Tighten your seat belts

Yesterday’s unprecedented framework for a nuclear accord with Iran sets back the clock in two different ways:  it would put Iran a year away from accumulating the fissionable material needed for a nuclear weapon (as opposed to the current two-three months) and it would maintain tight constraints for at least 10 years (and in some areas 15), in addition to permanent verification procedures. In return, Iran would get still unspecified sanctions relief, presumably timed to implementation of the nuclear parts of the agreement.

What does this mean for US/Iran relations, the region and the rest of the world?

It puts the US and Iran on course for intense interactions for a decade or more to come. This is a sharp break with the sporadic and often hostile relations they have endured for more than 30 years. Negotiation of the final details and implementation of the nuclear agreement will not necessarily be a friendly affair. There is lots of room for frictions and misunderstandings to develop over one or another aspect of Iran’s far-flung nuclear program. But we are going to need a dedicated group of nuclear and Iran savvy diplomats to ensure that all the t’s are crossed and the i’s dotted. It would clearly be best if these people were located in Iran or nearby, which raises the question of reopening an American diplomatic facility in Tehran. A bridge too far for the moment, but something to keep in mind.

Iran’s regional behavior will ensure that future relations with Washington are not entirely friendly. Tehran vaunt strong influence over four Arab capitals today: Damascus, Sanaa, Baghdad and Beirut, in addition to Gaza. This influence has been acquired by force of arms, mainly through aggressive action by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its proxies.

The IRGC and other Iranian security agencies do what they think they can get away with to subvert the Sunni Arab monarchies in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Iranian threats against Israel continue unabated. While claiming to be non-sectarian in outlook and providing support to Hamas (a Sunni Arab organization), Tehran has done a good deal to polarize the Middle East between Sunni and Shia, in particular by supporting Shia militias in Iraq, Hizbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and the nominally Shia Alawite leadership in Syria.

At the same time, Iran is a serial human rights violator at home, where it keeps a tight lid on dissent. It is an autocracy, not a dictatorship, one that relies on elections in which candidates are screened and debate is circumscribed even if vigorous. The country’s biggest internal threat is ethnic strife, since barely more than 50% of the population identifies as Persian. Just yesterday there was trouble from Arab separatists in Khuzestan, a particularly sensitive area on the Gulf adjacent to Iraq. But Iran has also seen a broad-based, non-ethnic, pro-democracy movement that it crushed violently in 2010.

The US and Europe cannot ignore the misbehavior of Iran both at home and abroad. As sanctions are lifted, Tehran’s capacity for trouble making will increase with its oil exports, though perhaps not as much as expected because Iran’s renewed production may drive prices down further. Iran would be wise to spend any increased revenue on improving the lot of its own population, which has suffered big declines in standard of living.

But if Tehran chooses instead to unleash the IRGC even further to help Bashar al Asad, to counter the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen or to make trouble for Israel, the West needs to be prepared to respond. It may have been wise to isolate these issues from the nuclear talks until now, but it would be a mistake to allow Iran to use the resources it gets from the nuclear deal to further roil the region.

America’s friends and allies in the region, both Sunni Arab and Israeli, will rightly not let us forget that Iran continues to try to export its Islamic revolution. They regard the end of sanctions on Iran and its return to a more normal international status as strengthening the Islamic Republic. They at times seem more concerned with this return to normality than with the far greater strengthening that would result from Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. But there are real issues: Russia, for example, may transfer advanced air defenses to Tehran once sanctions are lifted. The conventional military balance in the Gulf favors the Sunni Arabs and Israel, but the end of sanctions may enable Iran to improve its standing.

No good deed goes unpunished. Iran and the US are at best at the beginning of a long road. It is not clear where the road leads. There will be many bumps along the way. Tighten your seat belts.

PS: Here is President Obama’s defense of the pending agreement.

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