The Obama team’s effort to negotiate a deal with Iran that could prevent the Iranians from developing a nuclear bomb for at least a decade is now entering its critical final stage. I hope that a good, verifiable deal can be finalized, but it will not be easy. If it were, we’d have it by now. Here are the major challenges:
First, you can negotiate a simple arms control agreement with an adversary you don’t trust. We did that with the Kremlin in the Cold War. By simple, I mean with relatively few moving parts, and very clear verification procedures that do not require much goodwill from the other side - like monitoring Soviet missile sites with our own satellites. You can also negotiate a complicated arms control deal with a country that shares your values: Japan and South Korea regularly submit their nuclear facilities to international inspections.
But what is hard to implement is a complex arms control deal with an adversary you don’t trust – like Iran or North Korea. Each moving part requires some goodwill from the other side, and, because there are so many moving parts, the opportunities for cheating are manifold. It requires constant vigilance. Are the United States, Russia, China and Europe up for that for a decade?
After the Iraq invasion, we took our eye off North Korea, and it diverted nuclear fuel for a bomb. With Iran, the U.S. Energy Department is planning to put a slew of new, on-the-ground monitoring devices into every cranny of Iran’s nuclear complex, which should help. But there also has to be zero-tolerance for cheating - and a very high price if there is.
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Second, for us, this is solely an arms control agreement. For Iran, this is “an identity crisis” that it’s being asked to resolve, and it’s still not clear it can do so, says Robert Litwak of the Wilson Center and the author of “Outlier States: American Strategies to Contain, Engage, or Change Regimes.”
America’s engagement with Iran, said Litwak, is like “the Cuban missile crisis meets the Thirty Years’ War.” For us, this is a pure nuclear negotiation, but, for Iran, the nuclear issue “is a proxy for what kind of country it wants to be – an ordinary state or an Islamic revolutionary state. And this divide goes back to the origins of its revolution” in 1979. Most revolutions eventually go through some cultural rebalancing that breaks its fever and turns it toward normalcy and integration, Litwak added: “But Iran has never gone through that process. It tantalized us with reformist presidents who didn’t really hold power and when push came to shove never challenged the fundamentals of the revolutionary deep state that had the monopoly on the use of force” and control of its nuclear program.
There is a hard core in Tehran for whom nuclear weapons are not only a hedge against foreign invasion but also a deliberate thumb in the eye of the world meant to block the very integration that would open Iran to influences from America and the West – an opening they fear would dilute whatever revolutionary fervor is left in its youths, many of whom are fed up with Iran’s isolation. That is why Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was telling the truth when he recently said that he has not made up his mind about this deal. He’s having an identity crisis. He wants sanctions relief without integration. After all, if Iran is a normal state, who needs a medieval cleric to be the “supreme leader?”
The challenge for President Barack Obama is whether he can do a deal with an Iran that, as Litwak puts it, “doesn’t change character but just changes behavior.” Obama’s bet – and it is not crazy – is that if you can get the right verification procedures in place and deprive Iran from making a bomb for a decade (that alone is worth a deal, given the alternatives) then you increase the odds of Iran’s own people changing Iran’s character from within. But then so much rides on implementing a fail-proof verification regime and “snapback” sanctions if Iran cheats.
I think Obama believes that nothing has stymied U.S. Mideast policy more in the last 36 years than the U.S.-Iran cold war, and if that can be prudently eased it would equal a Nixon-to-China move that opens up a lot of possibilities. Again, that’s not crazy. It’s just not easy given the forces in Iran who have an interest in being isolated from the West.
Finally, you have the regional challenge. Iran, with about 80 million people, is simply a more powerful and dynamic state today than most of the Sunni Arab states to its west, half of which have collapsed. Iran, even if it had good intentions, almost can’t help but project its power westward given the vacuum and frailty there. When President Richard Nixon opened to China, and helped unleash its economic prowess, China was largely surrounded by strong or economically powerful states to balance it. But an Iran enriched by billions in sanctions relief would be even more powerful vis-à-vis its weak Arab neighbors.
Our Gulf Arab allies are deeply worried about this and are looking to the U.S. for both protection and more sophisticated arms. I get that. But unless we can find a way to truly ease tensions between Shiite Persians and Sunni Arabs, we will find ourselves unleashing Iran to the max while arming the Arabs to the teeth. Maintaining that balance will not be easy.
These are not reasons to reject the deal. They are reasons to finish it right.