In online discussions in which I have participated since the first announcement of the P5+1 agreement concerning Iran's nuclear program, the most incisive analysis I have encountered was from my friend, colleague, and mentor, John Major. He summed up the situation by asking, "what real-world outcome would be preferable to this agreement?" Answer: "There isn't one."
Since then, much of the criticism I have read of the agreement, especially coming from GOP lawmakers and presidential candidates, has reminded me of the fabled quote by a Bush administration aid dismissive of the "reality-based community" that "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." The same kind of magical thinking that led us into the invasion of Iraq seems to be at work in the jeremiads being hurled against the P5+1 deal. We are told that we should have achieved a deal that eliminated Iran's nuclear program altogether, or that disabled Iran's ability to wage war by proxy. What we are not told is how those goals might have been achieved diplomatically, because there is no way that might have been accomplished.
The punishing level of sanctions that brought Iran to the bargaining table required the full and compliant participation of China, Russia, Britain, France, Germany, and other countries aligned with the P5+1. The maintenance of such a broad and diverse coalition in an era of so much geopolitical strife was a near miracle, and the idea that the goal of foreclosing Iran's development of nuclear arms could have been expanded to include its support of Hezbollah or its use of peaceful nuclear power is a total fantasy. In this respect President Obama's foremost rejoinder to the deal's critics is unimpeachable: this deal represents the outer limits of what was achievable through diplomacy. Anyone who insists that this deal is inadequate is arguing that the problem of Iran's nuclear program could only be redressed militarily.
This brings us to the point on which the "reality-based community" has not been vocal enough: there is no military solution to the problem of Iran's nuclear program. This is demonstrable on a number of levels. One is by appeal to prima facie common sense: if there were a military solution to the problem, it would have been exercised already. Similar threats in Syria and Iraq were dealt with by the Israeli military and intelligence community. These operations were done in the face of strong international objections, thus the notion that the Israelis have been restrained in the case of Iran is not credible. Iran is larger, has more resources, and is better equipped than either Iraq or Syria, and it has the examples of those two countries to serve as warning. Despite cyber attacks and the assassination of Iranian physicists their nuclear program has proven resilient. Given the level of international opposition demonstrated by the P5+1 to an Iranian nuclear weapon, it strains belief to assert that a swift covert solution to the problem would not have been undertaken by some party if such means existed.
With respect to a more conventional assault upon Iran, that is a solution forfeited more than a decade ago by the Bush administration. After the invasion and occupation of Iraq, American foreign policy interests became much too tied to the stability of Baghdad to ever allow the risk of war against Tehran. The US has built the largest and most expensive embassy compound in the world in Baghdad, staffed by more than five thousand American personnel. A war against Iran would most likely enrage the Shi'ite Iraqis who currently control the government in Baghdad, potentially setting off a crisis to make the 1979 hostage affair in Tehran pale by comparison. Even if this worst case scenario did not come to pass, war between Washington and Tehran would so destabilize the US position in Iraq as to make none of our policy goals in that country at all tenable, a contingency that American leaders simply can not risk.
For the last decade the world has lived under the threat of Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon, a prospect that portended even greater instability and strife than is already being experienced in the Middle East. Today, thanks to the P5+1 negotiations, it has become virtually impossible for Iran to become nuclear-armed, and that will remain true as long as this deal is in effect. Anyone who does not acknowledge and welcome that outcome is not living in the real world.