The Iran Deal Is Good–for the Mullahs
"Barack Obama wanted to avoid being the U.S. president who presides over Iran getting the bomb. Iran wanted sanctions relief and validation of its nuclear program. Both sides made concessions, and a crisis appears to have been averted, at least in the short term. But what we know now suggests that the mullahs got the better end of the deal" writes Aaron David Miller.
The agreement over Iran’s nuclear program will be neither the historic catastrophe its detractors argue nor the transformative breakthrough advocates suggest. And the supreme leader’s comments Thursday that there is still much to be worked out underscores that the deal is far from done.
Think of it as a more focused quid pro quo. Barack Obama wanted to avoid being the U.S. president who presides over Iran getting the bomb. Iran wanted sanctions relief and validation of its nuclear program. Both sides made concessions, and a crisis appears to have been averted, at least in the short term. But what we know now suggests that the mullahs got the better end of the deal. Consider:
It may well be, given the constraints of the possible, that the U.S. never could have achieved what it initially wanted: no enrichment; centrifuges dismantled; nuclear facilities shuttered; Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium shipped abroad; full disclosure on the military dimensions of Iran’s program. But a deal-hungry Washington shifted goals. The U.S. went from seeking to dismantle a putative nuclear weapons program to trying to impose limitations on one. Score one for the mullahs. By the time a final agreement is reached, Iran’s right to enrich uranium and its nuclear infrastructure may be validated in a U.N. Security Council resolution. That would be another win for the mullahs.
Is time on the mullahs’ side? Nobody can predict the future. It is possible that, over time, sanctions relief, integration into the international community, and rising public expectations will force changes in the Iranian regime’s behavior. But the mullahs have been around since 1979, and they take a longer view of things than Washington, where time tends to be measured in four- and eight-year increments. Will the U.S. and the international community bring the same focus to verification and enforcement in five or 10 years? Great powers have many responsibilities and are easily distracted. Iran’s regime is single-minded: political survival in a turbulent region. As we’ve seen with North Korea, agreements can come and go, while issues relating to insecurity, vulnerability, threat perception, and power ambitions remain. Maintaining the nuclear hedge will continue to be part of that calculation.
Had the Obama administration made Iran’s behavior at home or in the region part of the negotiations, no framework agreement would have been reached. But in compartmentalizing, Washington has all but confirmed Iran as the key broker in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. I’velong argued that one of the reasons the Obama administration has not been more aggressive militarily against the Assad regime is that the U.S. feared becoming embroiled in a proxy war in Syria—possibly involving killing Iranian Revolutionary Guard units—that would have undermined the nuclear negotiations with Iran. In Iraq, the implicit U.S. cooperation with Tehran against Islamic State has helped expand Iran’s influence. There is no indication that Washington will want to aggressively counter Iran in the region during the early phase of implementation of a final agreement. On the contrary, the logic is that engagement will, over time, produce changes in the regime so it’s best to give the reformists and moderates a chance to expand their influence.
Whatever its intentions, the administration has created the impression that it is pursuing an Iran-centric policy in the Middle East. It is remarkable that even while Iran imprisons U.S. citizens and tortures and executes its own people, Washington’s tensions aren’t with Tehran but with Israel. In many ways, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has overplayed his hand on the Iran issue. Still, it’s stunning that the president of the United States is protesting Mr. Netanyahu’s terrible statements about Israeli Arabs and not blasting Tehran for its human rights abuses. Saudi Arabia may have publicly welcomed the putative Iranian nuclear deal. But the kingdom is increasingly worried by the emerging U.S. relationship with Iran and by Iran’s exploitation of Yemen’s internal conflict to increase Tehran’s reach in Saudi Arabia’s back yard. Both the Israelis and the Saudis are thinking about the long term and the fact that sanctions relief will add to Iran’s coffers without forcing it to abandon a nuclear weapons hedge.
Bottom line: This round goes to the mullahs.
The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.
This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal.
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Middle East Program
The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Read more