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On Credibility

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Well, this is just fine and fucking dandy:

This work will take some time. There will be a moment when Iran has dismantled a multibillion-dollar nuclear investment and faces a multibillion-dollar price tag to rebuild it. Exactly how long that moment will last is difficult to say. As part of the agreement, Iran will retain a considerable nuclear infrastructure and will continue to enrich uranium with its remaining centrifuges. The unfreezing of as much as $100 billion of Iranian assets worldwide will provide Iranian officials with new resources. Still, for some period of months, the prospect of the nuclear deal failing will be very frightening for the country’s rulers. Much of their old nuclear program will be gone, their new program won’t yet have been built, and their cash infusion will only have just begun.

 During that period, a new president may be able to press Iran to renegotiate the Obama deal’s worst terms, especially its weak inspection provisions.

So to sum up, Frum proposes waiting until Iran has made credible commitments to holding to the agreement, then taking advantage of Iran’s vulnerability to change the terms of the deal to the advantage of the United States.  Iran, facing a even worse status quo, will then become more pliable with respect to issues beyond its nuclear program.

There’s a hard headed realism to the idea! And from Frum’s point of view, it has the advantage of enraging Iran for the next several generations, and consequently poisoning any attempted rapprochement. Hardliners in Iran will love it, as it would confirm every prediction they’ve made about American perfidy.

But then sadly, the United States and Iran are not the only parties to the agreement.  That the US has managed to hold together a negotiating coalition that includes China and Russia for this long is nothing short of a miracle.  China and Russia are on board because they value keeping the nuclear club small, as long as they’re part of that club.  But the P5+1 had held together because Moscow and Beijing believe that the United States is negotiating in good faith.  If the US extravagantly demonstrates that it is negotiating in bad faith, the coalition will not hold together, the sanctions will not “snap back,” and both Russia and China will resume arms exports to Iran in zero time flat.  In short, the notional President Walker/Bush/Rubio/Trump that Frum seems to be envisioning will not actually have the power of Darth Vader; he cannot unilaterally alter the terms of the deal, then simply tell the Iranians to “pray that I don’t alter it further.”

Another point: Along with a few others, I’ve made a lot of fun over the years of the “credibility fairy,” the idea that if the United States just demonstrated sufficient toughness, it could resolve most world problems by frightening the rogues into line. “Credibility” is the last refuge of the neocon who can’t figure out how to solve a problem, or why a particular policy is failing.  What’s interesting here is the clarity that Frum is providing with respect to how he understands the definition of “credibility.”  It does not mean “a commitment to following through on the agreements that the United States has made,” which we might understand to be a conventional understanding of the term.  It does mean “a willingness to blast the hell out of anyone, at any time.” For my own part I’m somewhat skeptical of the importance of credibility defined in either way, but I find it much easier to believe that the first matters more for the long-term foreign policy success of the United States than the second.

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