Yesterday, President Obama announced, in concert with other world powers, that a deal had been reached with regard to the Iranian nuclear program.
First, we should be abundantly clear: Iran was always going to develop a nuclear device. It is, as the cliché goes “a question of when, not if.” The primary motivation for Iran to develop atomic or nuclear weapons stems from three major branches. The first branch comes out a deep distrust of American interventionism following the imposition of the Shah in the 1950s. This branch generally sees nuclear weapons as being a deterrent to the perception of Western meddling in Iranian affairs. From a baseline perspective, this is the most reasonable of the reasons Iran seeks to develop a nuclear weapons program.
Arab Hegemony Challenged
The second branch is a direct challenge to Arab hegemony. This conflict is as old as most of the other ethno-religious conflicts in the region and dates back thousands of years. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with terms, Iranians are primarily ethnically Persian. This is in contrast to the Saudis and Egyptians who are, largely, ethnically Arab. Bringing the conflict of culture into the 20th century, the fall of the Ottoman Empire (officially) after World War I effectively ended Turkish hegemony over the Middle East. The consequence was a decision, along with the discovery of oil, by the British (and subsequently the United States) to partner with “friendly” Arab states to maintain a degree of control over the newly lucrative regions. Following World War II (apologies for painting with a wildly oversimplified brush), the issue of Zionism (that is, the creation of a theologically Jewish state) as well as the Iranian government’s nationalistic hostility to British oil interests, led to the West imposing its will on the region in a strong way.
The Shah was imposed after the democratically elected government of Iran was overthrown and the State of Israel was carved along the Mediterranean. Both of these points have been sources of conflict in the region ever since. However, since the ouster of the Shah by the Iranian Revolution, the United States and its allies have solidly backed Arab hegemony in the Middle East. This backing of Saudi Arabia and Egypt has generally protected the State of Israel from another full-scale Arab-Israeli War and has acted against the spread of Iranian influence. Significantly, sanctions imposed on Iran have depressed the Iranian economy to a large extent and has generally prevented the spread of Persian influence beyond the support of terrorism and non-state actors.
This reality began to change with the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS/ISIL). The decay of the Iraqi government as well as the Syrian Civil War, allowed for the growth and metastasizing of Sunni extremist groups with the tacit approval of the Saudis. Note, the Saudis were fine with seeing Sunni militias overthrow the Iranian-allied Assad. However, as any watcher of geopolitics is aware, the situation in Iraq became unhinged in record time and the Iraqi central government was impotent to stem the tide of Islamic State advances. Enter Iran. Shiite militias with Iranian money and weapons have been working to defend Iraqi positions and influence the political discourse in Iraq. If Tehran is able to develop a significant nuclear weapons program, it will push out the Arab hegemony and move immediately into the void created.
The Domino Theory of Nuclear States
The third branch of reasons Iran seeks to develop a nuclear weapon are the most concerning and the ones that are the most speculative. Iran, as a theocracy, would be the only Middle Eastern Islamic state with nuclear capacity. Certainly Israel and Pakistan are nuclear powers as well, but Iran would immediately have the upper hand over Sunni Saudi Arabia and secular Egypt. As we have already seen in the Yemeni Civil War, Iranian power projection is expanding. It remains unclear to what extent a nuclear Iran would adopt a Second Strike doctrine. Because Israel is not an avowed Second Strike power, it is unlikely that the Iranians would adopt that strategy. Consequently, given the volatility of the Iranian regime, the third branch of reasons why Iran wants a nuclear weapon could be to actually make use of it in practice, or in strong-hand negotiating (see North Korea).
With these avenues to consider, we now turn to look at the deal that was struck between the United States, Russia, the European Union, and Iran. The practical effect of the negotiated deal is that Iran will slow its enrichment of uranium and the international community will lift significant (projected over $100B) sanctions.
Now, let’s refer back to the beginning of this piece: Iran was going to get a nuclear weapon regardless of sanctions. But for serious intervention by Israel or the United States, Iranian ambition would have resulted in the development of a nuclear weapon regardless of a sanctions program. In fact, using North Korea as an international case study, it is clear that a country’s ability to bargain down its sanctions is considerably more effective when it has a weapon of mass destruction. Consequently, Iran would have developed a nuclear weapon given time. The two known holds on the Iran regime’s weapon development have been sabotage and fissile material. Obviously the extent of both of these is not public knowledge. However, it is safe to assume after Stuxnet and in reading about the centrifuges Iran gets to keep online pursuant to the Iran Deal, we can safely assume that both sabotage and the rate of fissile material growth are more than what the public knows.
Arguments for the Iran Deal don’t appreciate the future Middle East Realities
Now, the question becomes: if Iran was going to get “the bomb” anyway, won’t this deal mean that Iran would be giving up its newfound economic freedoms and sanctions relief if it does? Consequently, wouldn’t Iran have gotten a nuclear weapon earlier under the sanctions model and thereby have a stronger hand in negotiating the limiting of sanctions? The answer to both of these questions is “yes, but that’s irrelevant.” Here’s the big catch on Iran: the desire of Iran, for all the talk of wiping Israel off the map and “death to America,” the goal of the regime is principally to be regional hegemon and displace the authority of the Saudis. Certainly a “stretch goal” is the elimination of Israel and the United States, but Iran knows that both Israel and the United States could kill nearly every Iranian with nuclear weapons (if either so chose). While a single Iranian nuclear device would be an existential threat to Israel (and may provoke an Israeli first strike), the first target of a nuclear Iran would be the Saudis before Israel.
We have already seen evidence of the Iranian plan in action over the course of the last year. The Houthi rebellion in Yemen and the militia presence in Iraq have been definitive statements by Iran that the power of Riyadh is faltering. Tellingly, the proxy war between the Iranians and the Arab States in Syria is a stalemate. While the Iranians have no love for the Islamic State, the Islamic State has infected the lines of Saudi and Egyptian control in the Middle East and North Africa. As a consequence, Iran can look like a regional power combating terrorism in Iraq while financing its own brand of terrorism in Syria. The point is that Israel has remained largely unscathed in the past year’s Iranian ascendency. Certainly there are intermittent rockets fired from the Palestinian Territories into Israel, but, following Israeli intervention in Gaza, beyond rhetoric, there was no active engagement between Iran and Israel. Tellingly, even when Iranian troops and commanders were killed in an Israeli bombing run in Lebanon, Tehran’s response was tepid at most. The eye of Iran is focused on the Sunni states rather than the Jewish State.
The Iranian Deal will bring an estimated USD 100-150B in economic opportunities to Iran. While the overwhelming majority of these funds will likely go towards “quality of life” improvements (see Hassan Rouhani’s campaign promises), Iranian power projection will benefit as well. An influx of just a few million dollars into Syria and Iraq may be enough to tip balances of power in favor of Iran. However, the biggest concern will be a well-funded proxy war in Yemen spilling into Saudi Arabia. With the Kingdom already feeling some financial pressure from deflated oil prices and its need to combat Sunni extremists, pressure from Tehran, if applied correctly, could be brutal on Riyadh.
So, in plain English, why is the Iran Deal so bad?
It is a strategic pivot towards changing the balance of power in the Middle East at a time of, even in terms of the Middle East, major instability. Especially with a predictable Iranian move towards Chinese markets, the Arab hegemony will diminish. The replacement will be a tripartite zone of control between the Turks in the north, the Arabs in the south, and an Iranian presence creeping in all directions.
Rightly or wrongly, the Saudis (as well as the Israelis) have seen this pivot as a threat to their stability and a crumbling of American protectionism. The reality will be that decisions made with this in mind will be far more bellicose than in the past. While a full-scale war is unlikely at this juncture, the prediction that the Saudis will pursue a nuclear program is reasonable. Beyond this, it remains unclear to what extent Egypt or Turkey will pursue nuclear weapons. In the absence of the Iran Deal, a nuclear Iran would have been contained by the United States and (though begrudgingly) Russia and China. With the Deal, the American strategic pivot, and the lessening of any Russian and Chinese obligation to defend UN sanctions, the Iranian nuclear program will be a catalyst for a more militant Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt.
There are several important questions that are left unanswered at this stage. First: will Israel attack Iran in the coming months in order to lessen Iran’s capabilities? We can be sure that the enrichment facilities at Natanz and Arak, as well as others, will be shielded from an air campaign as soon as Iran has the ability to do so. There is likely a diminishing window for an effective Israeli strike.
Second: is there a way to block the Iran Deal in Congress and is doing so a good thing? From the outset of the negotiations with Iran, the President has maintained that his Administration can enter into the Iran Deal without the consent of Congress. Clearly this rhetoric was meant to assuage the fears of international negotiating partners. When Senator Cotton and forty-seven other Republican Senators penned a letter to Iran opposing the deal, the letter had the effect of opening the discussion of the role of the Senate in Executive Agreements (I contend it also helped the President’s negotiating position because he could say “look, if we want this deal to happen, I need concessions that can make it past the Republicans”). The best prediction at this point is that the Senate will need 67 votes to stop the United States’ participation in the agreement.
This leads to the third question: if the United States refuses the agreement, does Iran win even more? This is a question that has yet to be asked by any major outlet. Here’s the premise: if the United States declines the deal, Iran will still have lessened sanctions from the UN, Russia, and China. Iran will get huge influxes of capital and then will contend that the United States was in breach of the arrangement. As a consequence, the Iranians will refuse to honor parts, or all, of the deal, and Russia and China, who will now have an economic interest in Iran, will oppose any new sanctions (note that in the deal, there is no immediate re-imposing of sanctions if Iran is found in breach). Failure to agree to the Iran Deal could actually result in a total windfall for Iran.
To conclude, the deal with Iran seems like it was rushed into by the Administration in order to secure a public relations victory rather than to secure the future. Clearly the status quo in the Middle East is not something anyone in the West should be content with. However, moving to reposition American foreign policy at a time of instability was a grave error. In the end, regardless of the ratification of the Deal, there does not appear to be an endgame where the ultimate geopolitical reality is favorable to American or international interests.