In life, what matters most isn’t how a decision compares to your ideal outcome. It’s how it compares to the alternative at hand.
The same is true for the Iran deal, announced Tuesday between Iran and six world powers. As Congress begins debating the agreement, its opponents have three real alternatives. The first is to kill the deal, and the interim agreement that preceded it, and do nothing else, which means few restraints on Iran’s nuclear program. The second is war. But top American and Israeli officials have warned that military action against Iranian nuclear facilities could ignite a catastrophic regional conflict and would be ineffective, if not counterproductive, in delaying Iran’s path to the bomb. Meir Dagan, who oversaw the Iran file as head of Israel’s external spy agency, the Mossad, from 2002 to 2011, has said an attack “would mean regional war, and in that case you would have given Iran the best possible reason to continue the nuclear program.” Michael Hayden, who ran the CIA under George W. Bush from 2006 to 2009, has warned that an attack would “guarantee that which we are trying to prevent: an Iran that will spare nothing to build a nuclear weapon.”
Implicitly acknowledging this, most critics of the Iran deal propose a third alternative: increase sanctions in hopes of forcing Iran to make further concessions. But in the short term, the third alternative looks a lot like the first.