The negotiators on both sides of the Iran nuclear talks have come too far to let a deal slip away. There’s simply too much apprehension and worry, particularly in Washington, about what happens if it does.
No one, especially President Barack Obama, wants to spend the next year-plus of his presidency consumed with the prospects of an accelerating Iranian nuclear program, a collapsing sanctions regime, and a possible Israeli military strike or an American one.
And while Iran’s Supreme Leader has hedged his bets by making tough and unrealistic demands, he’s also done more than just play along with the process. Indeed, he’s given his negotiators plenty of cover, too. After all, he no doubt sees the advantages of placing constraints on a weapon he hasn’t actually decided about developing in exchange for massive economic relief and a way to preserve the mullahcracy’s control for years to come.
By now, we’ve heard it all — the talking points, the rationalizations, the rosy scenarios and the doomsday ones. But even as the initial June 30 deadline has slipped and a new July 7 date set, we’re still likely in the end game. And we’ll know soon enough what U.S. diplomacy has wrought. The cruel irony for America is having partially defused the nuclear issue for now, it may well confront an Iran that poses an even greater threat to its interests in the region.
So, let me reduce all this to its essence. The deal is coming, veritably doomed to succeed. And that’s because at day’s end, the real threat Iran poses may flow now more from the country’s behavior in the region than from a nuclear weapon it may or may not ever choose to develop.
A good deal, a bad one, or something in between?
The initial June 30 deadline hasn’t been met. But a deal is still likely in early July or perhaps later. Nobody believed the secret U.S.-Iran talks via the Omani channel would work, but they did. And there were few who thought an interim accord could be negotiated and sustained, but it was. And still fewer believed a final framework proposed this past April — even with all its imperfections — was possible (or that the politics in Tehran and Washington would allow the negotiators to come this far). But look where we are now: on the verge of concluding a comprehensive agreement.
Is there a good deal?
Any really good deal was lost once Iran mastered the fuel cycle; the international community conceded Iran’s right to enrich uranium and the regime created a vast nuclear infrastructure. The issue for any deal now is managing and reducing risk through constraints on Iran’s enrichment, stockpile, limits on research and development, punitive measures should Iran cheat, and inspections.
But even all of this can’t, won’t, and never was intended to eliminate Iran’s nuclear weapons aspirations. The agreement will produce a slower, smaller, more easily monitored Iranian nuclear program. And this, to be sure, is a rational, logical response if the goal is to defuse an emerging crisis and to buy time. Diplomacy is always worth pursuing before turning to military action. But we should be under no illusion that this agreement will produce an end state, one in which Iran will give up its nuclear weapons aspirations.
Nuclear weapons and Iran’s identity
It’s the cruelest of ironies that the key to getting Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons aspirations may have nothing to do with anything in the agreement. Tehran’s interest in acquiring nuclear weapons potential isn’t really a technical matter. Instead, it has everything to do with the regime’s character — its regional aspirations and its own self-image as a great power.
Arguably, and paradoxically, nuclear weapons may be most useful if they’re not used. Indeed, for a highly suspicious regime — grandiose and insecure at the same time — nuclear weapons offer more than a means to intimidate Israel. They can function as a hedge against foreign pressures to undermine the regime, be a way to intimidate weaker regional states, and can send a message of defiance to the international community that Iran will not be treated as a second-class power.
This raises the real possibility that the drive to become a nuclear weapons threshold state is inextricably linked to Iran’s unique identity — its sense of entitlement and vulnerability — that has driven it toward the nuclear weapons option. If this is in fact the case, only transformation of the regime into something else — a more moderate, normal state — might allow for the possibility that Iran would give up permanently its desire to remain a nuclear weapons threshold state.
Kicking the can down the road
So, will Iran transform? Obama has argued that regardless of Iran’s behavior at home and in the region, a constrained nuclear program is worth achieving in its own right because Iran will be less dangerous. But the odds of a quick transformation are pretty small. And freed from sanctions relief and open for business, Iran will have additional resources to pursue its regional aspirations.
Nor is it likely that Iran is likely to open up at home. After all, the point of the nuclear agreement isn’t to undermine the mullahs’ control; it’s to manage public expectations through an improved economy in order to secure the revolution. More likely what we’re witnessing in this nuclear diplomacy is a transaction, not a transformation. In exchange for constraints on its nuclear program, Iran will get sanctions relief, an improved economy and a defusing of the issue that has made it an international outlier.
Ultimately, the deal would be good for the mullahs because, arguably, they’ve traded constraints on nuclear weapons they really don’t have to (or even want to) develop now for sanctions relief that will position them to continue their rise in the region and their control at home. It’s a smart play — for them.
But as I know well, the U.S. State Department mantra has been that we should not make perfect the enemy of good. On the Iran deal, the perfect was never available. The problem now is that “good” might not be either.