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Why America's Allies are Stressed About the Iran Deal

Former Senator Joe Lieberman and Vance Serchuk of CNAS had an important op-ed in the Washington Post yesterday where they clearly articulated why America’s allies in the Middle East are so nervous about the prospect of a nuke deal between Washington and Tehran:

Part of the reason is that these countries worry the White House will accept a flawed agreement that ultimately will not prevent Iran’s nuclear breakout. While the Obama administration has emphasized in recent weeks that a “bad deal” with Tehran would be worse than no deal, it has failed to build a consensus — in Washington or internationally — about what a “good-enough” agreement must entail: which Iranian nuclear capabilities need to be verifiably abandoned and which safeguards put in place to instill sufficient confidence that Tehran can’t continue creeping toward the nuclear finish line.But the uneasiness of our Middle Eastern allies is also rooted in the recognition that the danger posed by the Iranian regime is about more than its illicit nuclear activities. Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is the most alarming manifestation of a much more profound strategic problem: a perceived long-standing hegemonic ambition by Iran’s rulers to dominate the Middle East.

At its essence, it seems to us, the deal being debated right now in Geneva is some form of “nukes for Syria” arrangement: Iran promises to give up certain parts of its nuclear program in return for some sanctions relief and a freer hand for its hegemonic aspirations in the greater Middle East. This deal is premised on a number of uncertainties: that Iran will honestly and verifiably forgo its nuclear weapons program, and that its regional hegemonic aspirations won’t lead the region into more conflict.

But what if Iran can win back Syria for its ally Assad and preserve its links to Hezbollah in Lebanon, but is not content? What if Tehran turns around and foments Shiite rebellions in Bahrain, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia, or steps up funding to Hamas and its more radical friends in Gaza? These are serious questions, and America’s Middle Eastern allies—Israel and the Sunni states in the Gulf—are rightly concerned that Washington is pursuing a bad deal that gives Iran too much. As Lieberman and Serchuk conclude,

For this reason, we must think carefully — and coordinate with allies — about how we can continue to contain and combat Iran’s malignant regional influence, should a nuclear agreement be reached. While sanctions relief would be at the core of such an agreement, how do we ensure that this doesn’t empower or embolden Tehran’s efforts to destabilize its neighbors?

Wise words.

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  • Anthony

    For whatever its worth, a majority of Americans support an interim deal with Iran (56% to 39%) – CNN/ORC International Poll.

  • El Gringo

    Or, alternatively, Washington could fail to reach an agreement and Iran could go on to build nukes, control Syria, and pursue hegemonic ambitions anyway.

  • Pete

    “For this reason, we must think carefully — and coordinate with allies — about how we can continue to contain and combat Iran’s malignant regional influence, should a nuclear agreement be reached.”
    Allies? What allies?

  • Bruce

    The amazing thing to me is that people believe that Iran will live up to a deal in which they allegedly give up nukes. North Korea proved their is no downside to breaking those kinds of agreements with the U.S. There is only one thing that will prevent the Iranians from developing nukes and that is Israeli bombs. However, it is possible that we/they don’t know where all the underground facilities are, so that may not even work. A bad, bad situation, but we shouldn’t make it worse by entering in to deals with liars. Let’s at least have policy based on reality. There are no good answers – only less bad answers.

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