Big Fuss Over a Small Deal

Critics of the agreement with the rogue state worry it may be the start of a beautiful friendship. It isn’t

By Fareed Zakaria

The opposition to the new agreement on Iran’s nuclear program has been predictable but still puzzling. Here’s what would have happened had there been no deal: Iran would have continued to build up its nuclear program, with no constraints or inspections.

We don’t have to imagine that scenario; it’s happened before. In 2003, Iran approached the U.S. with an offer to talk about its nuclear program, among other issues. The Bush Administration rebuffed Tehran because it believed that the Iranian regime was weak, had been battered by sanctions and would either capitulate or collapse if Washington just stayed tough.

So there was no deal. What was the result? In 2003, Iran had 160 centrifuges installed; it now has about 19,000.

It’s true that Iran today is under tough sanctions, but it was under wide-ranging sanctions then as well. In addition, its nuclear program faced constant sabotage by Israeli and Western intelligence agencies. And yet the number of centrifuges grew exponentially.

The fact is that over the past decade, Iran has developed serious technical know-how in nuclear energy, with thousands of scientists and experts. And for an oil-rich country, the costs of a nuclear program are relatively modest. Iran’s annual oil revenue, even under sanctions, is about $69 billion, according to an estimate from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The Geneva accord provides an opportunity to test Iran’s intentions, one that had to be taken. China and Russia had signed on to the U.N. sanctions as a means of getting Iran to negotiate seriously, but once Iran was doing so, they would not continue to support punitive sanctions against it in perpetuity.

Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu announced his opposition to the deal instantly. And yet nothing his government has done in a decade has stalled any part of Iran’s program, whereas the Geneva deal freezes most of it and actually reverses one key element—the stockpile of near 20% uranium, which Tehran has committed to diluting or converting in a manner that prevents enrichment to the 90% level required for a nuclear bomb.

Netanyahu’s approach seems to be a reprise of the Bush approach. He assumes that Iran is headed for collapse or capitulation, despite no evidence of either. (Remember, the Islamic Republic withstood eight years of bloody war with Iraq without surrendering.) Or else he believes that a military strike would set back Iran’s nuclear program for long enough, and then there would be a regime change. This is wishful thinking, not strategy.

The concerns of the Gulf states—Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in particular—are not as clearly articulated, but they are also deeply felt. Yet, again, it’s unclear how not doing this deal would address their security concerns.

So what explains the fevered rhetoric and opposition? I think the fear is less of this deal than of what it might bring in its wake. Many imagine that this is the start of a rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran, which would fundamentally change the geopolitical landscape. It could place the U.S. on the side of the Shi‘ite powers, Iran and Iraq, in the growing sectarian divide in the region. It could alter the balance of power in the world of oil—Iran’s reserves are second only to Saudi Arabia’s in the region.

Iran’s foes should relax. This is an important agreement, but it is an interim deal on Iran’s nuclear program. It is not even a final deal, which will be much harder to achieve. And it is not the dawn of a historic new alliance. Washington remains staunchly opposed to Iran on many issues, from Tehran’s antagonism toward Israel to its support for Hizballah to its funding of Iraqi militias. The Islamic Republic, for its part, remains devoted to a certain level of anti-Americanism as a founding principle of its existence. The two countries are still fundamentally at odds.

In 1972, Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong, spurred by powerful geopolitical forces, made a massive break with the past and ushered in a new era. The Iran deal does not have that feeling to it. It is more like an arms-control treaty between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, in which two wary adversaries are finding some common ground.

But the fear that even this interim deal arouses shows that many countries in the region have also gotten used to having Iran as a permanent enemy against which they can rail, focusing domestic attention, deepening ideological and sectarian divides and garnering support. Iran has become an organizing device for many in the Middle East.

Iran’s exit from the modern world in 1979 was so dramatic and complete that it’s hard for it to find a way back. Perhaps one day it will come in from the cold. For now, however, this is not a seismic shift, just a step. But a step forward.

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