Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran, Catherine Ashton of the E.U. and Secretary of State John Kerry in Vienna,
November 2014. Photo courtesy the U.S. Embassy, Vienna, on Flickr.
Since the first public disclosures of Iran’s covert nuclear program over a decade ago, it has been official American policy to prevent the Islamic Republic from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
The historic agreement reached this week in Vienna, and touted by President Obama at an early morning news conference Tuesday, turns this crucial diplomatic objective on its head: It guarantees that after a suitable waiting or “breakout” period, Iran can have a weapon almost any time it wishes. This achieves another key diplomatic goal - but it is a goal held by officials in Tehran, not Washington or any other Western or allied capital.
The Vienna agreement, between the United States, Iran, the U.K., France, China, Russia and Germany, has the stated goal of preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The idea is that, by getting Iran to agree to dismantle part of its existing infrastructure and to submit to closer observation by outsiders, Western and allied countries can at a minimum ensure an increased “breakout” time. That is, if Iran decided to break the deal, it would need at least a year to build a bomb, rather than a few months. That’s the idea, at least, though hardly a guarantee.
The agreement is, however, full of all sorts of other guarantees. A critical one for the Iranians is that financial and military sanctions will be lifted in the near future, assuming the deal (we can’t call it a “treaty,” because the Obama administration did not want to risk rejection in the normal Senate ratification process) goes into effect. This will relieve the enormous financial pressure on Iran and will provide the country’s military-clerical complex with ample resources to pursue its agenda via the same non-nuclear methods it has always used.
Lifting that financial pressure will mean more money - guaranteed - for Yemeni rebels to create trouble on Saudi Arabia’s southern border. More money to supply arms to Hezbollah and Hamas, both of which are committed to the cartographic eradication of Israel, at least when the former is not fighting as Iran’s proxy in Syria. Speaking of proxies, there will also be more money for the Shiite militias and political parties through which Iran strived to foster sectarian government in Iraq, with the result that a large swath of the country now is in the hands of the Islamic State group.
And let us not forget, there will be more money for the Iranian intelligence agencies to do their work around the world, online and off. That work has included such humanitarian projects as the bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish center in 1994 and the staged suicide-murder this year (by still-unknown parties) of an Argentinian prosecutor who was trying to blow the cover off the episode of 20 years prior.
The list of guarantees rolls on. The Saudis are guaranteed to try to buy or build a nuclear weapon of their own, because to do otherwise would make their entire nation a nuclear hostage of the Tehran regime. And we all know how this regime loves hostages; one, a reporter for the Washington Post, was on trial in Tehran on trumped-up espionage charges even as Secretary of State John Kerry was shaking hands with Iran’s foreign minister in Vienna over their agreement. (Another guaranteed casualty: The stated American policy that we do not negotiate with hostage takers.)
Of course the Saudis always have the option of relying on the American nuclear umbrella, but after this deal with Iran, they are guaranteed to have no interest in that option. While Saudi officials did not publicly denounce the deal, their doubt is clear. An anonymous Saudi official told Reuters, “We have learned as Iran’s neighbors in the last 40 years that goodwill only led us to harvest sour grapes.”
The Israelis are guaranteed to be apoplectic, as well as desperate to prevent Iran from acquiring a weapon that could literally obliterate most of their country in a matter of minutes. Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett has said of the agreement, “it will go down as one of the darkest days in world history.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that lifting sanctions “will enable [Iran] to continue to pursue its aggression and terror.”
But since Obama prevailed upon the Israelis not to launch a pre-emptive strike when that was still militarily feasible, there may be very little the Israelis can do, other than to build up their own nuclear arsenal, which they have never even admitted possessing. Now, in the interest of deterrence, they will need to go public - adding yet another reason for the Saudis to build an arsenal of their own, since the Israelis cannot be allowed to be the only deterrent counterweight to Iran in the region. We are guaranteed to have a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, which is one of the very eventualities Obama has claimed the Iran deal would prevent.
We are also guaranteed a highly charged fight in Congress. As a result of the workaround to avoid characterizing this deal as a treaty, both houses have 60 days in which to pass legislation to block the deal. Obama can veto such legislation, and has promised to do so; that veto will then require two-thirds in each house to override. Democrats are guaranteed to face a choice between allowing Iran to keep its nuclear program, and to eventually acquire a weapon as a result, or expressing their solidarity with the current president and his would-be successor, the former secretary of state who launched secret talks with Iran behind Israel’s back in 2012.
We are further guaranteed to see that same former secretary of state try to disclaim responsibility for the outcome of those talks, at least in swing states with significant Jewish voting blocks. We’re talking about you, Florida.
In all fairness, it’s possible that history will look back at this agreement - assuming it goes into effect at all - as the first step in a process that turned a more-or-less cold war into a collaborative relationship, in which formerly hostile regimes chose to live in peace and prosperity alongside us while gradually allowing their own people greater freedom and self-determination.
That was the expectation when Nixon went to China. It was the expectation when the Iron Curtain fell and the Soviet Union broke up. It worked great. Now Russia is about as autocratic as in the late Soviet years, and it is back to sending its military into neighboring European countries, just like the old days. China is laying claim to great swaths of the western Pacific Ocean under threat of military force.
So it all might work out just fine with Iran. But on that score, there are definitely no guarantees.