As the powers negotiated in Geneva, and as the Israelis and Saudis hissed warnings from the sidelines, flame wars burst out among the chatterati over the nuclear agreement with Iran. Some on our Twitter feed say that the interim nuclear deal with Iran is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Others think it’s the biggest act of appeasement since Hitler snatched the Sudetenland from the palsied hands of Chamberlain and Daladier. Appeaser! Warmonger! The epithets are flying through the ether, and the Great Iran Bunfight is on.
Here at VM, color us unimpressed, both by the agreement and by much of the commentary around it. On the one hand, while we don’t rule out a miracle, the chances are stacked against the interim deal producing a final settlement of the Iran nuclear issue. The White House would greatly prefer that nobody think about this for a while, but nuclear deals with countries whose leaders actually want nuclear weapons tend to flop. American negotiators have a long and virtually unbroken record in such cases of bringing home carefully worded agreements, hammered out in difficult meetings—that somehow don’t stop the onward march of nukes.
North Korea’s road to the bomb was and still is paved with interim agreements and negotiating breakthroughs. None of those deals stopped the Norks’ progress toward a small family of bombs, though various American administrations and Secretaries of State were able to bask in the glow (of the agreements, not of the bombs) and get a few friendly headlines. For that matter, American Presidents in days of yore thought that they had reached understandings with Israel and Pakistan. They were wrong.
Given that history, our first instinct isn’t to break out the champagne when we hear of a nuclear deal with Iran. But we’re also less than convinced by some of the expert analyses that various commentators have produced to show why the deal is or isn’t a good one. The internet today is packed with arm chair disarmament ‘experts’ who’ve never visited a nuclear power plant much less a bomb factory and they are ready, willing and, sort of, able to provide instant responses to a deal most of them know very little about.
Having visited a nuclear power plant back in our freshman days at Pundit High and having read a great many newspaper articles on the subject in subsequent years, we are by internet standards a formidable expert on all matters nuclear. But even so we hesitate to pronounce on the effectiveness of the constraints on Iran’s nuclear activities outlined in the interim agreement. Despite Mr. Snowden’s best efforts from Moscow, we don’t know what the world’s leading intelligence agencies think about the Iranian nuclear program, how the fine print in this agreement will affect the decisive elements of the Iranian program, and how confident the real experts are that Iran’s compliance can be monitored. We also don’t know what the intentions of Iran’s Supreme Leader and Guide are, and so we are going to have to wait and see what’s going on.
Think of us as skeptical but not close-minded as we wait for more light. It remains the case that we vastly prefer a real agreement with Iran to any of the available alternatives, but we are far from certain that a real understanding has been reached.
The agitated controversy over the fine print in the interim agreement is to some degree a red herring. The fate of this deal (like all deals) and of U.S.-Iran relations more generally is tied less to the specific language of the agreement than to the political intentions of the various parties of the accord and to the broader context of their relationship. And this is where the hard questions appear. If we aren’t sure yet about the specific structure and content of the nuke deal, there is much about the context of the deal that gives us pause. Iran looks more like a country on a roll than a country backed into a corner; while sanctions have undoubtedly put severe pressure on the economy, nothing has stopped Iran’s effective promotion of its clients in Syria and Lebanon, and arguably in Iraq as well.
Increasingly as we look around the world we see key actors, both allies and adversaries of the United States, beginning to act as if the United States is losing the interest and the capacity to act in their regions. Worse, we see signs that, with the noblest of intentions, the Obama Administration is in a kind of headlong retreat from the kind of global engagement that, in our view, offers the best hope for peace.
A group of countries is beginning to mount what is developing into an organized campaign against the present world order, and especially against the controlling position the United States has had in Eurasia since the end of the Cold War. China is pushing against the territorial status quo from the mountain passes of Andhra Pradesh to the rocky islets of the East and South China seas. Russia pursues the dream of a Eurasian Union that would revive Moscow’s control across former Soviet territory. Iran seeks to remake the Middle East in its image.
There are reasonable reasons why these countries have the ambitions they do. China feels itself to be a rising power and does not see why it should be bound by treaties written and boundaries drawn by colonial powers now vanished from the scene. Russia is not only nostalgic for lost power but faces a genuine dilemma. There are two great modern projects in Europe: NATO and the European Union. Russia has been excluded from both. The West offers Russia no path to a future; it can hardly object when Russia then looks to build one on its own. For Iran, there is also nostalgia—for a time when Persian culture and power played a decisive role from the Himalayas to the Nile. Given the political incompetence of the Arabs, say the Iranians, if Islam is ever to achieve respect, it must be Iran that bears the green banner high. The Saudis are a weak petro-state with a shady past and an uncertain future; Syria and Iraq are snake pits; Egypt is as dark as it was in the days of the Pharaohs. Only the Turks can hope to rival Iran, and the Turks, say the Iranians, are not what they were.
These ideas are not altogether foolish or malign, and the United States should think carefully about where and how the ambitions of eager powers can be accommodated, but the revisionist goals of China, Russia and Iran cannot be realized in anything like their full form without overturning the post-Cold War order of the world. This is exactly what the revisionist powers hope to do.
After many years of failure and frustration, two of the revisionist powers have enjoyed unexpected success in 2013. (China is still pushing, most recently with the new air defense restrictions over the East China Sea, but so far it has, presumably to its frustration, had less success than the others at changing realities along its frontiers.)
Iran has been on a roll this year; even as the Sunni world broke up into angry rival blocs, Iran’s client Assad (with a major assist from Russia) has reversed the tide of civil war in Syria and now looks like a survivor. With President Obama’s threats of regime change and airstrikes converted into hesitant mumbles, a Russo-Iranian client has won the most significant diplomatic victory over the United States in decades.
Russia is also pressing ahead. Mr. Snowden’s dowry of intelligence information was a godsend not only to Russian operatives but for the renovated Russian propaganda machine. (Nuclear weapons, intelligence services and the ability to spread anti-American memes through the press are among Russia’s surviving legacies from the Soviet era; President Putin makes the most of what he’s got.) Last week it achieved a major victory in its Eurasian campaign; for now at least Ukraine will not sign an Association Agreement with the European Union, and Russia’s hopes to bring Ukraine into the Eurasian fold remain alive.
It may seem odd that China, in most ways the most formidable of the revisionist powers, has had so little success. The reason is simple: The United States under President Obama remains engaged in Asian geopolitics while it cares little for the ex-Soviet space and is more eager to exit the Middle East than to dampen its conflicts. Thus the United States was essentially silent during the discussion over whether Ukraine would accept European conditions in order to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union and, as is notoriously the case, the United States has done nothing about either Syria’s slide into sectarian hell or Iran’s unwavering support for the Assad regime.
This is the context, we fear, in which the Iranians and others in the region view the “interim” nuclear deal. The Obama administration is dialing back American power and ambition everywhere in the world except for East Asia, and with the Arabs and Sunnis in disarray, that creates a juicy vacuum in what Iran hopes will become its sphere of influence. President Obama’s choice to allow President Assad to sell his chemical weapons in exchange for an implicit acceptance that he will continue to rule over the ruins of Damascus tells Tehran that the President is more interested in staying out of the Middle East than in doing anything with it or to it.
Tehran may well believe, and be correct, that President Obama is at this point less interested in stopping the Iranian nuclear program than in disentangling himself from the ugliness and chaos of a region that has brought him little joy. His efforts to support democracy in Egypt cratered. His Libyan adventure is increasingly an ugly mess. The Israelis and the Saudis hate him, and the Turks are no fun. It would not be surprising if President Obama at this point has come to believe that the Middle East policy that works best is the one that risks and does least.
The President isn’t, Iranians may think, ready just yet to concede on the nuclear question, but as time goes on he is gradually coming to terms with the prospect of an Iranian bomb. Tehran sees correctly that there is little public appetite in the United States for yet another Middle Eastern war, and it watched carefully as the President’s call for the use of force against Syria over chemical WMD collapsed ignominiously into bickering and retreat. Indeed, recent polling shows that a majority of Americans are largely supportive of some kind of interim deal with Iran. Stringing these data points together, and noting how little effect Israel’s supporters have had in moving the American debate, seasoned observers in Tehran must now believe that time is on their side. By signing a temporary deal Iran can continue to consolidate its regional power, use the sanctions money to ease political pressure at home and gradually shift the Americans toward a fatalistic attitude toward what Iranian leaders must now feel is the increasingly inevitable development of an Iranian bomb.
GOP partisans are frothing with rage at what they see as lily-livered cowardice on the part of an appeasing Administration. We share some of their concerns about where the new Iran policy could lead, but it’s important to remember that both parties contributed to the current political mess. George W. Bush did not exactly give the use of force in the Middle East a good name or increase the public’s appetite for war there, and the political mood of withdrawal that helps shape President Obama’s thinking has roots in the Right as well as the Left.
Our position continues to be that a decent agreement with Iran is better than a war with Iran, and our doubts about the interim accord have less to do with its substance than with our concern that the administration’s Middle East stance may end up making war more rather than less likely. Critics of the administration’s Middle East policy would do well to look up from the fine print of the Geneva agreement and focus on the regional picture; watch this space for future posts on the regional prospects and on the politics of the revisionist alliance now looking for ways to reshape the geopolitics of Eurasia.