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Analysis: Nuclear Agreement Risks Projecting US Weakness

iran2On a basic level, the framework deal between world powers and Tehran will be judged by whether it prevents an Iranian bomb, but that will take years to figure out.

A more immediate issue is the projection of Western power. Supporters of the framework deal can argue that the U.S. and world powers extracted significant concessions from Iran, breaking a decade-long impasse and proving that diplomacy backed by tough sanctions can bring about positive change even in the Middle East.

But if, as critics contend, the agreement ends up projecting U.S. weakness instead, that could embolden rogue states and extremists alike, and make the region’s vast array of challenges — from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Syrian civil war to the fighting in Libya and Yemen — even more impervious to Western intervention.

The United States wants to rein in Syria’s President Bashar Assad as his ruinous civil war grinds into year five. It would like to encourage more liberal domestic policies in Egypt and push Iraq’s leaders to govern more inclusively. Despite years of setbacks, the U.S. would still like to see a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But if leaders in those places read the fine print of the agreement the U.S. and other world powers hope to reach with Iran by June 30 and conclude that they were duped or have flinched, these leaders will be less likely to give in to pressure in the future, rendering the Iran agreement a lonely foreign policy achievement clouded by the region’s chaos.

The implications may first be seen in Iran itself. If the agreement leads to acceptance of Iran’s theocracy, hard-liners could feel less pressure to curb their support of regional militant groups and crack down even harder on dissent at home. They would be flush with cash from the lifting of sanctions and emboldened in their confidence that the West will turn a blind eye.

Alternatively, the deal could mark a major victory for President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, and a broader rapprochement could bring about a Persian glasnost of sorts that leads to democratic reform.

Whichever direction Iran goes will have wide-ranging implications for the rest of the region. Iran backs powerful Shiite proxies in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. It also has supported the Palestinian Hamas, the Sunni Islamists who rule Gaza. Sunni powers like Egypt and Saudi Arabia fear and distrust Iran and have warned of a regional arms race if it becomes a threshold nuclear weapons state. Saudi-led warplanes are bombing the Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are supported by Iran, though both Tehran and the rebels deny it arms them.

The implications of a weak United States, meanwhile, are not just regional but global, affecting events from Russia to China and North Korea — as well as the prospects for global accords on climate change or even significant trade deals.

Many of these questions will only be answered by the final agreement, assuming there is one. For now, both sides are presenting the framework accord as a major accomplishment.

On one hand, Iran accepted limits on its enrichment levels and centrifuge numbers to prevent the accumulation of weapons-grade material for a decade or more. “Breakout time” to a bomb would be extended from mere months to a year or more.

But on the other, its right to enrich uranium would be enshrined, its facilities would remain in place, the sanctions would be lifted and a sort of legitimacy bestowed.

Critics in Israel and elsewhere cannot understand why world powers, who could afford to play for time, did not squeeze Iran by presenting it with a mind-clearing choice between having a nuclear program and having an economy. They never believed Iran’s claims that — with oil in generous supply — it was investing such effort for nuclear energy and research. They expect Iran’s energies to now focus on fooling the inspectors and developing a bomb.

That won’t be easy. Under the framework deal the U.N. nuclear agency would have substantially more authority than it has had in the past. The fact sheet issued by the U.S. says Iran has agreed to grant inspectors more intrusive access to both declared and undeclared facilities — access that may not be “anytime, anywhere,” but goes far beyond anything that was in place when weapons were developed by India, Pakistan, North Korea — and Israel.

Supporters of the deal argue that any risks that may remain are preferable to war. Implied is the admission that a global consensus on tougher sanctions to force Iran to its knees was unattainable — Russia, China and even India could not necessarily be corralled. That would leave armed force, never taken off the table, as the only remaining option.

Some also note that viewing Iran as an implacable regional menace is simplistic. Iran backs groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, which the West views as terrorist organizations, but it is also training and supporting Shiite militias battling the Islamic State group in Iraq, where Washington and Tehran have found themselves on the same side of the conflict.

Washington’s bridled ambitions are understandable given its recent failures in the region. Both Afghanistan and Iraq are still at war more than a decade after the U.S.-led invasions. The Islamic State group, an al-Qaida breakaway, controls a third of both Syria and Iraq. A NATO intervention helped topple dictator Moammar Gadhafi, but Libya today is a failed state in the grip of rival militias and jihadi groups. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is in shambles.

One senses, beyond the specifics of the Iran deal, an implied admission by the global powers: there is a limit to countries’ ability to interfere with one another, however interdependent the world may be.

Ironically, it is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — the most outspoken opponent of the Iran deal — who might have reason to appreciate this kind of humility. Recently re-elected and at odds with the White House, Netanyahu faces a global clamor to end the West Bank settlement project and enable the creation of a Palestinian state. If the United States and other powers got serious about enforcing their will on other countries, Israel could be no less a candidate than Iran.


3 Responses

  1. The weakened United States resulted entirely from the disastrous Iraq invasion and the collapse of the US economy. Obama is determined not to repeat either disaster even though many Republicans are pushing him to do so.

  2. Re Comment no. 1: I agree that the Iraq invasion and the collapse of the US economy weakened the US, but I am not sure that the US could have obtained a better deal with Iran before the misguided invasion of Iraq and the inadequate response to the US financial collapse of 2008. The mighty Ronald Reagan could not shape Iran’s policies about nuclear weapons, but the economic sanctions of the last several years might do what a lot of tough talk for the last 35 years could not.

    Re Comment no. 2: Would you please explain what is ridiculous in comment no. 1, and why.

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