Let’s Not Celebrate This Iran Deal…Yet
By AARON DAVID MILLER
November 23, 2013
We have a deal.
After years of false starts, mutual recriminations and steadily escalating pressure, Iran has finally agreed to accept real limits on its nuclear program. In his statement Saturday night announcing the agreement, U.S. President Barack Obama called it an "important first step" and declared that diplomacy had "opened up a new path toward a world that is more secure."
This is big—a potentially historic step in relations between the United States and Iran, two adversaries whose bitter rivalry has loomed over the Middle East for a generation. If this interim deal leads to a final accord that mothballs Tehran’s nuclear-weapons program and keeps it that way, it will be worth the heartburn it’s causing Israel, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. Congress, too.
But we’re still a very long way from Tipperary on this one. And we should be careful about putting on the party hats and breaking out the champagne—at least for now, anyway. And here are five reasons why.
1. A Loss of Urgency
If there’s an Obama Doctrine, it’s this: Get America out of costly wars, not into new ones, and make diplomacy the default setting, not military force.
Barack Obama is a very risk-averse president, particularly when it comes to situations where he has publicly set red lines and where force is implicitly or explicitly threatened. In these situations, he seems determined to go to considerable lengths to avoid having to make good on his own warnings. This was the case with the use of Syria’s chemical weapons and in Iran too.
Nobody really wants a war with Iran—not even Israel. And certainly not Obama. The president has three preferred nos when it comes to Iran: no Israeli military strike, no U.S. strike, and no Iranian nuke on his watch.
This trio can only be accomplished through creating a process of negotiation that prevents Israel from striking and makes it unnecessary for Washington to do so. Iran and the United States share the first two goals, and the president is determined to ensure they remain on the same pages on number three, too.
And that’s the rub. Presidents think in four- and eight-year increments; Iranians and Israelis for that matter think in longer terms. Iran should be happy that the threat of military force is receding; Israel is unhappy for the same reason. If Iran plays its cards smartly and doesn’t stick the nuclear issue in Obama’s face, Tehran hopes, the international community’s urgency in pressing ahead on sanctions will fade. Congress might hold the line, but the Russians, Chinese and many others won’t. And over time, the sanctions will diminish in effectiveness. But Iran, having mastered the process of how to make nukes, will always have this capacity and can move to operationalize it if chooses to do so.
2. Angry Allies (and Congress Too)
Where you stand in life has a great deal to do with where you sit. Israel is a small power in a dangerous neighborhood; the United States is a behemoth with non-predatory neighbors to its north and south and fish to its east and west. And while it might have been too much to expect complete unanimity in the U.S. and Israeli positions on Iran, what you have now is the making of a diplomatic trainwreck, with the United States pressing ahead with diplomacy while the Israelis snipe from the sidelines.
Unlike Lehman Brothers, the U.S.-Israeli relationship is too big to fail; but until it’s clear where this interim agreement is headed, this relationship will be rocky. The Israelis will be challenging the accord and pushing on an already open door with a equally suspicious Congress—Republicans and Democrats alike—eager to heap additional sanctions and pressure on Iran. Hope for significant progress on the Palestinian issue will fade. And the Saudis, already stewing about U.S. policies from Egypt to Syria, will likewise wonder whether the United States, distant and detached from their concerns about Iran, really understands their neighborhood.
Allies can disagree. But when America’s two longest and closest friends in the Middle East seem to have more in common with one another than with the United States, on a fundamental issue that frankly affects their security more than America’s, that’s a serious problem.
3. Iran Is Iran
The only problem with dancing with a bear, an old saying goes, is that you can never let go. Iran is a very problematic partner for the United States and is likely to remain so for a long time to come. The nuclear issue can’t be easily compartmentalized: From its support for terrorist groups abroad to its abysmal human rights record at home to its support for Syria’s blood-soaked dictator Bashar Assad, Iran is locked into a set of policies that—to put it mildly—simply don’t sell well on Capitol Hill. Even if Iran is serious on the nuclear issue, its conduct on so many other issues is so diametrically opposed to U.S. interests that its newfound cooperativeness will raise suspicions. And because there will be a need to pacify Iran’s own hardliners, nasty anti-Israeli statements of the kind the supreme leader made last week, when he described Israel as a “rabid dog,” are likely to continue. Congressional efforts to impose additional sanctions will only push the mullahs to new heights of rhetorical extremism.
4. The Tyranny of Process
No matter how imperfect, negotiators and U.S. officials get very attached to their negotiations and agreements. Those who labored to produce this interim agreement will become very invested in their handiwork and move to vigorously defend it. I’ve seen this movie and succumbed to these same sentiments several times over the years. The process –with all its historic resonance—will acquire a legitimacy and authority that will steel the administration against arguments that point out its deficiencies. Part of this flows from the conviction of those inside who know how hard it is to get anything done in negotiations; and part from the logic that you need to compare the accord not to the perfect but to the alternative: Iran’s continued effort to acquire a breakout capacity. That the four other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany blessed the agreement will give it further legitimacy and authority. All of this will give the United States a major stake in keeping the process going, even beyond the six-month deadline for reaching a comprehensive agreement. And even if Iran fudges some aspects of the deal, there will be great pressure and temptation to try to work things out even at the risk of not strictly enforcing the agreement.
5. The Problem With Interim Agreements
And that brings us to perhaps the most serious challenge of all. The recently concluded interim agreement may be problematic because it doesn’t put a brake on some of the most troubling aspects on Iran’s nuclear program, particularly limiting centrifuges and seeking ironclad assurances that Iran can’t reconvert its enriched uranium stockpile into useable material.
But what if the six-month period ends without a comprehensive accord? The logic behind a comprehernsive deal is that Iran will get hooked on a reinvigorated economy—popular pressures will grow as jobs are created, goods become available and the leadership sees the advantage of more and more sanctions relief. But reaching a sweeping agreement with Iran that puts to rest any prospect of the reconstitution of its nuclear program in exchange for removal of the toughest sanctions, on banking and oil, seems right now a fantastical proposition. There’s just too much suspicion and mistrust between the United States and Iran, not to mention Israeli and Saudi anxieties, congressional pressure, Iran’s regional policies, and its own desire to preserve as much of its costly nuclear infrastructure as possible.
A more limited transaction—say, another interim agreement to ensure the negotiating process continues—is perhaps a more realistic alternative. What negotiation ever produced a perfect agreement? Even if the negotiators saw a comprehensive accord as a desired end state, can Washington and Tehran deliver an end game where Iran gives up all of its nuclear infrastructure and the United States lifts all sanctions? More likely, the supreme leader’s goal is to get as much sanctions relief as he can while keeping as much of his nuclear program as he can, too. And given Iran’s regional policies and human rights abuses, Congress will likely not want to relax non-nuclear related sanctions.
In the end, whatever develops, we need to be honest with ourselves about what’s achievable. We need to stop deluding ourselves that negotiations will produce a final agreement that will end Iran’s aspirations for a nuclear weapons capacity. Iran has come too far in its nuclear program for the United States and Israel ever to have that kind of certainty or finality. The advocates of cutting a deal with Iran, including smart and cool heads in Israel, are right that the best you might be able to do is to put more time back on the Iranian nuclear program’s clock so that the world will have enough warning to detect and deal with an effort to break out and weaponize.
That’s not terribly comforting. But that’s what happens when the mullahs play three-dimensional chess and we play checkers.
This accord is less worrisome than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes, but not as compelling and reassuring as U.S. officials maintain. Using it to our advantage depends on keeping sanctions tight, monitoring intrusive and a credible military option on the table. Finally trying to figure out exactly what we do six months from now if no comprehensive deal materializes? That would help too.
Aaron David Miller is vice president for new initiatives and a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His forthcoming book is titled Can America Have Another Great President?