The Obama administration sent the Iran Nuclear Deal to Congress on Sunday, and on Monday the 60-day clock starts ticking for a largely hostile Capitol Hill to review all the elements, unclassified and classified. The big question, of course, is whether and how the Iranians can be kept from cheating.
The administration has gone to great lengths to ensure there are all sorts of technical bells and whistles. But President Barack Obama can’t use the most obvious and compelling argument in his arsenal. Simply put, this is one terrific agreement for Tehran. And Iran is likely to have no interest in violating it. Here’s why.
Money for Nothing: It’s the cruelest of ironies that Iran is reaping huge rewards for giving up something it wasn’t supposed to be doing in the first place. Iran has accepted constraints on a nuclear program that over the past 10 years illegally and illicitly produced fissile material for a possible nuclear weapon and engaged at secret sites in what the IAEA has described as possible military dimensions of a nuclear program. In exchange for accepting constraints on this nuclear enterprise, Iran will receive billions in unfrozen oil revenues, begin to ramp up oil production and over time attract foreign investment likely to attract billions more.
Legitimacy for its Nuclear Program: Having stood in violation of at least six UN Security Council resolutions over the past decade, it’s a testament to the skills of Iranian negotiators that the agreement they produced wasn’t about ending the Iranian nuclear program but restricting it. And these restrictions aren’t permanent.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the document just sent to Congress is called, is an arms control accord, not a disarmament agreement. The time limits set in the accord suggest the action plan may be comprehensive but not the final result. Indeed, Iran managed to not only to get the international community to acquiesce in its right to enrich uranium and to leave it over time with a significantly large nuclear infrastructure, but to phase out many of the accord’s most restrictive provisions by year 10 or 15.
The painful and inconvenient truth is that even before the agreement Iran was a nuclear weapons threshold state. The agreement will not change that reality. And it will leave Iran with a sufficiently large nuclear foundation to give it the capacity to pursue nuclear weapons down the road should it choose to do so.
Consolidating the Revolution: The President himself is sober enough not to claim that an arms control agreement is going to change the nature of an ideological and hardline state or alter its behavior in the region. And it’s just as well.
The Iranian leadership’s primary goal in this accord was to get rid of sanctions, alleviate public suffering and distress and manage popular expectations in order to preserve the 1979 revolution, not to undermine it. That revolution has changed in past decades as a younger generation of Iranians lose touch with its highly militant and fervent character. And the mullahs certainly understand that to retain control, they need at a minimum to offer economic relief and some hope of change.
But despite the economic benefits it will bring, this accord isn’t going to liberalize, but to conserve and preserve the power of the mullahcracy. And looking at examples of authoritarian states that have opened up economically but retained tight control—China, Russia, Vietnam, and perhaps Cuba—that’s what’s likely to happen.
Driving its Adversaries Crazy: It’s also hugely ironic that the opening to Iran—the former outlier—has caused enormous upset in America’s relationships with its two closest Middle East allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia. The more Israel expresses its concern about the deal, the more the mullahs can market it as a victory. Tehran may also hope that this arrangement will shake Saudi and Israeli confidence in Washington. Both are likely to receive a great deal of U.S. security assistance as Washington tries to reassure them. But none of it will alleviate the fear that Iran’s influence in the region is growing, and within a decade it may well be able to expand its nuclear infrastructure should it choose to do so.
The Iran deal has ushered in a new phase in the regional balance of power that doesn’t necessarily portend closer ties between the U.S. and Iran. But it does raise serious serious doubts about US credibility and reliability in the minds of America’s traditional friends. Unless the U.S. moves to counter Iran’s influence in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, or unless Iran moderates its policies in these places (neither of which appears likely), the rift with the Israelis and Saudis might grow.
Once the agreement is actually implemented, probably early next year, Iran may well try to test the effectiveness of the inspections and monitoring regime with minor infractions. But there really is no reason to jeopardize Iran’s gains with big-time violations. The mullahs got a good deal. And they know it.