That Iran deal

August 23, 2015

The Iran nuclear deal is facing strong headwinds from Republicans in Congress and like-minded commentators internationally. Some Democrats have also voiced opposition. Many of the arguments point to technical “weaknesses” in the deal, such as continuing to allow Iran to enrich uranium rather than completely internationalizing its access to upgraded fuel or the notice required before IAEA inspectors can visit Iranian military bases, and so on.  Others express concern about Iran’s immediate access to billions of dollars of funds frozen by foreign banks as part of the sanctions regime. These objections seem well enough taken. But in my opinion, they miss the point of the deal entirely.

Opponents of the deal believe that Iran is determined to have a nuclear weapon. This despite Israeli and CIA intelligence reports to the effect that what Iranians actually want is the capacity to get a nuclear weapon if they need it. It’s a big difference and it makes sense: getting a nuclear weapon would instantly expose Iran to becoming a target for all other nuclear powers. As such, any high tension military or political incident could suddenly escalate to threaten Iran’s vaporization – simply because of the asymmetries involved. A nuclear Iran could no longer play the role it’s been playing since the revolution – provocateur, revisionist, challenger of the status quo, champion of Shiites everywhere, etc. What does work for Iran, however, is developing its capacity to acquire a nuclear weapon.

Look how well it’s worked already: Iran has used the threat of acquiring a nuclear capacity to break out of the sanctions imposed by the international community. Under the agreement reached in Vienna, Iran can continue to manipulate the West by raising and lowering the tensions around its compliance. Thus it can continue to work for a much different Middle East than the current Balfour Declaration/Sykes-Picot Agreement structure which so stubbornly resists any peaceful modification. Indeed, that structure is coming apart under the pressures generated ultimately by the US invasion of Iraq, the Syrian civil war, and grievances around Israeli expansionism and the Palestinian occupation. But the question of what may be next is obviously far from settled.

So how does this deal affect the real situation, as opposed to the dogmatic world of the conservative hawks? After all, Iran has not been militarily defeated: it is a sovereign state legally entitled to the room for nuclear development that other signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty also have.

There are two major alternatives. One is that the deal could allow the US to dial down its involvement in the region except for its permanent security guarantees to Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, thus enabling it to complete its “pivot” to Asia (and the upgrading of the US Navy). Or – and I think there is reason to think Tehran rather hopes for this – the deal serves to begin a slow diplomatic gavotte in which the players reverse alliances. The US lines up with Iran and the Russians to defeat ISIS militarily and end the Syrian civil war with a solution much like the one that ended the war in Lebanon: the territory is divided according to where the fighting stops, democracy becomes the rule, with some over-representation of the minorities, while the majority make the rules. (This is New York Times columnist Tom Friedman’s speculation).

If that happens, it means that Iraq might well be divided into sectarian regions, perhaps with a federal structure to preserve the formal territorial divides (Joe Biden’s insight into an equilibrium for Iraq). And the Sunnis? They may well end up in control of their own majority areas in both Iraq and Syria.

None of this will bring much peace to the wider region, owing to the persistence of feudalism in the kingdoms including Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Indeed, a ceasefire and re-organization of Syria could prefigure a revolution in those countries. Nor will a Syrian settlement necessarily offer much comfort to other countries, including Israel – except, it should be remembered, Israel and Iran were once allies under the Shah.

Although such an outcome may seem unlikely, so did the idea that the US would unilaterally destroy Iran’s major opponent in the region and install a pro-Iranian government in Iraq. Despite having seen how that played out, there remain quite a few conservatives who would like to see President Obama find an excuse to bomb Damascus. The Iranians managed to exercise some influence with the US over Iraq. Perhaps they hope to do the same over Syria.

Is there any way, then, that the US actually wins something in the Iranian nuclear deal? After all, a nuclear Iran is not a strategic threat to the US, so why should it care whether Iran develops a capacity to acquire nuclear weapons – except, of course, for a concern about stimulating a nuclear arms race in the region which has now been put off for a while.  For one thing, the nuclear deal allows the US president to claim he has disciplined Iran’s rush to nuclearization, to the vast embarrassment of the Republican hawks.  For another, it means the United States no longer has to work to block its European and other friends/allies/partners who want to expand commercial ties with Iran. There is also the point that the Iran deal, if successful, would reboot the US presence as a heavyweight global negotiator, just in time for the climate change talks in Paris at the end of this year.

Moreover, the door has suddenly opened on a possible diplomatic realignment focused on defeating Sunni jihadism –which is what it might take to solve the Syrian problem. Already that possibility has produced a new interest in stabilizing the region, by both the Russians and the Israelis, for example — which is the only remaining US goal there, now that the US has become the global leader in hydrocarbon exports – something that might cause Republicans to warm to the deal after all.

Guy Stanley

Dr. Guy Stanley is currently a research fellow in the Centre on Governance at the University of Ottawa. His background is in diplomatic history and international commerce.

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