WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama is clearly right – and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is wrong – about the Iran nuclear negotiations. But the broader and more consequential question of Iran’s place in the world is much more complicated.
As I’ve written, I don’t fault Netanyahu for aggressively defending Israel’s interests as he sees them. Next week’s planned speech to Congress is House Speaker John Boehner’s fault; I don’t blame the Israeli leader for accepting an invitation that never should have been offered. But I do believe that Netanyahu’s position on Iran’s nuclear program is wildly unrealistic.
Netanyahu wants the negotiations to produce a deal that leaves Iran with no ability to enrich uranium. This is not going to happen. Iran’s leaders have indicated they will agree to limits on enrichment but not surrender what they see as the nation’s absolute right to mastery of the nuclear cycle. What Netanyahu proposes, then, is no agreement at all.
Negotiators are reportedly headed toward a deal in which Iran would keep around 6,000 relatively inefficient enrichment centrifuges, limit stockpiles of potentially fissile materials and submit all its nuclear facilities to rigorous inspection. The assessment is that, under such terms, Iran would need at least a year to make a “breakout” dash to build a nuclear weapon.
The talks may still fail. But if the United States and its negotiating allies – Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany – were to adopt the Israeli position, any chance of an accord would be gone in a heartbeat.
What would happen then? More sanctions, initially, which wouldn’t work. And then, probably, a military attack. But here is why Netanyahu’s position makes no sense: The options of tougher sanctions and military force will always be available if Iran cheats on a deal or attempts any kind of nuclear breakout.
A military strike would make Iran temporarily less able, but ultimately more determined, to build a bomb. A negotiated deal might end up being a waste of time, but also might end up being a great success. There is no good reason not to give a reasonable agreement a try.
Such a pact would, however, elicit grumbling, if not loud protests, from a number of our Arab allies, led by Saudi Arabia. They see Iran, once isolated, as having greatly expanded its power and influence over the past decade. Iran is effectively the patron of regimes in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and – with the recent coup by the Houthis – now Yemen.
This is more than a contest over status as a regional superpower. It is also a struggle between the Sunni and Shiite strains of Islam – a dynamic that has allowed the Islamic State, a Sunni jihadist insurgency, to take root at the crossroads of the Middle East and commit acts of unspeakable brutality.
Theoretically, Iran could use its influence in Baghdad and Damascus to help greatly in the fight against the Islamic State.
Iran could pressure the Iraqi government to cease its sectarian persecution of Sunni populations, which is what drove many tribal leaders into the arms of the Islamic State. And Iran might be able to use its muscle to engineer regime change in Syria, which could be a major step toward ending the bloody civil war. If all this could be accomplished, then it might really be possible to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State, as Obama has promised to do.
But if Obama is hoping Iran will play this kind of constructive role, I fear he will be disappointed. Perhaps tragically so.
The Iranian government is not completely irrational but remains a revolution-born Shiite theocracy whose primary goal is self-preservation. It has not been helpful in Iraq – Iranian pressure led Baghdad to insist on a total U.S. troop withdrawal. It supports Hezbollah in Lebanon and arms the butcher Bashar al-Assad in Syria. If it can roil the Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia, it will.
The contemplated nuclear deal would expire after 10 or 15 years, on the theory that the Iranian government could be much different – and more amenable – by then. Perhaps. I’m mindful of the half-century’s worth of predictions about the fall of the Castro regime in Cuba. Some governments change. Some don’t.
The reason to make a verifiable nuclear deal with Iran is that the alternatives – sanctions and war – are still there if the agreement breaks down. But expecting Iran to become helpful to the interests of the United States and its allies would be foolish.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is email@example.com.