Matt McDaniel

9 minute read

Secretary of State John F. Kerry, former Senator from Massachusetts and Democratic nominee for President, released, along with the State Department and his Iranian counterpart, a “framework” for the scaling back of both Iran’s nuclear ambitions and crippling Western sanctions.

At the outset, the deal looks impressive. Even from a wary perspective, if Iran were to honor the deal (and if the United States were to maintain the vigilance necessary to be sure of the same), it is a major breakthrough in an impasse several decades in the making. If, in twenty or fifty years, we can look back and commend Secretary Kerry and the President for walking the United States back from a policy of brinksmanship with Persia, then Secretary Kerry deserves a Nobel Peace Prize.

Taking off the rose-colored glasses

With that initial praise put forward, it’s time to take off the rose-colored glasses. First, and most importantly, the discussions and negotiations are continuing. A framework is nothing if the building is never built. If, in twenty or fifty years, all we have is a framework, it will stand as a hollow and bleak testament to failure. It is a skeleton without substance. It is critical that the United States make all necessary diplomatic and administrative efforts to put this deal into place.

Regarding Congressional Republicans

This leads to the second issue. The Republicans in Congress, but most importantly in the Senate, are going to oppose the deal. The framework “kicks the can” of Iranian nuclear arms down the road for about a decade. To Republicans, and to most people who look at their children’s future, this is unacceptable.

To my libertarian friends who are quick to point out: but the United States and the West have bases surrounding Iran and that the Iranian quest for the bomb is a logical consequence of Israel having atomic weapons, I say: you’re absolutely right. Despite the truth of your statements, it’s obviously not in the interest of the United States to see a nuclear-armed Iran. The evidence for this is on display in the regional sectarian conflict in Yemen. Iranian-backed Shiite militias are fighting against an Arab-Sunni coalition. Iran with nuclear weapons would require either Saudi Arabia or Egypt to also acquire the same devices. The Saudi connection with Pakistan makes this “arms race” a likely outcome. This is in addition to the fact that Israel, an atomic power, has made no overt statement that it would not use nuclear weapons in a first-strike capacity (they have claimed that they would not use such weapons first, but this is accompanied by the “existential threat” argument. Given the size of Israel, the “existential threat” logic would lead to them being considered a first strike power).

While it is logical that Iran would want nuclear weapons,  the Iranians continue to fund non-traditional or terrorist warfare around the Middle East, and therefore, it is illogical to allow them to generate fissile material. Certainly the United States does not have clean hands in the history of Iran. Likewise, the United States is also complicit in the installation and preservation of friendly governments (and the overthrow or deposition of unfriendly governments). However, it does not stand to draw a rationalistic equivalency between the policies of Iran and the United States. While some rhetoric on the right and left plays to the contrary, the United States’ political system prevents mass murder based on ideology. A theocracy like Iran’s should not achieve the ability to wantonly destroy. It follows that Saudi Arabia, also, should not have nuclear weapons.

But what of Israel (you may say). It is impossible to un-ring the bell of Israeli atomic weapons. While it certainly may serve as a deterrent to aggression from its neighbors, it does stand as a destabilizing factor.

But back to the Republicans. Politically speaking, a significant win for the President on Iran would be met with hostility during an election year. Whether or not you think this is appropriate really doesn’t matter. The fact is, 47 Republican Senators wrote to the government in Tehran to tell them that a Republican President could take away anything done by Obama.

On one hand, this was a sleight on the President and made it more difficult to negotiate in good faith. In essence, it made it many times more likely that Iran would refuse to honor the deal and just bask in the glow of reduced sanctions. On the other hand, it allowed the President more negotiating power. For instance: I would love to give you more, but there’s no way this would clear the Senate, I need a deal that I can actually work with. While the former is far more likely than the latter, it’s an interesting development that most of the media has glossed over in its coverage of Senator Cotton’s cosigned missive.

But can Iran be trusted?

The third issue with the deal arises from the lack of trustworthiness of Iran. While Iran has cause to doubt the sincerity of the United States (see: Gaddafi giving up his weapons then being deposed a few years later), Iran remains a major opponent of America’s allies in the Middle East. While we, rightly, find Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women and gays to be reprehensible and met with justifiable scorn, America has made a lasting strategic partnership with the Kingdom since its founding. While you could advocate a policy of detachment, the reality is that American influence on the Kingdom provides a degree of moderation (as well as a begrudging acceptance of Israel).

The global decline in oil prices has allowed the United States a freer hand in its dealings with Saudi Arabia. However, in what appears to be a strategic miscalculation, the Administration has begun to pump all of its diplomatic mandate into Iran rather than a broad Middle Eastern plan. This has led to the rapid and public decay of the top-level bonds between the United States and Israel as well as the bonds between America and Egypt and the Saudis. If your response to this is: good, we shouldn’t be picking sides in the Middle East, it’s important to consider that maintaining bridges is just as important as building new ones. We need to avoid, in the process of broadening our diplomatic prowess abroad, that we simultaneously reduce our standing with our allies.

There’s a practical reason for that point: we don’t want the Saudis or Israel to do something that starts a chain reaction. At the moment, the Sunni Arab coalition is focused on Iran as the preeminent threat in the region. This neatly fits with a pivot away from the destruction of Israel. However, the concerning developments in Libya and Yemen have seen the Arab-Sunni nations take up wars and raids without the blessing of the United States. While you may say that this is a good thing because these nations should be allowed to be self-deterministic, it stands to reason that if there is no moderating force, an intra-Islamic war could break out across the Middle East and North Africa. Again, some might reason that this is a necessary precursor to much-needed Islamic reforms. While this view has some weight, to sit by and watch rampant destruction seems callous (especially when it could have been avoided).

The greater geopolitical game

The final reason why removal of the rose-colored glasses reveals a concerning landscape rests in the ambitions of Russia and China. The power of the world since the early 1990s has been relatively unipolar. The United States, for good or for ill, has dictated the direction of societies across the globe. However, the rise of China as an economic power and the resurgence of Russia as a belligerent power threaten to check American power projection abroad.

While China has a myriad of internal problems that will require massive reforms in order to stay on the cutting edge of economic development, it has already made major forays into the Middle East and developing nations in Africa. Russia, the convenient friend of Tehran (perhaps just to spite the United States), though occupied with its own ambitions along the Baltic Sea, can capitalize on an Iran with lessened sanctions.

Conclusion

To conclude, the deal with Iran could lead to a surge in American support within the Islamic Republic that leads to a bloodless coup. It could usher in an age of cooperation and prosperity unknown in Iran since before the Islamic Revolution. It could also lead to an economically resurgent Iran with nuclear weapons pumping money to terrorists across the globe and an all-out war with the Arab-Sunni states.

But that’s not a good enough conclusion

It seems unreasonable to conclude without suggestions. Criticism and playing both sides is easy when you sit behind a computer.

The Administration has made its goal patently clear: a deal with Iran no matter what. There will be no Reagan-esque walking away from the table. Rather, Obama needs a foreign policy win and the only place to do it is in Tehran.

Knowing this, and knowing the deal that’s currently in place, the Administration needs to avoid the “peace for our time” criticism. The President attempted to assuage these concerns by making it clear that the United States would do all it could to oversee that the reductions in Iran’s nuclear weapons capability were carried out as proposed. However, the deal really has no teeth.

To explain: if Iran fails to keep its end of the bargain, sanctions are reinstated. However, during the time sanctions were off, Iran benefited. Consequently, there is no punishment rather than the status-quo-ante. Obviously, Iran should take that kind of deal. They can either accept its terms and work within the parameters, or just decide to do what they want until they get caught. When they get caught, the same penalties they’ve already experienced take effect and they get to cry foul.

What should be done is to insert a powerful deterrent into the agreement. A side bargain should be struck with China and/or Russia to enforce the deal. While there would likely be some American concessions to both to get the deal, removing Iran as a future proxy of either power is a good investment. If Tehran could no longer count on Moscow or Beijing to support intransigence, Iran would be more likely to keep its end of the bargain. This would also have the added benefit of contributing to Iran’s self-determinism.

The Real Conclusion

To wrap up, the deal with Iran could be a boon to the world. It could also be a catastrophe in a decade. Shrewd deal-making is necessary in this delicate situation. It remains hazy whether such powers are possessed by the current negotiating team who seem more concerned with winning a Nobel Peace Prize than securing the future.