The real reason hawks hate the Iran nuclear deal

It's not because of the technical details of the pact...

Former vice president Dick Cheney
(Image credit: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, file)

Have you heard the news? Apparently Dick Cheney will be giving a big speech on the Iran nuclear deal at the American Enterprise Institute on Sept. 8, a little more than a week before Congress votes on it.

Oh, the suspense! Whatever will he say?

But I kid.

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Of course there isn't a single politically informed person in the world who doesn't know precisely where the former vice president comes down on the Iran deal. And that's precisely why the announcement of Cheney's speech serves as a perfect occasion for me to lay out my case for supporting it.

Like most pundits pronouncing on the deal, I possess no special expertise about Iran, and I'm not privy to the intelligence assessments that world leaders get to see. All I have to go on is who's lining up for and against the deal, and the arguments they make. And this is what I see:

On the pro side, we have Brent Scowcroft, Fareed Zakaria, dozens of former Israeli military officials, dozens of retired American generals and admirals, a wide array of experts on nuclear non-proliferation, and the president of the United States.

On the anti side, we have Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who has been warning ominously about an imminent Iranian nuclear breakout since — and no, I'm not joking — 1992), every Republican running for president and just about every Republican in Congress (though they're quite comfortable displaying their ignorance of the deal's details and the rudiments of Middle East policy and diplomacy), every single neoconservative pundit who was every bit as certain that we just had to go to war to take out Saddam Hussein, and now the vice president who orchestrated the invasion and occupation of Iraq, which by this point only fools and ideologues deny was a blunder of world-historical proportions.

I'm sorry, but was that supposed to be a tough choice?

Now I want to be clear: I have no idea if the deal is really the best one any president could have secured, as President Obama has been implying. Neither can I predict whether Iran will cheat, or if the "snap-back" sanctions will work as they were designed to.

What I have is a pretty high level of certainty that Iran will not develop and test a nuclear device during the 15 years covered by the agreement. If your standard is an imaginary world in which the U.S. can magically snap its fingers and get everything it wants — which for the neocons would be regime change in Iran — then this sounds pretty meager.

But in the world we actually inhabit — a world in which human beings know how to make nuclear bombs and any state that wants to build or acquire one will probably be able to make it happen eventually — 15 years is a very long time indeed. Certainly long enough to make the deal at least a modest net plus for U.S. (and yes, Israeli) interests.

Do opponents of the deal know otherwise? Not at all. Sure, they raise objections to aspects of the agreement, in every case giving it the most pessimistic possible reading. And they make scary predictions about a post-sanctions Islamic Republic making things more difficult for the U.S. and its allies in the region (while neglecting to mention that the American overthrow of Saddam Hussein already empowered Iran immensely and gave rise to the Islamic State, which is currently the region's worst security problem).

But such empirical considerations are beside the point. Facts have nothing to do with why most opponents reject the deal. They reject it because of an a priori suspicion of diplomacy and negotiation, which prevails in all times and places, regardless of the circumstances.

Their forerunners on the right opposed the Yalta Conference of 1945 on the grounds that it constituted appeasement. That's also why in the early years of the Cold War they favored the military rollback of the Soviet Union (aka, World War III with atomic weapons) rather than the wishy-washy policy of containment and deterrence. Of course they also loathed Nixon's realist policy of détente. Hell, founding neocon Norman Podhoretz even attacked St. Reagan the Great in 1982 for his refusal to take a sufficiently manly stand against the Soviets, just as George F. Will accused him at the very late date of 1987 of "elevating wishful thinking to the status of political philosophy" for daring to negotiate with Mikhail Gorbachev.

The most you can say about American hawks is that they're genuinely bipartisan. Regardless of which party holds the White House, their principled aversion to compromise and negotiation will lead them to favor military confrontation and to reject any deal that falls short of winning unconditional surrender from the other side.

The rest of us, attempting to find our way in the world without unfalsifiable axioms and the self-certainty they make possible, must rely on our own judgment about the facts as well as about which group of experts is more trustworthy.

In the case of the Iran deal, the call isn't even close.

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