The deal that has been offered to Iran—to soften some sanctions in return for a promise by the mullahs to preserve the status quo with regard to their nuclear program—does not serve the interest of peace. This is not to discourage further diplomacy and negotiation, but it is to underline what Secretary of State John Kerry has said: namely that a bad deal is worse than no deal. This is a very bad deal for America, its allies and peace.
Diplomacy is better than war but bad diplomacy can cause bad wars. The US is leading the noble efforts, stalled for the moment, to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough in our determination to prevent Iran from developing, or having the capacity to develop, nuclear weapons. There is little dispute about this essential goal: virtually everyone agrees that a nuclear armed Iran would pose unacceptably grave dangers to the United States and its allies.
Nor is there much controversy over the preference for “jaw jaw” over “war war” as Winston Churchill once put it. But the understandable concern, expressed by Israeli, French, Saudi and some other leaders, is that the Iranian leadership is playing for time—that they want to make insignificant concessions in exchange for significant reductions in the sanctions that are crippling their economy. Their goal is to have their yellow cake and eat good food at the same time. These leaders, and many experienced nuclear and diplomatic experts, fear that a bad deal, such as the one that secretary Kerry seemed ready to accept, would allow the Iranians to inch closer to nuclear weapons capacity while strengthening their faltering economy. The net result would be a more powerful Iran with the ability to deploy a nuclear arsenal quickly and surreptitiously.
Were this to occur, we would be witnessing a recurrence of the failed efforts to prevent a nuclear North Korea but in a far more volatile and dangerous neighborhood of the globe. Were Iran to use the current diplomatic efforts as a cover to buy time to make a preventive military attack unrealistic, this would indeed be our “Chamberlain moment”, a replication of the time ¾ of a century ago, when the idealistic but naive British prime minister made a bad deal with the Nazis in a desperate but futile effort to avoid deploying the military option against Hitler’s growing power.
Winston Churchill, despite his preference for jaw, railed against Chamberlain’s concession, describing it as a defeat without a war. The war, of course, soon came and the allies were in a weaker position, having ceded the industrially and militarily critical Sudetenland to Germany while at the same time giving it more time to enhance its military power. The result was tens of millions of deaths that might have been avoided if the British and French had engaged in a preventive war instead of giving dangerous concessions to the Nazis when they were still weak.
The immediate choice for the world today is not between diplomacy and preventive war, as it may have been in 1938. We have a third option: to maintain or even increase the sanctions while keeping the military option on the table. It was this powerful combination that brought a weakened and frightened Iran to the bargaining table in the first place. It is this combination that will pressure them to abandon their unnecessary quest for nuclear weapons, if anything will. To weaken the sanctions regime now, in exchange for a promise to maintain the status quo, would be bad diplomacy, poor negotiation and a show of weakness precisely when a show of strength is called for.
The leadership of the pro-Israel community, both in the United States and Israel, have shown rare unity around the issue of not weakening the sanctions merely in exchange for the promise of a nuclear standstill from the Iranians. Liberals and conservatives, doves and hawks, all seem to realize that the best way to avoid the scylla and charybdis of a nuclear Iran or a military attack is to maintain the tough sanctions while diplomacy continues. As usual, the only outlier seems to be J Street whose claim to be “pro-Israel” grows less credible by the day. Previously, J Street claimed to support tough sanctions as an alternative to the military option and drumbeating. But now that Israel and its supporters insist that sanctions be maintained, J Street seems to be supporting the Neville Chamberlain approach to diplomacy: make substantial concessions in exchange for hollow promises, thereby weakening our negotiating position and increasing the chances that the United States will be forced to take military action as the only means of preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
This is the time when the entire pro-Israel community must stand together in opposition to the deal being offered the Iranians—a deal which is bad for the United States, for the West, and for Israel. The Israeli people seem united in opposition to this bad deal. The American Congress is doubtful about the deal. This is not a liberal/conservative issue. Liberals who view military action as a last resort should oppose this deal, and conservatives who fear a nuclear Iran above all else should oppose this deal. Indeed all reasonable, thinking people should understand that weakening the sanctions against Iran without demanding that they dismantle their nuclear weapons program is a prescription for disaster. Have we learned nothing from North Korea and Neville Chamberlain?
Alan M. Dershowitz, the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard, is a practicing criminal and constitutional lawyer and the author of The Trials of Zion. His autobiography, “Taking the Stand: My Life in the Law”, was published last month.
A shorter version of this article appeared in Haaretz.