What would Reagan do? Republicans and the Iran nuclear deal.

By Lawrence J. Korb | August 8, 2016

As someone who worked under President Ronald Reagan as an assistant secretary of defense—and as someone who witnessed firsthand Reagan’s evolution on the efficacy of arms control efforts—watching the unremitting hostility of so many Republican officials toward the Iran nuclear agreement has been nothing short of a remarkable experience. If the accord is “one of the worst deals America ever made”—as Rudy Giuliani recently claimed—how are we to account for the fact that the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, recently remarked, “The deal has actually removed the most serious danger to Israel’s existence for the foreseeable future … and greatly reduced the threat over the longer term”?

The answer, of course, is that for many conservatives going back generations, arms control efforts are utter anathema—as President Reagan found out by the end of his presidency.

Before his election in 1980, Reagan was a firm opponent of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II). In fact, Reagan sounded many of the same notes that Republicans have in describing the Iran deal, calling SALT II “fatally flawed” and vowing to scrap it upon taking office. After assuming the presidency and inheriting the awesome responsibility of advancing the national interest, however, President Reagan soon changed his mind upon listening to the advice of government experts, and came to see SALT II as a "net benefit for the United States." Although SALT II was never ratified by the Senate and was supposed to expire in 1985, Reagan abided by its provisions, paving the way for his Republican successor President George H.W. Bush to negotiate the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in 1991.

Toward the end of Reagan’s presidency, as his efforts to reduce the intensity of the nuclear stalemate with the Soviet Union continued, stalwart conservatives like George Will were left to lament that Reagan had “accelerated the moral disarmament of the West … by elevating wishful thinking to the status of political philosophy.” Decades later, it is apparent by the very praise that Republicans lavish on Reagan’s legacy just how mistaken they were. For if Reagan had engaged in “wishful thinking” on a matter as important as nuclear weapons—against an enemy as fearsome as the Soviet Union—would Republican candidates rush to cloak themselves with his legacy, all these years later?

The Iran deal is not a formal treaty like SALT II, but a political agreement between Iran and the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, or P5+1. In its use of diplomacy to reduce the security dilemma of the United States and its allies, however, the accord has so far proven to be quite successful. Iran has given up 98 percent of its nuclear material, dismantled centrifuges, and allowed international observers to inspect its facilities. This has had a dramatic effect: While the Middle East is still very much in turmoil, there is no longer talk of a nuclear arms race between Iran and its Sunni rivals, or of a regional war precipitated by a preemptive airstrike against Iranian nuclear facilities by the United States or Israel. 

What will happen once the various provisions of the deal end over the next decade and a half? No one can be certain. In establishing “sunset” provisions, the Iran deal is similar to numerous arms control agreements enacted by both Democratic and Republican presidents. Moreover, as the Harvard Kennedy School's Graham Allison noted, the freedom of action granted to Iran at the expiration of the deal will extend to the United States and its allies as well—meaning that if Iran decides to pursue a nuclear weapon at some future point, the United States and its allies will possess the same military and diplomatic options that they did before the deal’s enactment. 

Although fundamental disagreements with Iran over its ballistic missile tests and its relationships with Syrian President Bashar Assad and the militant group Hezbollah remain, the upside of the agreement is clear. By empowering the moderates within the Iranian government, and demonstrating the benefits of membership in the international political and financial community (a step which is still very much in flux), the deal could lead to the emergence of a more responsible Iran, as that country’s leadership transitions toward a new generation less connected to its revolutionary era.

For now, however, the utility of the agreement is clear: Iran’s path towards a nuclear weapon is blocked. Given the perilous situation in the Middle East that President Barack Obama inherited, this is no small feat. For, as President Reagan understood, acknowledging that American power is both awesome but still limited by constraints inherent to the international system is not a sign of weakness, but in fact represents the foundation upon which successful statecraft is built.

It is long past time for Republicans who worship President Reagan to acknowledge and incorporate this crucial part of his legacy into their understanding of the Iran deal. 

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