To most Republicans, the three scariest words in the English language, after "Ruth Bader Ginsburg," are "Iran nuclear deal." The GOP presidential candidates are so intent on putting distance between them and it that you'd think the document was printed on radioactive paper.
"My No. 1 priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran," Donald Trump says. Ted Cruz promises, "On my first day in office, I will rip this catastrophic Iranian nuclear deal to shreds." Even John Kasich vows to "suspend" the agreement and bring back the sanctions that were dropped.
When the deal was reached, Republicans opposed it with a unanimity rarely seen outside the North Korean Politburo. It's safe to say that in all their presidential debates since the campaign began, not a single candidate has had anything good to say about it.
The GOP doesn't trust Barack Obama and doesn't trust the Iranians. So the idea that the two could jointly produce something valuable was beyond belief.
There was, in all fairness, a case to be made against the agreement. It didn't force Iran to scrap all its centrifuges; it relied on the hope that violations would be dealt with firmly; and most of the limits on Iran disappear after 15 years.
None of these objections, in my view, was convincing. But at this point, they're obsolete. The question is no longer whether the deal should have been done. It's whether it should be undone. Whether to enlist in the Army is a different question from whether to go AWOL during boot camp.
What would we lose from renouncing the deal? Just every concession Iran had to make and implement. So far, it has submitted to an outside inspection regime, scrapped some 12,000 centrifuges, shipped 98 percent of its nuclear fuel to Russia and wrecked a nuclear reactor. Without the deal, Iran would be free to evict the international monitors and resume the activities it was compelled to stop.
In exchange for those curbs, the Obama administration agreed to lift some economic sanctions and release some $100 billion in Iranian funds that had been frozen. The latter is what Trump had in mind when he charged, "We give them $150 billion, we get nothing." That's what Cruz was talking about last summer when he claimed the deal would make Obama "the world's leading financier of radical Islamic terrorism."
But we didn't give Iranians that money; it was theirs all along. Regaining access to it was one of the chief incentives for them to negotiate. In any case, they got their money. And it does not seem to have dawned on Trump or Cruz that they are not about to give it back.
For us to abandon the agreement would mean the Iranians would keep those funds but be released from their obligations. They'd get to keep the new car without making the payments.
The Republicans talk as though we control everything. But the deal was not just between Iran and the U.S.; it included China, Russia, France, Germany, Britain and the entire European Union. The other signatories might not be content to behave like potted plants. If we abandoned the accord, they'd blame us.
The U.S. could restore the old sanctions, which wouldn't have much force because we'd be alone. Even our European allies probably wouldn't follow suit -- to say nothing of the Chinese and Russians. More likely, they'd all rush to grab the business opportunities created by our absence. Good for Airbus and Lenovo; bad for Boeing and Apple.
The next president will retain the option of last resort in dealing with Iran: a pre-emptive attack on its nuclear sites. But that's not an inviting course of action. In the first place, it wouldn't stop the Iranians from undertaking a new and more determined effort -- this time in facilities less vulnerable to our missiles.
In the second place, we could expect retaliation, in the form of terrorist attacks on American targets at home and abroad and military attacks on U.S. naval vessels in the Persian Gulf, among other possibilities. We could expect, in short, another war in the Middle East whose duration and outcome we can't know.
At this point, reneging on the deal would be the worst of both worlds. Someone who has decided to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel may have made the wrong choice. But once you're in the water, climbing out of the barrel is no solution.