While many of us were whiling away the dog days on an idyllic beach, some hardworking members of Congress opted to ruin their summers with an in-depth "study" of the 109-page Iran nuclear deal. Among many others, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who said he was "studying it extremely carefully," found bipartisan agreement with Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), who vowed to "put this deal under the microscope." Alas, although it is fun to imagine the senators slaving away in the hot sun over the arcana of centrifuge design, it was unlikely from the start that any such study would change their minds. That Schumer and Cornyn emerged from their period of deep introspection as opponents of the deal should have surprised no one.
It is not only that precious few in Congress grasp the finer points of nuclear physics (though there is that). Nor is it that legislators rarely read legislation (though this has been frequently noted). No, the real reason was that practically every member of Congress had decided his or her position long before the deal was published. And, contrary to appearances, there is nothing wrong with this, because the details of the Iranian nuclear deal have never been very important.
Sure, the destructive power of nuclear weapons focuses the mind and engages the public. But supporters and opponents of the agreement are actually arguing not about Iranian nuclear weapons but about the nature of U.S. involvement in the Middle East.
We have lived in a nuclear world for 70 years now, and at this point, we know (or should know) a couple of basic facts. First, we cannot stop a reasonably advanced country from developing a nuclear weapon. If North Korea, the most isolated country on Earth, can do it, then pretty much any country can if it is willing to devote the resources and pay the political price.
Second, nuclear weapons are not very useful in international politics, which is why so few countries have chosen to develop them despite being able to do so. They are helpful for preventing full-scale invasions of your country (which is nice), but absent that threat, they don't really change the power balance. Nuclear arsenals facing off against each other effectively neutralize each other, and competition continues beneath the threshold of nuclear war.
This lack of utility, more than the threat of force or sanctions, is probably why Iran, while seeking to keep the option of a nuclear weapon open, has never actually developed one. As various U.S. and...