What Arms Control Experts Think of the Iran Deal

We know what politicians predictably think about the agreement just reached with Iran, but what do actual arms control and nuclear proliferation experts think about it? Max Fisher asked Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, who was initially quite skeptical about what kind of deal would result from these negotiations. He gives it an A.

Max Fisher: Why is this a good deal?

Jeffrey Lewis: It’s a good deal because it slows down their nuclear program — which they say is for civilian purposes but could be used to make a bomb, and which we think was originally intended to make a bomb. And it puts monitoring and verification measures in place that mean if they try to build a bomb, we’re very likely to find out, and to do so with enough time that we have options to do something about it.

There’s a verifiable gap between their bomb option and an actual bomb. That’s why it’s a good deal.

Max Fisher: So that rests on Iran looking at all of this and saying, “It’s not worth even trying to cheat on the deal.”

Jeffrey Lewis: It’s a slightly more resigned attitude. I can’t get inside the supreme leader’s head. He might be a guy who likes to take risks. He might be stupid, he might get bad advice. So I don’t ever look at a situation where you’re trying to deter someone and say, “This will work.” Because you can never know that.

What I try to do is ask, “Have we done all of the things that we reasonably can so that more will not help, and we can’t imagine more intrusive mechanisms that are likely to be accepted?”

What you want is to feel like the administration has maxed out what they could have reasonably hoped to achieve. You can’t know that [Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] will be deterred. But I don’t know that there’s any way to make him more deterred than this.

He also expressed perfectly why two groups of people can have totally opposing reactions to the deal:

Max Fisher: We did a post just rounding up tweets from arms control analysts on what they’re saying about the Iran deal, and it was really hard to find arms control analysts who seem to be critical of the deal on the nonproliferation merits. Maybe there are some we just missed, but it seems like the consensus was overwhelmingly positive, which was so interesting to me because it’s very different from the conversation among Middle East policy analysts, which is much more divided. Why do you think that is?

Jeffrey Lewis: If you are interested in the nonproliferation piece — how to say this. As a deal, this is what deals look like. Actually, they usually don’t look this good. So if you don’t know that…

When I read people saying, you know, “I can’t believe we’re making a deal with these morally dubious people,” I understand why a regional security specialist might feel that way.

But when you work in the arms control field, they’re all morally dubious people! These are people who are building nuclear weapons — there are no not-morally-dubious people involved. So when you take that out of the equation, you end up just looking at, “Do these limits slow them down, are they verifiable, are we likely to catch them if they cheat, are we likely to have enough time to do anything?”

The problem [for regional analysts] is not going to be the terms. It’s not going to be how it’s written. It’s going to be the fact that one side or another decides they don’t like the idea of it. But the deal itself can still be perfectly workable.

Max Fisher: So if regional analysts look at a deal with a terrible regime and see it as morally dubious, and arms control analysts look at it and aren’t bothered, is that because arms control people are just amoral monsters?

Jeffrey Lewis: Maybe! But I think it’s more that they’re looking at it differently.

Whenever I hear regional security specialists talk about the deal, it is just a bizarre conversation. Because they all talk about how either it will fundamentally alter our relationship with the Islamic Republic [of Iran], which I think is just silly, or about how it’s a mistake to try to fundamentally alter our relationship with the Islamic Republic.

I just don’t think that the deal does any of those things. I see it as a really straightforward measure to slow down an enrichment program that was going gangbusters.

So you ask, “Does it slow it down?” Yes. “Does it slow it down in a way that is verifiable?” Yes. “Does it slow it down more than bombing it would?” Yes. “Okay, good deal.”

The old saying is that politics is the art of the possible, and what is possible is often constrained by any number of factors. The negotiations involved seven nations plus Iran, each of which had domestic political constraints on them (especially the U.S. and Iran). Under the circumstances, as Lewis says, it’s pretty much impossible to imagine a deal any stronger than this. It isn’t perfect, but no such agreement ever could be. But it’s a very good deal for both sides, which is why they signed it.

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  • kevskos

    Six nations plus Iran Ed.

  • http://artk.typepad.com ArtK

    Bah! Experts, whadda they know? Buncha ivory-tower elitists — probably appeasers. Real Murricans know that the only way to win is to kill them all.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/TabbyLavalamp Tabby Lavalamp

    Bah. I’ll take a REAL expert like Winston Colnago over these “experts” any day!

  • Mr Ed

    Sure the bought and paid for “experts” tell you what is good in the deal but they never talk about everything left out. This deal does absolutely nothing to address the designated hitter rule. sorry channeled my inner republican for a second.

  • Hoosier X

    So now we know what an arms control expert thinks. Somehow, he got through the whole interview without invoking Shicklegruber or Hister, so I’m a little dubious about his veracity.

    Seriously for a moment, does anybody know what colnago’s credentials are? Does he have any firsthand experience in what he goes on about? (Like maybe he worked in a South Carolina pool hall so he knows all Iranians are liars.)

    Or is he just repeating hateful gibberish from the Intertubez?

    I’ve never been to Iran but I went to Cal State Northridge in the San Fernando Valley (part of Los Angeles), which has a HUGE Persian population because it’s close to Chatsworth, an LA enclave with lots of Persians. And I knew a lot of Persians and even socialized with the Persian community quite a bit.

    Plus I read a lot about Iran, not just on the Web, but actual book-type books. I finished “Reading Lolita in Tehran” a few months ago. And Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” is awesome and eye-opening. (And the movie is great!)

    So I’m no expert on Iran, but I know enough about the country and the people to think that glib suggestions for nuking them back to the Stone Age are vile. And anyone who makes such suggestions shouldn’t be surprised when their humanity and their morals are questioned or ridiculed.

  • http://www.thelosersleague.com theschwa

    @Mr Ed/4 (in view of of Tabby/3):

    This deal does absolutely nothing to address the designated hitter rule.

    I assume you meant to type “This deal does absolutely nothing to address the designated Hister rule.”

  • http://twitter.com/#!/TabbyLavalamp Tabby Lavalamp

    Theschwa. If I recall correctly, we recently had a spat. That doesn’t matter. What matters now is that I’m giving you all the upvotes even though the comments here don’t have that capacity. They should though, because then all the upvotes would go to you.

  • acroyear

    Part of me wonders how much ISIS accelerated the process. Knowing ISIS was a threat, maybe a piece of the deal, not written down on paper but in verbal agreement, was that should ISIS get closer to the Iranian border, the US and other western powers will make a stronger effort to contain them?

    Just a thought. Not everything in a deal like this is written down, just like not everything in a deal like this requires Senate approval before the administration can start acting on it.

  • eric

    @5 – in this field, he has none. He knows nothing about nukes except what he can google or read on the front page, and from his conversations, its pretty clear he doesn’t even bother googling that much.

    @8: I’m not sure they had much to do with it. I think Rouhani and his faction has been working this for a while, wearing away at the hardliner desire for nukes. The IAEA has also been working this for years. Internal Iranian politics combined with external political and economic pressure, it may just be coincidence its happening right now. This has happened before. In both Brazil and South Africa (back in the apartheid days), we saw the hardliner faction of government start up a secret unacknowledged nuke development program, and the moderates shut the program down a few years later. I’m not saying Iran’s choice to shut it down and deal was inevitable or predictable – they certainly could’ve gone the way of NK instead of Brazil – but I don’t think we need to invoke ISIS to account for what happened.

  • nrdo

    The deal is pretty good because Iran recognized that it has been able to achieve it’s regional objectives conventionally. Their proxies are now viewed as the more predictable, “moderate” paramilitary groups operating in the chaos zones (Northern Iraq, Syria, Yemen etc.) This region is one in which “our terrorists are not crazy like ISIS” is a major selling point.

    I think there is room for cautious optimism and that the deal establishes, on balance, a decent temporary status.

  • http://www.pandasthumb.org Area Man

    The most interesting part of the interview to me was how badly the previous Bush administration screwed the whole thing up, and how we could have had a much better deal if they hadn’t blown-off Iranian overtures during the period 2003-2007. Yet another one of their disastrous messes that Obama has had to come behind and clean up.

  • abb3w

    Hm. Possibly suggests something about the relative prevalence of deontological versus consequentialist analysis in the two fields.

  • colnago80

    Re Hoosier X @ #5

    Roger Cohen at the New York Times, along with Glenn Greenwald, is one of the biggest apologists for the ayatollahs. Columnist Jeffery Goldberg invited him to address Rabbi David Wolpe’s shul in West Los Angeles, more then half of whose membership consists of refugees from Iran who left after the 1979 revolution. According to Goldberg, after his presentation was over and questioning from the audience began, he was raked over the coals informed that he was full of shit and knew nothing about the situation in Iran.


  • Hoosier X

    Let’s give credit where credit is due.

    Colnago left a comment at Kaveh Mousavi’s On the Margin of Error blog, and though he did rain down talking points on Kaveh as if he knows more than Kaveh does about his own country, colnago did at least have the self-awareness to omit his talking point about how Obama is weak because all we have to do is pepper Iran with nukes.

    So, congratulations, colnago.

  • nrdo

    The field of political ‘analysis’ is mostly bunk based on prognosticating with insufficient information. Apologists and hard-liners both cherry-pick evidence that supports their favorite scenarios. I’d argue that the most likely scenario is in between; after the 10 year period of the deal, there will still be ideologues in Iran intent on aggressively spreading Shia Islam, but like now, they will not be fully in control of the government. The deal has some chance of strengthening the moderates, so it’s worth trying.

  • Hoosier X


    So … your expert analysis of the current situation in Iran is based on a 2009 article that was updated in 2011.


  • Al Dente

    Comment by colnago80 blocked.

    I’ll enjoy this blog so much more now that I don’t have to read the genocidal maniac.

  • notruescott

    I have an uncle who was one of the hostages in Iran way back when. He’s not a huge fan of Iran or Iranians in general; but I’ve never heard him adopt the sort of “nuke ’em all” position I so frequently see here. I’m just saying. Maybe we can acknowlege our common humanity or something.

  • se habla espol

    When I read people saying, you know, “I can’t believe we’re making a deal with these morally dubious people,” I understand why a regional security specialist might feel that way.

    Well, the morally dubious people don’t have complete control of the government. They have partial control of the legislature, but not the military or the diplomats. Granted, the morally dubious people in the legislature did publish a manifesto (in the form of a letter to the Iranians) that warned the world against trusting the MSPs, but there’s almost a year and a half before they might be able to do serious damage to the world at large.

  • Holms


    And you’re an apologist for pre-emptive nuclear strikes, aka murdering several million people, because you dislike their leadership / religion. You lose.

  • StevoR

    @18. notruescott : I’m curious now as to what your former hostage uncle thinks of the current deal and what he thinks should happen – any chance you could elaborate on those please?

  • StevoR

    I’d also like to see Kaveh Mousavi’s* views on the Pahlavi Shah versus the Ayatollahs as mentioned by Colnago80 in a previous thread too – and in general and if there was an alternate history where the Shah hadn’t fallen and the Islamic revolution had failed where Iran might be.

    Colnago80 apparently can’t refind that thread /comment, anyone else got better google-fu and able to dig it up?

    Maybe I’ll ask there directly?

    * http://www.patheos.com/blogs/marginoferr/2015/07/15/iranian-nuclear-deal-what-will-it-mean-for-iran/

  • StevoR

    ^ Just asked there – on the thread linked above. Love the editing function on Kaveh Mousavi’s blog! (Hint hint!)

  • colnago80

    Re Al Dente @ #17

    Try add on Blog Comment Killfile available on Chrome and Firefox.

  • http://festeringscabofrealityblogspot.com fifthdentist

    As you know, you go to negotiations with the enemy you have, not the enemy you might want or wish to have at a later time.

  • busterggi

    “I can’t believe we’re making a deal with these morally dubious people,”

    And you know there are Iranians saying the exact same thing just because the US destroyed their lawfully elected government and substituted a puppet ruler on them for decades.

  • http://festeringscabofrealityblogspot.com fifthdentist

    Puppet brutal dictator, busterggi. But we did it for freedoms.

  • dogmeat

    C’mon now, to be fair to SLC, herr coinage, it wasn’t that long ago that any mention of Iran, Iranians, Farsi, Persia, Persian cats, cats…mice… well anything really, led to a spittle flecked rant about how a dozen or so fifteen megaton warheads would “solve” the “Iranian problem.” I mean, he’s down to simply bombing them rather than maniacal genocide with global environmental consequences. That’s a shift… perhaps not a backtrack, or a sidestep, but more of an obtuse angle step.

  • dingojack

    Stevo – with regard to the Iranian people’s take on the brutal Shah or the brutal Mullahs, I’d say they probably would take Mercutio’s last words to heart:

    A plague o’ both your houses!

    They have made worms’ meat of me…”


  • colnago80

    Here’s the take of Charles Krauthammer on the deal. Worse then Chamberlain with the German Nazi dictator.


  • Holms

    ^ That’s nice, but when a journalist an an arms control analyst disagree on the subject of arms control, I tend to side with the arms control analyst. Because their an arms control analyst, and the topic is arms control. Geddit?

  • sigurd jorsalfar

    colnago *flush*

  • caseloweraz

    Krauthammer’s concerns about the safety of our naval forces are old hat. Wikipedia points out that China gave Iran advanced anti-ship missiles in 1986. This was discussed with alarm here a few years ago. As I recall the statement was made that the Navy had defenses they trusted. Given that China Lake has a reputation for competence, I tend to accept that statement.

    I notice that Krauthammer didn’t offer much in the way of an alternative to the just-concluded accord. As with all the opponents, I get the sense that his preferred option is no agreement with Iran on nuclear weapons at all.

  • notruescott

    StevoR @21:

    I’m afraid I don’t see him all that often, we’re not terribly close. I’d be curious as to what he thinks about it too. He tends to be a little reluctant to talk about his experience there; much like his father, my grandpa, about WW2.

  • StevoR

    @ ^ notruescott : Okay, thanks.

  • colnago80

    Re Holms

    Just for your information, Kaveh Mousavi has confirmed and reiterated on his blog in response to StevoR that he indeed considers the ayatollahs worse then the Shah. I don’t like putting it that the Shah was better then the ayatollahs, just that he was less bad.