As Bibi Netanyahu’s speech to Congress and the Administration’s (supposed) announcement of the nuclear deal with Iran approach, the scope of what the West could give—and in many cases, already has given—up to Iran is becoming clear. In a hard-hitting piece in The Washington Post this Sunday, Ray Takeyh takes stock of what he deems Ayatollah Khamenei’s “strategic genius”:
With the advent of the Joint Plan of Action in November 2013, Iran’s fortunes began to change. Washington conceded to Iran’s enrichment at home and agreed that eventually that enrichment capacity could be industrialized. The marathon negotiations since have seen Iran attempt to whittle down the remaining restrictions, while the United States tries to reclaim its battered red lines. For Khamenei, the most important concession that his negotiators have won is the idea of a sunset clause. Upon the expiration of that clause, there would be no legal limits on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. If the Islamic Republic wants to construct hundreds of thousands of sophisticated centrifuges, build numerous heavy-water reactors and sprinkle its mountains with enrichment installations, the Western powers will have no recourse. And once Iran achieves that threshold nuclear status, there is no verification regime that is guaranteed to detect a sprint to a bomb. An industrial-size nuclear state has too many atomic resources, too many plants and too many scientists to be reliably restrained.
And, as Takeyh points out, once sanctions are lifted, it’s extremely unlikely that the U.S. will be able to persuade China, Russia, and the Europeans to reimpose them for violations. Furthermore, historically the U.S. has not been willing to use force to respond to infringements, particularly technical or stepwise ones, on non-proliferation agreements. The slide toward a North Korea scenario—and a major regional nuclear arms race to follow—would seem inevitable.As the outline of the Iran deal we seem about to agree to becomes clearer, more and more people, from both sides of the aisle, are voicing similar concerns. But if anything, such analyses don’t go far enough. Iran is not only benefitting from American concessions on matters of a potential, future nuclear program; U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has generally been a boon to Tehran’s strategic interests, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.Two stories out of Syria and Iraq today illustrate this point. First, one of the most important American-backed militias in Syria has dissolved itself. American help for Syria came too little, too late, and while President Obama had multiple reasons for avoiding that conflict, one of the biggest was his calculation that toppling Assad would be seen as a provocative gesture in Tehran. (As Walter Russell Mead has written, this represented a misunderstanding of the nature of leverage). Without attacking the tyrant that most Syrians (and many of their neighbors) see as the true enemy, the U.S. was bound to lose sway in that shattered country. A letter, leaked in November, from POTUS to the Supreme Leader of Iran, confirmed explicitly that the President was staying his hand as an offering to Assad’s masters. And so the Mullah’s man in Damascus remained entrenched, while what few U.S.-friendly forces remain wither away.Secondly, in Iraq, the national army and the Shi’a militias—which now outnumber the former by over 2:1—are launching a significant offensive against ISIS around Tikrit. But the winners, if this is successful, will not be Washington and the Iraqi pluralists, but the Iranian regime.Meanwhile, the activities of Iran’s proxies around the region show the mullahs are feeling their oats; Hezbollah was caught plotting to attack Israel with an Iranian brigadier in tow, and the Houthi rebels, who are aligned with Iran, have toppled the Saudi- and U.S.-backed government in Yemen.And so Tehran has moved forward on all fronts in their conventional efforts to secure regional hegemony, even while cannily negotiating for the nuclear capacity that would let them to clinch it. As the Israeli Prime Minister put it Monday morning at AIPAC: “This is what Iran is doing now without nuclear weapons… Imagine what Iran would do with nuclear weapons.”