In the wake of the Iran deal, supporters have hailed it with words like “historic” and “transformative”, while critics have portrayed it as an unacceptable cave, a strategic defeat. Both seem to agree that it’s a game-changer. But, while it’s important, what if it doesn’t shift regional dynamics as much as we thought? Waking up two days after, we see some signs that that might be the case.
In Iran, meet the new Ayatollah: same as the old Ayatollah. In a written statement released today, he hailed the deal as a “milestone”, but left the door open for hardliner criticism by saying that the deal must be studied carefully, adding that “some of the six states participating in the negotiations are not trustworthy at all.” Khamenei talking out of both sides of his mouth has been a feature throughout the negotiations. During the weekend, he’s expected to make a speech marking the end of Ramadan, which should make his position more clear. But those who expect words on a page to pin him down for good may well be mistaken.
Furthermore, as TAI Editor Adam Garfinkle points out in a must-read piece today, the details of the deal may not even change the overall strategic dilemma the U.S. faces vis-a-vis Iran:
Even if the IAEA can catch the Iranians in a violation, or we can do so through what is euphemistically referred to as “national technical means”, and even if then we can get the P5+1 to agree to seek redress, the agreement has only a single gear for penalizing infractions: a sanctions snap-back. This means that a violation or a series of violations would have to be of major dimensions to warrant making the effort, and if the effort anyway failed to shove the Iranians back into compliance, two things would happen, both of them bad. The lesser bad consequence is the precedent that a failed effort would set. The very bad consequence is that if and when confronted, the Iranians have the option, according to the agreement, of simply walking out of the deal and daring us to snap back the sanctions regime.
[… I]f the Iranians can pocket the cumulative military value of their violations and still walk out of the agreement anytime they judge it to be propitious, then the claim that the deal buys us at least 15 years of calm, non-crisis strategic oxygen is completely bogus. In just five years or even less, we could easily be back in the stark position the President described yesterday: diplomacy or war.
Meanwhile, our allies and strategic rivals are behaving, and have been behaving, about as we’d expect, both before and after the deal. The New York Times today revealed that Vladmir Putin played a significant role in making sure that a (phased) end to the conventional weapons embargo on Iran made it into the final deal; Russia will almost certainly reap military contracts from this, and continue to cause problems for the U.S. by equipping Iran for its regional adventures. (The Grey Lady also separately ran a report on a trove of cables released by Wikileaks a few weeks back which show that Saudi Arabia is “obsessed” with Iran. Shocker! As most Middle East watchers and all of our readers surely know, Saudi Arabia has long been focused on its main strategic regional rival—what it sees as “the head of the snake.”)
Domestically, plus ça change, too. A bipartisan majority of both Houses opposes the deal, but perhaps not enough to override a Presidential veto. Regardless of the merits, enough Democrats are likely to be swayed by both the pressure and the pork the White House is sure to ladle out—and perhaps even more profoundly by a sense that a vote to override would wreck a Democratic presidency.
If all of this is true, it could also mean that those who look to the conclusion of this deal to reinvigorate President Obama’s foreign policy could also be mistaken. Abroad, the President could fail to find a real rapprochement with Iran and find himself trapped in a quasi-embrace necessary to promote the deal all while the region’s Sunnis continue to seethe. In terms of domestic politics, the question is probably whether or not this will be a new Panama Canal treaty. During the Carter Administration, the treaty giving the canal zone to Panama was ratified after a big fight, but it became a big political issue nevertheless. Not only was the GOP able to raise money on it, but many of the Senators who voted for it were defeated, and it contributed to Reagan’s election. Likewise, even an unsuccessful fight to defeat the deal could both signal and contribute to the President’s continuous bleeding on foreign policy matters.
Several things about the deal really could still prove “historic” and “transformational.” Having kissed the frog, we could find, against all probability, that it turns into a prince—which is to say, the Iranian regime could moderate. (The probabilities of this happening are probably about the same as the fairy tale coming true.) Or, as Adam remarked on Tuesday, the regime could gravely miscalculate, crack down on modernizers too hard, and thus hasten its own demise. The U.S. Congress could reject the deal (Vegas odds are against it, but it is by no means impossible), setting us on the path to a quicker showdown with Iran in one form or another. Or the Saudis could detonate a test device (likely with a Pakistani signature) somewhere in the Empty Quarter—not immediately, but sooner rather than years later, and probably as a direct result of the deal.
But for now, anyone who expected this deal to drastically and suddenly resolve the conundrums we face in the Middle East is liable to be disabused of that notion.