The Iran nuclear deal and American history

By Robert Presser on May 14, 2015

So much has been written in the past several weeks on the terms of the P5+1 deal to curtail Iran’s nuclear program.  To summarize, proponents of the agreement believe that this was the best deal possible under the circumstances and that the West retains the ability to reinstate sanctions or undertake military action if Iran abrogates its commitments; opponents of the deal doubt that the verification process is adequate and lament that Iran’s nuclear research program and facilities remain intact.  Both sides arecorrect in their assertions; it is unlikely that Iran would sign a more restrictive deal and the provisions of the current agreement will indeed allow Iran to continue essential efforts to develop its nuclear program with a view to building a bomb after the deal expires some 13 years from its ratification.  At best, this deal is a delay tactic with an optimistic view that in the intervening period Iran can be sufficiently integrated into the international community to no longer feel obligated to pursue weaponization of its nuclear program.

There are many  precedents for deals that stall for time.  Some have made reference to the Hitler-Stalin Non-Aggression Pact of 1939 or Chamberlain’s Munich Agreement of 1938 as examples of peace pacts that failed.  In this case, these examples are irrelevant because they did not last for long.  Rather there is the Compromise of 1850 concerning slavery in the United States, a hodge-podge agreement of vague terms regarding the right of future states to implement slavery within their borders. This agreement was negotiated under a weak president, Millard Filmore, largely through the efforts of two great senators of the first half of the 19th century, Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas.  The issue centered on the extension of slavery in the vast New Mexico territory acquired by the United States after the 1846-48 Mexican War, which allowed the U.S. to stretch all the way to the west coast.  Southern supporters of slavery wanted slave ownership to extend into the new territory, while northern Abolitionists wanted to maintain the limitations on slavery that were first legislated in the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which declared that there would be no slavery in the great northwestern territory acquired via the Louisiana Purchase.  The result of the 1850 Compromise was that it avoided a U.S. civil war because the question of slavery was put off to future self-determination by male landowners in the New Mexico territories and the new state of California created at that time.  Southerners were satisfied that slavery remained an “available option” in those lands while Northerners and Abolitionists were confident that the landowners in the West would see no need for slavery as their economies were vastly different than the cotton-based agrarian South.  Both sides saw something for themselves in the deal and it avoided war for eleven years, until the North-South divide over the issue degraded to the point where the 1860 election was focused on the future of slavery. The first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln was elected with a mandate to end the practice and precipitated war with the Emancipation Proclamation.

Vying for time with a “we’ll see” attitude is a viable option in politics but is a sign of weak leadership.  In the 1850 to 1861 period the northern U.S. states were able to pursue industrialization and were far better equipped to wage a war against the South in 1861 than they were previously.  Eventually the root issues rose to the surface and a strong leader like Lincoln and his determined cabinet of rivals, as he called it, made the difficult decision to pursue abolition and face the consequences.

We do not know at this time what the final language of the Iranian agreement will be nor is there any assurance that it will be ratified by all the parties involved.  At the moment the U.S. and Iran are waging public relations campaigns detailing vastly different interpretations of what the agreement means for the lifting of sanctions, the nature of the inspections and future Iranian nuclear research. What we do know is that the U.S. is militarily exhausted after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and is mired in an indefinite campaign against ISIS which threatens to deepen its involvement.  There is no appetite for a wider war with Iran, much in the way that mid-19th century northerners did not want a war with their southern brethren after fighting alongside them to defeat the Mexicans and complete the dream of continental manifest destiny.  Better the potential for a future war than the certainty of a war today, at least from the U.S. perspective.  The Israelis disagree with that perspective, though, and may be forced to act on their own since they view the Iranian nuclear program as an existential threat.   This, perhaps, is the most important difference between the Compromise of 1850 and the Iranian nuclear deal; a war between the states is an internal affair while a nuclear Iran threatens not only Israel but the whole Middle East, including Sunni rivals led by Saudi Arabia.  The reaction of third parties like the Israelis and Saudis cannot be controlled and the broader reaction of Arab states to a belligerent, expansive Iran cannot be predicted in the long run.

Diplomats in the Obama administration have the right to be optimistic in the same way as Abolitionists in 1850 were hopeful that slavery would not proliferate.  They should just be conscious of historical examples which demonstrate that clashes between civilizations on fundamental values are unavoidable.  If merely postponing conflict is the administration’s conscious choice, then it is an unforgivable abrogation of leadership that will be an enduring stain on the statesmanship of the United States.


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