The interim nuclear deal struck on Sunday morning avoids outright confrontation with Iran for six months, but foreign leaders and international experts warned that the gamble over reaching a final deal could substantially raise the risk of open conflict.
Over 200 officials, lawmakers, and experts from more than 50 countries were meeting at the Halifax International Security Forum as news broke over the weekend, many suggested that President Obama’s credibility to stop Iran from going nuclear after the deadline if no final deal is reached had been badly damaged by his wavering red lines on Syria.
The deal, which would see Iran freeze large parts of its nuclear program in exchange for modest sanctions relief, gives negotiators from Iran, the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia, and Germany six months to work out a comprehensive agreement that would prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
World leaders at the forum were cautiously optimistic about the new deal, but several warned that the new six month deadline for a final deal carried a huge downside risk. If there’s no final deal, the prospects of war will rise and a weakened Obama administration will be less able to prevent it.
“My worry is not over the next six months,” said Dov Zakheim, former undersecretary of Defense in the Bush administration. “The problem to me is that the president has once again laid out another red line and his track record with red lines is ambiguous. The red line this time is the six months.”
“What happens if nothing more is achieved after the six month period or Iran cheats and nobody does anything about it? If either of those things happen, I believe the Israelis will attack,” he said.
Obama previously set a red line regarding Syria, warning that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would trigger an international response. Following the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack there that killed over 1,400 Syrians, Obama decided to launch limited military strikes against Syria and then reversed himself when Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons capabilities.
Several foreign officials said that the Syrian red line episode had eroded the Obama administration’s credibility around the world, which raises questions over promises made about Iran.
“When you draw red lines and then they are crossed and you don’t do anything about it, two things happen: Your enemies become emboldened and your allies become less sure,” said British Member of Parliament Liam Fox, a former Secretary of State for Defence. “That’s been the problem.”
Moshe Ya'alon, Israel’s Minister of Defense, said America’s actions throughout the Arab Spring, including Obama’s failure to enforce his Syria red line, have created the impression that the West is not willing or able to confront Iran and its Shiite Muslim allies, who are bent on expanding their regional influence and pursuing a nuclear capability despite any interim deal.
“According to the Sunni Arab camp, the West is in retreat… According to the Iranian perspective, the West is the Great Satan America. In this regard, the West should be defeated, according to the Iranian ideology,” he said. “Regarding the deal, they feel like there is weakness on behalf of the West which might be exploited by them to defeat the West.”
Some foreign leaders argued that the Iranians have placed their own credibility on the line alongside the P5+1 countries, creating pressure on Iran to continue negotiating toward a final deal.
“This [interim deal] is quite limited, it’s time-bounded, and it’s modest,” said MP Andrew Murrison, Britain’s Minister for International Security Strategy, “At the end of the six months, if nothing has happened, I think this will look as badly for Iran as it will for the international community which is trying to move this forward.”
Camille Grand, director of the Fondation Pour la Recherche Stratégique, said the final deal would be much tougher to achieve than the interim deal, but it was too early to say whether or not there would be a result that could avert open conflict with Iran.
“We’ve achieved a little bit by putting pressure on them and we’ve done better than was expected,” he said. “It is an interim agreement not a final agreement, which is substantive but not historic… I think it’s a very important agreement but it’s a stepping stone to something else, and that something else is not defined yet.”
The West has already made a major concession, by implicitly if not outright acknowledging Iran’s right to enrich uranium, said Grand. The administration maintains it has not recognized Iran’s right to enrich uranium but has said that some enrichment may be allowed as part of a final deal.
“Have [the Iranians] made the strategic decision to abandon their nuclear ambitions? I’m not sure yet,” said Grand. “At the moment we can claim a win-win situation. I’m not sure that will be feasible six months from now.”
Critics of the deal point out that it does not address Iran’s missile or weapons programs, which can proceed unabated while nuclear negotiations continue.
“As much as we all hope we can stop Iran’s progress toward WMD peacefully, I think we have to worry that what we are doing is freezing some capacity while other development goes on,” said Kurt Volker, the head of the McCain Institute in Washington, DC.
Overall, if Iran’s intention to pursue a nuclear weapon has not changed, nothing in the current deal will ultimately stop Iran from achieving that goal, said Hussain Haqqani, former Pakistani Ambassador to Washington.
“Based on what happened in the case of India and Pakistan, if a nation is determined enough to get weapons of mass destruction, it does. So the question is, is this deal enough of an incentive for everybody in Iran including the hardliners to give up their nuclear intentions?” he said. “The baby has been born. Now we have to see how it turns out when it grows up.”