The Good, Bad, and Ugly of the Iran Deal
The White House seems to think a nuke deal with Iran will change everything. Let’s hope they’re trying to fool us, and not themselves.
It’s crunch time in Lausanne for the nuclear negotiators, who are hoping to agree by Tuesday on the basic political framework for a deal that would have to be reached by June 30.
This is an important moment for the world, the United States, and the Obama administration. But it’s also important for liberalism and for American liberals in general, because I think there are right ways and wrong ways to think about this situation, and the administration to my eye is engaging in some of the wrong ones; and while liberals’ first instinct will be to support the administration against undermining stunts like that execrable Senate letter, we should be clear about what we should be for and not for.
We should hope a deal is struck. No question about that. But at the same time, we shouldn’t get too carried away with this notion that a deal might produce other positive changes. Yet Obama administration officials have been pushing exactly this idea, building up what are almost surely false hopes about how much Iran can change. In doing so, they’ve been arousing the deep suspicions of liberal democrats in the region, who now suspect that the United States wants to be Iran’s buddy and will be content to allow the Islamic Republic to become the single great regional hegemonic power. I certainly hope this isn’t true, and if it isn’t, we’d better start doing some reassuring toward that end after an agreement is reached.
First, yes, be for a deal. The alternatives are worse. At bottom there are just two: 1, let Iran have a nuclear arsenal with no international oversight at all, or 2, prevent that by bombing the place. That’s it. All this talk by Bibi Netanyahu and his, ahem, fellow Republicans of a “good deal” is diversionary gibberish. To the extent that they are in earnest, they want a reduction in the number of centrifuges (and certain other terms) that Iran would never accept. But mostly, their good deal is chimerical, and for many of them, like John Bolton, quite intentionally so. They want to bomb the place, as Bolton wrote in The New York Times Thursday. They want regime change. They don’t want a deal.
A deal with an untrustworthy partner is a dissatisfying thing, but it’s better than war, even if the war doesn’t involve the United States directly (it might officially be between Iran and Israel). And another thing it’s better than is regional nuclear proliferation—that is, if a deal with Iran really does prevent it from weaponizing, then there’s no (or at least less) motivation for Saudi Arabia to weaponize.
So all that’s fine. But now we get to the problematic part.
First, the background: The United States has been (mostly accidentally) strengthening Iran for years now—by invading Iraq, by doing it so badly, and by botching the pullout, leaving the sectarian Shia Nouri al-Maliki in charge, all of which turned Baghdad into an outpost of Tehran; by striking out at ISIS, which we had and have to do but which does by definition help Iran. People in the Middle East, of course, have taken note of this.
Against this background, those people now shudder when they see United States officials talking about how a deal will lead to all kinds of great changes, how we can bring Iran into the fraternity of civilized nations, how Iran will be transformed. They see lots of naïveté, and they might be right. Why, for example, is the time window on the proposed deal 10 years? “I’ve heard some in the administration say that 10 years from now, there’s going to be a change in leadership in Iran,” says Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution. Pollack, in case it isn’t clear, does not share that optimism.
The administration shouldn’t be thinking like this for at least two reasons. No. 1, it’s probably not how Iran is thinking about a potential deal at all. Pollock believes that for Ayatollah Khamenei, a deal is “completely transactional”—that is, he wants the sanctions lifted, and he’s willing to cut this nuclear deal to achieve that goal; but the idea that there’s anything more to it is delusional.
Genieve Abdo of the Stimson Center (and Brookings) agrees. “They want the sanctions lifted, and they want a nuclear deal,” she says. “And that’s it.” She told me that she has been present at conferences around the world where President Hassan Rouhani’s representatives, and/or staffers from Iran’s foreign ministry, have sat there singing to American and other Western officials a tune about what great changes a deal would bring to Iran. But, she contends: “Rouhani was allowed to win the election because he was tasked with getting the sanctions lifted and getting a nuclear deal. But he has no power beyond that.” Iran’s regional meddling, she notes, is run by the Revolutionary Guards Council, and Rouhani has nothing to do with it.
If Pollack and Abdo are correct, and I suspect they are, then a deal will do nothing to alter Iran’s regional behavior. It will keep its power bases in Iraq, and it will continue to prop up Assad and Hezbollah and give assistance to the Houthis in Yemen because it will remain in Iran’s interest to do those things. So for Obama officials to go around saying “game-changer” when there are really strong reasons to think it’s not risks making the administration look silly down the road when Iran’s behavior doesn’t change.
But worse, and this is No. 2, talk like that sends a really bad signal to the liberal, secular, small-d democrats in the region who should be of great concern to the United States. These folks are very critical of a U.S.-Iran deal because they fear it will create a stronger Iran (with tacit U.S. support, no less), and a stronger Iran is a nightmare for them. And it’s not so good for us and our stated goals for the world, either. “People in the region are very concerned,” Abdo says, “that the United States is going to be fooled into thinking that Iran is going to be some kind of ally.”
And so what I hope is that Obama administration officials are, well, lying. That is, I hope they’re just saying this stuff about a new and improved Iran because they think it might help build public support for a deal. That’s not very appealing, but it’s better than the other possibility, which is that they actually believe this stuff.
And if they are just saying this for public consumption, then we can hope that once a deal is consummated, they’ll switch gears and start saying what they need to say to reassure people in the region, which is: OK, this is good, we have a deal on nukes, but it doesn’t mean anything else. We’re still with the Saudis on returning President Hadi to power in Yemen. And while we’re with you in Iraq when it comes to fighting ISIS, we’re against you in that we want a pluralistic state that isn’t just an Iranian satellite, which is a point we somehow don’t seem to emphasize lately.
And most of all, we’re against you in Syria. The administration has obviously been going soft on Assad in the interest of cutting the Iran deal. But once the deal is cut, why continue that posture? “We should then be doing all we can to put pressure on Assad to go,” says Pollack. “That would be a great way to show people that we’re still in the game and that we’re not subcontracting out our foreign policy to Iran.”
So let’s hope for a deal. But let’s not get any false hopes about Iran beyond that.