Yes, a nuclear deal means trouble

I am a proponent of a good nuclear deal with Iran. But I have taken some time this week to appreciate Israel’s perspective. Here is what I have understood and how I react.

The Israelis are concerned with the geostrategic impact of a deal with Iran that will accept and thereby legitimize its enrichment program. Other countries in the region that have in the past been constrained from pursuing enrichment will now proceed, in particular Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Whereas Turkey may be a more or less consolidated democracy, it is unpredictable who might come to power in the Kingdom or Egypt and what they might do with nuclear technology.

At the same time, Iran’s pernicious proxies in the region–until now deterred by Israel’s military capabilities–will be emboldened and enriched with resources once multilateral sanctions are lifted. Iran doesn’t much care about US sanctions. The ideology of the regime requires that the US remain an enemy. It will be sufficient for Europe, Russia and China to begin doing business with Tehran to put lots of money in its pockets. Any help the US gets from Iran and its proxies in fighting the Islamic State will be short-lived.

Everyone in the region, not just Israel, will feel less secure. An arms race will ensue. The buying spree will put advanced weapons into the hands of regimes that are not stable or reliable. No one knows where they will end up.

American reassurances are dubious. One hundred per cent access to Iranian facilities is impossible. No country has ever provided it. Iran won’t either. Nor can sanctions “snap back.” Neither the Russians nor the Chinese will agree to a mechanism that they are unable to block.

In my view, these preoccupations all have their validity. The trouble is the outcomes feared are likely whether there is an agreement or not. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are already under no legal restraint from enriching uranium whenever they please. Multilateral sanctions are unlikely to survive much longer, due to Chinese and European hunger for oil and gas as well as their interest in exporting to Iran. Arms have been pouring into the Gulf countries as well as Egypt and Jordan for years. There is already no lack of advanced equipment in hands that may or may not be reliable.

On top of all that, no agreement means no inspections and no constraints on the Iranian nuclear program. That is worse than the ample access to Iran’s nuclear program, and serious constraints, that an agreement will have to provide.

It is hard not to see the Israeli preoccupations as nostalgia for a region that they dominated for decades. Iran was marginalized, the Arabs were under America’s thumb, and Israel could do, and did, as it liked.

But that is not the eternal order in the Middle East. There is no way to keep Iran in its diminished position, much as we might like to try. Nor are the Arabs inclined to remain under American control. The prospect of a nuclear deal is ironically inclining them more than ever before to make common cause with Israel against Iran, whatever the Americans think. Just think what would happen if the Israelis were to settle with the Palestinians!

The bottom line: Israel wanted Iran to be forced to give up enrichment and will be satisfied with nothing less. But that was unlikely at best and impossible at worst.

Provided the verification mechanisms in any nuclear deal reached in the next few days are robust, including accounting for past military dimensions, all of us will need to learn to live with a still non-nuclear-armed Iran that is less constrained and more flush with cash than in the recent past. We’ll also need to be prepared to deter and counter its troublemaking, at least until someone who doesn’t see America as an enemy governs in Tehran.


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