After a year or so following the entry into force of the Iran nuclear deal, it is possible to draw some conclusions about the controversial agreement and arms control in general.
First, despite the Israeli government’s strong opposition to the deal and the heated debate it generated in the Republican-controlled Congress, it has become increasingly clear that there was never any real alternative to the arrangement.
With the Obama administration under pressure from Israel, the congressional Republicans could have held out for more far-reaching constraints on Iran’s nuclear bomb-making capabilities, but this step would have been strongly opposed by the other participants in the negotiations — Russia, China, Germany, France and Britain. The result would not only have been a negotiating stalemate, but the rapid erosion of the multilateral economic sanctions that brought Iran to the table in the first place. Under these circumstances, Iran would have been able to freely proceed with its development of a nuclear weapon.
The other alternative open to Washington would have been to undertake, perhaps with the assistance of Israel, a military strike against Iran’s hardened and decentralized nuclear infrastructure, an attack that would have probably required hundreds of bombing missions. In the light of today’s turmoil and conflict in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, the idea of an American-Iranian war seems almost unthinkable.
A second conclusion is that had the United States and the other major powers launched their negotiating effort a decade or so earlier, it probably would have been possible to reach a better deal with Tehran. Arms control agreements, including the famous U.S.-Soviet strategic arms accords negotiated during the Cold War, tend to ratify military facts on the ground: They reflect, but do not fundamentally alter, the prevailing balance of power. Thus the Iranian nuclear deal reflects the fact that the Tehran regime spent billions over 20 years to develop and build over 20,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium. Even with the pressure of an international sanctions regime, Iran was not prepared to destroy these centrifuges as a price for reaching agreement. But in 2003, following the American invasion of Iraq, the regime signaled to Washington that it was prepared to enter negotiations over the nuclear issue. At that time, Iran possessed only a few hundred centrifuges. Had this occurred, there was the real possibility that an accord limiting Iran to a far smaller centrifuge could be reached. In retrospect, the failure to engage earlier with Iran on the nuclear issue looks like a major blunder.
A third conclusion is that while agreements can enhance stability and predictability, they do not transform political relationships. The major achievement of the Iran nuclear deal is that for the next decade or so, we can remain confident that with adequate verification of the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA), the regime will not be able to surprise the world with the sudden deployment of a nuclear arsenal. Among other things, such a development would destabilize the region, triggering a nuclear race with other regional powers, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt. But the agreement, despite the gradual removal of sanctions, has not transformed Iran’s political position in the region or the wider international system, including the United States.
Indeed, sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia groups in the region are fueling a bigger rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the quiet hopes of some in the Obama administration that the deal would lead to a new “detente” between Tehran and Washington have not come to pass.
This conclusion also extends to the Russian-American relationship. It is frequently noted that Washington and Moscow worked closely in reaching the deal, the suggestion being that U.S.-Russian cooperation on Iran can somehow be extended to issues where real differences are at play, such as Ukraine. This appears doubtful. Both Washington and Moscow share a common interest in curbing Iranian nuclearization and heading off nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. In the case of Ukraine, both powers appear to be approaching the conflict as a zero-sum game.
Despite these conclusions, there are still some important open questions. One is the longer-term evolution of Iran itself. Will Iran, over the life of the agreement, gradually shed its revolutionary political character and evolve into a “normal” state? There are conflicting signs. On the one hand, the country’s younger, urban population clearly yearns for Western-style modernity, and this will be reinforced by the end of sanctions, greater international contacts and economic growth. On the other hand, Iran’s theocratic leadership has shown itself to be tenacious and tough in holding on to power.
A bigger question concerns the tumultuous regional environment. Iranian normalization will be harder to achieve in a region that is in the midst of violent sectarian turmoil, what Richard Haass of the Council of Foreign Relations has called a new “Thirty Years War.” If the current turmoil, including the Syrian civil war, the fragmentation of Iraq and the rise of the Islamic State, worsens and spreads, incentives for Iranian nuclearization are likely to grow. Over the longer term, this would not be in Russia’s or America’s interest. Thus, there are real reasons for Washington and Moscow and perhaps others, such as China, to engage in deep discussions on Middle East stability and security. A place to begin might be to develop a common strategy for defeating Islamic State. Iran would be an important component in such an effort.
• Richard Burt served as assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs in the Reagan administration and as chief arms control negotiator in the George H.W. Bush administration.
The US-Russia Crosstalk is a joint initiative of the Kommersant newspaper and Valdai Club in Russia and The Washington Times and Center for National Interest in the United States aimed at fostering a dialog on strategic engagement between the two countries.
Copyright © 2017 The Washington Times, LLC.