With each passing day, it looks more certain that Obama will get his way on Iran.

The Republicans in Congress will not persuade enough of their blue colleagues to defy Obama. Not that this comes as a surprise. The President has run circles around Republicans for as long as anyone can remember. Why should now be any different?

But even Obama’s luck can run out eventually. A report suggests that a senior French diplomat is having second thoughts; there are whispers that other European leaders may be seeing the light. We can wistfully ponder the possibilities Congress might open up if, by some miracle, that light reaches its Democratic precincts.

As it were, the sensible alternative to no deal is actually not war, but no deal. Full stop.

John Kerry may hold forth that no deal spells war. But what he really means is that only those who want war could possibly oppose him. It’s a primitive scare-tactic.

Comparing reasoned misgivings to Iraq-style war-mongering is intellectual laziness and gaudy propaganda. Even a “progressive” senator who is backing the deal called it imperfect.

The Obama-Kerry team drums up fear of Iraq to shield their “achievement” from proper scrutiny. Indeed, the deal so favors Iran that even The New York Times, which usually hastens to Obama’s rescue in a most Pavlovian fashion, couldn’t hide that the President abandoned most of his “demands.”

If the deal falls, the sky won’t: there was no war before the deal and there won’t be without it. If Congress says no, then status quo sanctions will simply remain in place—Obama be damned—while we wait for Iran to come sulking back to negotiate, probably with a less accommodating president.

It’s not unthinkable that Congress could even ratchet up harsher sanctions, and that Obama would have no choice but to bite his tongue and sign them, lest he come off a sore loser. Though the President has sprung like lightning to disassemble the P5+1 coalition, Congress still holds the glittering prize.

Iran desperately wants to be reconnected to the West’s international banking network, and wants its $150 billion assets that remain frozen in banks throughout the world. Congress can deny it this, even if America’s international partners ease up a bit. The US Congress is still the 800 pound gorilla in the world financial system.

And as Bret Stephens explained a month ago in The Wall Street Journal, there is still more financial leverage to be had:

“Then again, serious sanctions were only imposed on Iran in November 2011. They cut the country’s oil exports by half, shut off its banking system from the rest of the world, sent the rial into free fall and caused the inflation rate to soar to 60%. By October 2013 Iran was six months away from a severe balance-of-payments crisis, according to estimates by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. And that was only the first turn of the economic screw: Iran’s permitted oil exports could have been cut further; additional sanctions could have been imposed on the “charitable” foundations controlled by Iran’s political, military and clerical elite. Instead of turning the screw, Mr. Obama relieved the pressure the next month by signing on to the interim agreement now in force.”

Iran didn’t come to the table because it sought some kind of detente; it negotiated because for all its religious bluster, the Great Satan’s economic clout proved too much for it. Iran came around once, and it will come around again; it would be suicidal to make a mad dash for the bomb and let the economy unravel at the seams. Iran is steered by confident, patient, and calculating men; they saw, along with everyone else, how all the nukes in the world couldn’t save the Soviet Union from its inferior economic model.

What’s more, political dynamic is critical in assessing the efficacy of sanctions. If the Iranian people stood a hundred percent with their government, then Iran could weather much colder isolation. But the Khamenei regime is enfeebled and unpopular; public discontent simmers beneath the surface. Under the right conditions, it might burst forth.

The West has crippled the Iranian economy; but the pain must persist long enough to excite social and political unrest. Inflation will spiral out of control, food prices will rise, and GDP growth will grind to a halt; suppressing populist anger will be a full-time job. The regime must fear for its throne.

There is only one way to get a good deal out of Iran: to make it pick. It can have a nuclear weapon or a Mullah rule, but not both. When push comes to shove, it will grit its teeth and dismantle its nuclear program. It will have no choice.


It wants a nuclear weapon to achieve regional hegemony; it doesn’t want an endless cat-and-mouse sanctions game with the IAEA. A nuclear weapon will do its ambitions no good if its people can’t afford to buy bread or pay their rent. Sadly this will embitter and immiserate the Iranian people, but only in the short-term; over the long haul, the fall of their theocratic dictatorship is surely in their interests.

With the current deal though, Iran knows that it can have it all: it can part with just enough centrifuges to get the West off its back, but not enough to really gut its program; the West can inspect intrusively, but not so intrusively as to expose the inner secrets.

An atomic weapon is the royal flush of geopolitics. Iran is a country of 75 million Shiite Muslims, and in vicious demographic decline. It is surrounded by 500 million Sunni Muslims who distrust it and are swelling in numbers.

But Iran’s society and civilization are uniquely sturdy amidst a sea of drowning Arab nation-states. There is a window of opportunity, and the rising sun beckons for Persian ascendancy. It would be strategically incompetent for Iran not to seek a nuclear weapon. That is why a few rounds of sanctions will not be enough to deter it; only sustained sanctions that pose an existential threat to the regime will make it rethink its political calculus.

It is doubtful that Barack Obama can get a better deal in the short time he has left. If his signature foreign policy achievement is defanged by Congress, surely he won’t just concede defeat. He will huff and puff and work to implement it as much as he can. But Congress can ride him out, and we can all wait for a better negotiator to try again.


Jared Samilow is an undergraduate at Brown University. 


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