Across the international community there is relief that the long ordeal with Iran and it’s nuclear program has finally yielded a deal to reduce tensions in the region. It is a very good deal.
Though you might not know it by reading the American media, the deal has significant support in the Israeli security community and will give us a lot of information about Iran’s program we otherwise had no access too. Last year hardliner Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said Iran was a year from having the bomb – now he claims this deal means Iran will have the bomb in ten years. By his own account, the soonest Iran could get a nuclear weapon has been pushed back a decade!
Moreover, the opposition is built on a premise which: a) essentially dismisses the idea of any deal, even if they claim they want a “better” deal; and b) is almost absurd on it’s face. That premise is that Iran has the elimination of Israel as a real policy goal, and would risk the destruction of the Islamic Republic to do so. After all, Israel has hundreds of nuclear weapons, at best Iran could develop a handful.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has a 36 year track record. It supports terrorist groups, opposes Israel, and uses heated rhetoric, but the Iranians have been utterly pragmatic and rational in pursuit of their interests. They support Hezbollah in part to assure Israel doesn’t attack them – they want Israel to know they can counter punch. The idea they are crazy or suicidal is denied by a track record lasting over three decades. Iran does want to have the status of being a respected regional power. Take away that premise of the Iranians being crazy or suicidal, and the deal is very impressive.
Iran started actively playing cat and mouse with the US on its nuclear research around the time President Bush put them in the camp of the “axis of evil.” In those heady days, the Bush White House believed that once Iraq was converted to a US ally, the US could undermine the Iranian regime and perhaps invade. Things didn’t go as planned!
Iran’s policy was quite rational. They wanted to assure the US didn’t invade or attack their infrastructure, so they supported Iraqi Shi’ites, who always had more in common with the Iranians than the Americans. The posturing on nuclear energy allowed them to stoke up their population with anti-American nationalism, helping undercut the always present and relatively strong reform movement. They paid no cost and as the US got bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, they realized American threats were impotent.
The one possible way to pressure Iran was international sanctions. But President Bush’s unpopularity at home and abroad made building a truly effective international sanctions regime impossible. So Iran continued to play the game, reaping domestic benefits and paying no cost. Moreover, pursuit of nuclear energy did make sense for them to maximize oil profits and produce cheap energy.
Enter Barack Obama. Respected by leaders across the world, Obama was able to build the kind of sanctions regime that actually could hurt Iran, even bringing China and Russia into the fold. Suddenly, the cat and mouse game was turning against the interests of the Iranians. By 2014 they were facing economic collapse, and the Iranian public wanted this long term crisis to end. That helped elect a reform minded candidate to the Presidency in 2013.
The CIA has always doubted that Iran really wants nuclear weapons. The game was in their interests, but a regional arms race would not be. Here the opponents of the deal say we should have kept up the pressure until Iran DID collapse, and then somehow engineer regime change. There are two problems with that: a) an Iran in collapse would suddenly become much more dangerous, like a wounded animal; and b) countries like China, Russia and many in the EU feared Iranian economic collapse more than a deal. The sanctions regime would have fallen apart if the US was seen as standing in the way of a reasonable deal.
The timing was perfect; Iran was forced to the negotiating table, they accepted a deal that would have been anathema to them before. In exchange the sanctions regime was lifted, and their economy rejuvenated.
If the deal’s opponents had prevailed and the US maintained sanctions and opposition to the agreement, that would only isolate the US from the rest of the world. We learned a decade ago that in an era of globalization we need our allies. Some say the US could threaten companies to try to force multinational corporations not to do business with Iran. Some think we could pass a law punishing foreign companies who work with Iran and do business with the US. No way could something like that be passed, and even if it could it would risk a trade war. So the US gains nothing, and in fact loses influence in how the deal is enforced if it were to not go along with it (and that remains true should a Republican win the White House in 2016).
Now the key is to do everything possible to make sure the agreement is followed, and do nothing to undermine the reform efforts in Iran. Don’t expect an “Iranian spring” against the regime; rather, the government will do as its done in the past, moderate its policies and avoid getting the public too angry – again, very pragmatic. It would also be wrong to give more support to the reform movement; they don’t want it. That would be used against them as they’d be painted as an American proxy. The Iranians have to reform on their own. Indeed, that’s what hardline opponents of the deal in Iran fear the most.
This successful diplomacy should be a step towards more effective regional opposition to ISIS, a path to stability in Iraq, and to start to undo the damage done in the first decade of this century. It should be celebrated – not as a panacea bringing peace to the region, but as one step in the direction of improving things. As one person used to remind me: small steps! This is an important one.