thing is, there is no “good” deal. Any deal will be a compromise that leaves in place many dangers to Israel, as well as Iran’s neighbors and the United States. The essential thing is to delay as long as possible an Iranian nuclear bomb. Almost any deal will buy more time than if talks were to collapse. If Iran and the United States agree, we can debate the details about whether Iran got too many centrifuges, too much sanctions relief, or isn’t subject to intrusive enough inspections. And whatever the Iranians get to do with the plutonium production reactor at Arak will be not wholly satisfying. But there is no good reason to believe that walking away from a deal now puts the United States in position to get a better one in a few years.

Lewis seems to be assuming that Iran actually wants a nuclear bomb, which is still very much debatable, but coming at these sorts of talks from a non-proliferation perspective I can see why you’d have to assume that any country trying to develop a nuclear program could also be trying to develop a bomb so that you come out of the talks with the maximum achievable level of safeguards in place. The point is, whether Iran wants a weapon or not, any deal is going to restrict their ability to produce one as compared to the situation that will ensue if the talks collapse. Walking away means more time for Iran’s nuclear program to grow unchecked, which means the next time you approach negotiations (assuming you haven’t gone to war with them in the interim), you will have lost ground from where things were when you left off. You don’t have to look very far for an example:

I am old enough to remember when, back in 2006, I argued that the United States should let Iran keep 164 centrifuges in stand-by mode during talks. Do you know what people said? “164 centrifuges? Are you mad? You are giving away the store to the Iranians!” Well, now Iran has more than 15,000 centrifuges (that we know about) in at least two sites.

One of the most frustrating things about following the past decade of negotiations is watching the West make one concession after another — but only after the Iranians had moved so far forward that the concession had no value. The people arguing now for a “better” deal at some later date are the same people who in 2006 said 164 centrifuges was way too many and, that if we just held out long enough, we’d haggle the Iranians down to zero. Look what that got us.

Lewis concludes by arguing that all the “bad deal” talk is pure hackery:

So let me say this as clearly as I possible can: A Republican administration, if given a chance, would negotiate exactly the same agreement that this administration is negotiating, with all its flaws and shortcomings. Republican partisans are convinced they are tougher than Democrats, just as Democratic partisans believe they are more respected in the world. Each party thinks it could get a better deal than the other. This is just Meet the Press nonsense. The outlines of any deal with Iran are largely determined by the relative power of the parties — how advanced Iran’s nuclear programs are, what U.S. military options look like, the vitality of the sanctions regime, etc. — not the personal qualities of the presidents we elect. You can believe that George W. Bush’s flinty gaze would have stared down Hassan Rouhani or that Ali Khamenei will understand that Barack Obama is a transformational figure of historic importance. You can believe those things, but you’d be an idiot.

We’re frequently informed that “the alternative to a bad deal is a better deal,” mostly by people who think any deal would be a bad deal, so grain of salt and all. But if there is no “better deal” out there, what makes those people so sure that this deal, however you characterize it, is better than getting no deal at all?

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