Nobody loves the Iran deal, at least not among the strategic planning staffs of Western governments. Yet the debate is not really about whether the deal is a good one, but about what the alternatives to it might be.
Critics of the deal insist a better one was possible. The current compromise, they note, leaves Iran in possession of an “industrial-scale” nuclear infrastructure that can be ratcheted up too quickly for comfort should Tehran choose to do so.
It also places some fuzzy limits on inspections – suspicions of secret activities must be raised with the Iranians and surprise inspections are all but impossible – that will provide Tehran, which spent years hiding entire facilities from UN inspectors, all the elbow room it needs to keep working behind closed doors.
Not only do critics not trust the Khamenei regime to abide by the agreement, they also doubt the possibility that sanctions can be restored if Iran fails to hold to its part of the bargain.
“Snap-back” sanctions, as the White House calls them, don’t really snap back. Even if you can cobble together the necessary coalition to reimpose sanctions, making them hurt takes a very long time. The healthier and stronger the Iranian economy grows in the coming period of sanctions relief, the longer it will take for any new sanctions to produce sufficient pressure to make the leadership in Tehran reconsider any particular policy.
And some major economic powerhouses eager to do business with a rehabilitated Iran, such as China and Russia, are not likely to join a renewed sanctions regime no matter what Iranian violation might have sparked it, further weakening the potency of any new penalties.
So for the critics, including nearly the entire Israeli political spectrum, most US Republicans and many Democrats, it’s not just that Iran may not abide by the agreement. The way the deal was negotiated and the way its implementation has been structured have effectively neutralized any US-led coalition’s ability to exact a real cost for future Iranian violations.
The critics’ alternative to the current deal is clear: removing the limits on inspections; no sunset clauses on the deal’s caps on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, some of which will expire after only a few years under the terms of Tuesday’s agreement; and a slower, more staggered and more results-based relief of sanctions that takes into account how hard it will likely prove to restore them in the future.
It’s a strong case, one that the deal’s supporters, who yearn for a resolution to the broader impasse with the Islamic Republic, struggle to counter on pure policy terms.
But supporters have a strong argument of their own, a troubling fact that the critics, for all their hand-wringing, cannot ignore: the crippling global sanctions regime that existed until now, rooted in a 13-year demand by the UN for Iran to suspend all enrichment on its soil, has all but failed to bring that about. Even under the devastating pressure of the current sanctions, Iran’s nuclear program has gone from fewer than 200 centrifuges in 2003 to 19,000 today. “A little longer,” say the critics. “How much longer?” wonder the deal’s supporters. And how many centrifuges will be spinning by then?
Iran won’t blink, the deal’s supporters say, and any military attack could at best push that steady expansion of nuclear infrastructure only a few years back. For Americans and Europeans, and even more so the Russians and Chinese, any prospect of a sustained military response that might yield a permanent if expensive and bloody end to Iran’s nuclear program, must be weighed against the world’s desperation to shore up and calm down a crumbling and radicalizing region. There is no military option, and sanctions, no matter how severe, don’t work.
The deal struck in Vienna this week thus looks to supporters like the only effective means the world really has to freeze the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program, something over a decade of severe sanctions and bitter standoffs failed to do. Iran will now scale back its program and hold it in check at about a year’s worth of enrichment away from being able to produce a usable nuclear bomb.
That’s the essence of the debate, the substance beneath all the layers of political gamesmanship and rhetorical fog of war. And it is there, in those relatively straightforward arguments, that the painful paradox of the deal becomes clear.
Critics, aware that the pre-deal status quo may have been failing to stop Iran, can only complain that Western negotiators weren’t demanding enough at the table. Yet if painful sanctions were failing, what leverage did the negotiators really have? Supporters, aware that the regime in Tehran may yet betray their optimism — and get away with it — explain that the West simply had no better option, and thus implicitly acknowledge that the critics were right to worry that Western powers negotiated from a position of weakness.
So what just happened? What made such an imperfect deal so urgent? And why do supporters nevertheless believe it might work?
It is hard to believe that Obama administration officials, who zealously enforced and sometimes even engineered some of the sanctions, fail to grasp the emptiness of any threat to “snap” them back, or do not understand that Iran (not to mention Israel, Saudi Arabia and just about everyone else) doesn’t really believe the US is politically able to carry out any threat of military strike.
And there lies the fateful gamble: Iran will keep to the deal not because of these threats, but because, US planners hope and believe, it does not actually want a nuclear bomb.
Iran wants influence, power projection and hegemony beyond its troubled, war-wracked borders. At the nuclear threshold, roughly where it stands today, it can wield the geopolitical heft of a nuclear-capable nation without generating the blowback among regional opponents and world powers that it would encounter if it built an actual bomb and perched it atop an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Iran, in other words, is rational, reasonable, and thus containable at the threshold – not because the world has any meaningful leverage, but because the bomb itself is too costly for Iran to be worth the trouble, the deal’s architects believe.
That’s the compromise, a compromise Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, backed by its supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, seems to be willing to make.
Iran gets a great deal indeed: tens and eventually hundreds of billions of dollars streaming into its choked economy, no limits on its backing of the Assad regime in Syria’s civil war, no linkage between the nuclear issue and its arming and training of Hezbollah in Lebanon or its public calls for Israel’s destruction, no cost for the support it gives Hamas and the Houthis of Yemen, or for its massive intervention in Iraq and decade-old efforts to turn that Arab neighbor into a Shiite-dominated satellite.
Iran wants to lead a broader “Shiite crescent” in the Arab world, to bolster its standing on its eastern frontiers, to wield influence in energy-rich central Asia, and to finally benefit from being able to bring its oil wealth to the market. None of those interests actually require the bomb, though all are helped by the sense that Iran could have the bomb.
While Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu rails against America’s apparent blindness to the Iranian regime’s tyranny, expansionism and violence, the American strategy appears to be keenly aware of those things. Indeed, it relies on convincing Khamenei that he can trade his nuclear ambitions – without permanently or entirely relinquishing them, the deal makes clear – for a more-or-less free ride on the remaining pillars of his foreign policy.
Give us the bomb itself, America essentially said, and we’ll let you have all the benefits of standing at the threshold.
If the Americans are right, if Iran abides by the deal that barters its headache-riddled nuclear project for de facto international acceptance of its regional ambitions, the problem for Israel is clear and acute.
The deal, Netanyahu has claimed, paves Iran a path to the bomb. While Netanyahu has not exactly shied away from pointing to Khamenei’s regional adventures, he framed these in the context of the nuclear issue: what would Hezbollah or Assad suddenly become under a nuclear umbrella? But how much influence can Israel wield over the international debate on the Middle East if the world comes to believe – if the Americans are correct in calculating that the Iranians will do their utmost to make the world believe – that the nuclear problem has been solved, at least for the duration of any currently serving Western government.
The Saudis have already issued thinly veiled warnings. “Iran should, with the conclusion of this accord, put her resources towards its development and amelioration of the condition of the Iranian people instead of provoking troubles which would generate certain reactions from countries in the region,” a government spokesman said in Riyadh on Tuesday.
Those “reactions” are no mystery. Beyond growing Arab hopes for an Israeli military solution, there is the nascent but accelerating Arab plan to reintroduce the nuclear problem into the region, and into the West’s calculations. In hints and unsourced news reports, the Saudis, Egyptians and others have been implying in recent months that they are drawing a clear lesson from the Iranian experience: start building a nuke, and the world will give you anything you want just to get you to stop.
Policymakers from Obama on down have cited this danger of proliferation as an argument for the nuclear deal. But the very states Obama warns might go nuclear are the ones that believe Iran will not abide by the deal — and that they cannot abide even a “threshold” Iran dominating their region. None of Iran’s regional opponents believes the international community can really enforce the deal if Iran decides to break it, and so the deal looks more like a surrender than a compromise. Absent a trustworthy and decisive international security framework, indigenous nuclearization begins to look sensible, even necessary.
With its generosity, the West has made proliferation no longer an argument for the deal, but against it.
Earlier this year, the Obama administration made the case that the nuclear talks began because Iran agreed to give up its drive toward nuclear weapons (not that Iran ever confirmed there was such a drive; it just agreed to give it up, say American officials). Critics asked for evidence that Iran’s ambitions had shifted, and accused the administration of dangerous wishful thinking when it could not produce any. The evidence is indeed scarce, but that doesn’t make the American claim mere wishful thinking. It is a description of what American negotiators believed was the initial informal strategic compromise that made the last two and a half years of negotiations possible in the first place: the nuclear option in exchange for everything else.
Tuesday’s agreement “does not purport to be a comprehensive strategy towards Iran,” notes the Public Statement on US Policy Toward the Iran Nuclear Negotiations published last month by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
And it isn’t. It is a strategy for nuclear nonproliferation, demonstrably flawed but founded on the reasonable premise that all other options also have significant downsides.
But even if it works exactly as its architects hope, Tuesday’s deal may not be able to escape the tragic irony at its root: in seeking nuclear security at any cost, it makes nuclear capability a priceless geopolitical commodity.
The deal signed Tuesday was written in Persian and English. The world may soon need more copies, equally generous, only this time in Arabic.