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Nuclear deal will usher in an era of Iranian diplomatic engagement

Put aside the details for a moment. The nuclear deal signed in Vienna today will force Iran to act through diplomacy, not violence. The other option? A nuclear Iran that acts recklessly and orders strikes on Western targets.

Secretary Kerry Poses for a Group Photo With E.U., P5+1, and Iranian Officials Before Final Plenary of Iran Nuclear Negotiations in Austria. (State Department photo)

Secretary Kerry Poses for a Group Photo With E.U., P5+1, and Iranian Officials Before Final Plenary of Iran Nuclear Negotiations in Austria. (State Department photo)

The decision to sign a nuclear agreement with Iran this morning was the right one. At the end of the day we can only take one of two paths: either we go the way of diplomacy, or we go to war. Either a path through which Iran becomes part of the international community, or it is pushed out using sanctions and isolation.

We must, of course, discuss the details of the agreement: why will inspectors only be allowed arranged visits to Iran’s nuclear facilities? Does the agreement adequately prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb in the future?

But even if Iran does obtain a nuclear weapon at some point, it is not insane enough to use it. Iran is not a suicidal country. Even Netanyahu’s closest associates say that Israel is not actually worried about nuclear annihilation. That isn’t the issue.

The issue is Iran’s position as a regional superpower, not to mention a global energy superpower. Israel’s worries stem, first and foremost, from the fact that the U.S.-Sunni alliance (led by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Turkey, among others) is a comfortable one for Israel — one that does not threaten it and fights its enemies. Iran, on the other hand, leads the Shia axis, supports Hezbollah, Assad and the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and is increasingly influential in Iraq. As an accepted member of the international community, Iran’s power in the Middle East will only grow. That is what threatens Israel.

Iran’s legitimacy, however, will not grant it carte blanche to act recklessly. It has signed an agreement with six world powers, according to which problems will now have to be solved through diplomacy. The truth is that the more isolated Iran is, the more likely it will act however it wants, including by ordering Hezbollah strikes on Israel as a means of attacking the West (just as the U.S. and the Soviet Union manipulated Israel and the Arab states during the Cold War). An Iran that is integrated into the world economy and diplomatic system, on the other hand, is an Iran that knows its decisions carry a price. It is well aware that the sanctions regime, from which it has suffered, can return at any time.

.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sits across from Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on June 30, 2015, in Vienna, Austria, before a one-on-one meeting amid negotiations about the future of Iran's nuclear program. (State Department photo)

.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sits across from Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on June 30, 2015, in Vienna, Austria, before a one-on-one meeting amid negotiations about the future of Iran’s nuclear program. (State Department photo)

The nuclear agreement is itself a choice to engage in dialogue (even if it has been forced on Iran through years of sanctions), while leaving the door open for future discussions. These could potentially strengthen both the local and international alliances against ISIS, for instance.

A few more thoughts:

1. Israel/Palestine: We must wonder what kind of effect the agreement will have on the Palestinians. On the one hand, a stronger Iran-U.S. relationship may weaken Washington’s obligations to Israel and could potentially put more pressure on Israel to reach a peace agreement and end the occupation. Iran, by the way, was a supporter of the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative, which would include a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians that would result in normalized relations with the Arab and Muslim world. Although Iran had its own reservations regarding the plan, its tepid support should not be taken lightly.

On the other hand, it could be that Iran’s integration into the international community will actually lessen its interest in Israel/Palestine, which in any case was mostly used for internal political needs and as a tool for international leverage.

2. Human rights: As Orly Noy wrote here yesterday, and as Iranian dissident Ahmad Rafat wrote last week, the agreement may open Iran to the world, but it does not necessarily bode well for the human rights situation inside Iran. Perhaps even the opposite is true. If the struggle for an agreement ended this morning, the struggle for human rights and democracy inside Iran may only be beginning.

Read: If deal fails, we can kiss Iran’s moderates goodbye

3. Hypocrisy: Every discussion of Iran includes a blind spot that must be discussed. We speak about whether or not Iran will be “allowed” to act a certain way, or whether or not it is “legitimate,” “trustworthy,” or “democratic” enough. There is a great deal of hypocrisy in taking this position.

The United States has and continues to support corrupt and murderous regimes across the world, and it is the only country that has ever dropped an atomic bomb on a civilian population. The European Union continues to enjoy the fruits of colonialism and the enslavement of countless nations, while also supporting tyrannical regimes in Africa and Asia. Israel has also historically supported dictatorial regimes, including the Shah in Iran, Apartheid South Africa, and the current Eritrean government.

Why are all these countries deemed moral authorities that can judge Iran from on high? Yes, Iran is a tyrannical country that flaunts human rights and supports terrorist organizations. So is Saudi Arabia, America’s closest ally in the Middle East. The global political field is ugly any way you look at it, and it is in need of fundamental, democratic reform.

4. We must all strive to create a Middle East (and world) free of nuclear weapons. Presently, according to foreign reports, only one country in the Middle East has nuclear weapons: Israel. According to those same reports, its facilities go un-inspected by the international community, and it is not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. If we want a nuclear-free Middle East, we must start by looking at ourselves.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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    1. Lo

      When PM Netanyahu made his ridiculous address to Congress, one element left out of the conversation that ensued was what exactly is the alternative to the diplomatic process that just concluded?

      Holding out for a “better deal” is not only magical thinking, but it is demonstrably not effective. Remember, Iran was able to make remarkable progress *while under severe sanctions.* Furthermore, if the Iranian regime is suicidally hostile to Israel or the US, why would inflating the price of food and medicine really deter or coerce them?

      In reality, critics of the Kerry-Javad process probably understand that their true desire (some kind of unilateral strike by America on behalf of Israel) is hideous politically. The average person might not be concerned with UF6 conversion rates or allowable reactor designs, but they can pretty quickly grasp why Iran would probably rush to acquire a nuclear deterrent if the US (or Israel) hit first. As a result, opponents of the deal must relentlessly criticize the current Administration, but can never truly say what they’d do instead.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Ben

      “Even Netanyahu’s closest associates say that Israel is not actually worried about nuclear annihilation. That isn’t the issue. The issue is Iran’s position as a regional superpower, not to mention a global energy superpower….”

      This is one of the reasons, besides his immensely proven track record as a shifty prevaricator–these birds came home to roost–and his appalling interference in the American government–that no one quite took seriously Bibi’s cartoon bomb armageddon scenario posturing.

      Reply to Comment
      • Tojo

        Bens brain is as efficient as a sieve. In fact, he is so stupid, that he cannot understand the depths of his own stupidity.
        #benusesmultiplenamesandtalkstohimself #benstolechortlefromyeahright #benshopsatpublix

        Reply to Comment
    3. Gustav

      “But even if Iran does obtain a nuclear weapon at some point, it is not insane enough to use it”

      It isn’t a question of sanity or insanity. Once Iran gets the bomb, they will have the opportunity to use it. Want an example? Here…

      Was John Kennedy insane? Yet in the Cuban missile crisis humanity was a hair breadth away from a global nuclear holocaust. Why? Because events got out of hand and both sides postured to the point that we were not too far from a possibility of a catastrophy.

      Now take Iran. They are master posturers. They have a totalitarian regime and they are global sponsors of terrorism. I could easily see them involved in a similar confrontation as the Cuban Missile crisis in the future if they develop nuclear capability. Why do I think that? Because they already demonstrated that they are proponents of brinkmanship, even without the bomb.

      So question: Once Iran would get the bomb…

      (a) Are they likely to practice less brinkmanship?

      (b) Are they likely to practice more brinkmanship?

      I say it is (b).

      If I am right, then I certainly am not confident that in an Iranian version of the Cuban missile crisis, we won’t end up with a catastrophy. Who wants to take the chance?!

      Reply to Comment
      • Lo

        Iran is not the Soviet Union. Iran has no ability to project conventional power and lacks an arsenal of warheads mated to distributed and hardened ICBMs, unlike the USSR. As a result, the Islamic Republic can’t really engage in “nuclear brinksmanship” because it cannot overcome the vast gulf between its first-strike capability and its opponent’s second-strike capacity. USSR nukes in Cuba was threatening because at such short range, there would be less time between the detection of the first-strike and the launch of a retaliatory strike (although one would still occur). Since the USSR and the US were roughly at parity with each other in terms of arsenal size, even destroying most of the enemy arsenal in a first-strike would still leave enough weapons for a retaliatory strike to be catastrophic. Iran, lacking this arsenal of mounted weapons, cannot ensure MAD. Any attempt by Iran to initiate an attack would invariably result in the annihilation of the state while leaving its enemies (largely) intact.

        Regarding “brinksmanship:”
        There are already ways Iran could drastically damage the region and the West, such as mining the Strait of Hormuz. If they are hell-bent on hurting the West or extracting concessions from the Arab states, this would have been a natural place to start and could be implemented with a fraction of the resources and time required to assemble a nuclear arsenal.

        In any case, nuclear weapons are not offensive tools. All they’re good for is deterring against a hostile nuclear attack and making invasion of your country impossible. They can’t be used as leverage in conventional competition as long as there are larger powers willing to ensure some level of MAD for any first-strike. For example, Pakistan has deep irredentist claims to the Jammu-Kashmir region between it and India. It has started several wars with India to try and conquer the territory, but has failed each time. Why doesn’t Pakistan threaten to glass New Delhi unless the Indians withdraw completely? They’ve got the nukes required to do so (and probably even severely damage the Indian second-strike capacity).

        It’s because they’re not suicidal. They may hate India and deeply wish to undermine it, but the Pakistani leadership is not going to annihilate itself to do so.

        Iran, a much more consolidated state than Pakistan, is not suicidal either. It will not engage in behavior it knows will lead to its destruction.

        Reply to Comment
        • Gustav

          Thank you Lo but now you are implying that they are rational. They may not be insane but they are not rational either. They are perfectly capable of brinkmanship and miscalculation. In fact they are not even alone. May I remind you of the Iranian hostage crisis? Are you saying that wasn’t brinkmanship?

          Oh and don’t underestimate their ability on ICBMs either. They are working on that too. In fact, Europe is within their reach already.

          Reply to Comment
          • Lo

            Gustav, I think you are an intelligent and inquisitive individual. However, you do your country a disservice by viewing your enemies as caricatures as opposed to differently-minded people.

            Iran is demonstrably rational. They pursue their foreign policy objectives (many of which are odious to Israelis and Americans) as any other state might. It tries to maximize its prosperity, security, and prestige through the policy avenues available to it, but has shown itself to be aware that its actions will provoke counter-balancing (therefore indicating that self-evidently suicidal courses of action will be left untrodden).

            Case in point: Iran infamously supported Shi’a militias in their insurgency against the US occupying forces and Sunni analogues during our little adventure in Iraq. Iran (for obvious reasons) has a significant strategic and political interest in Iraq, one that is predicated entirely on ensuring Iranian national security.

            Militants aligned with Iranian national interests in Iraq were supplied with small arms, explosives (including explosively-formed penetrator munitions), and funds. Conspicuously, these militias were never given MANPADS or any other weapon that could conceivably shoot down an American aircraft.

            They (quite correctly) assessed that breaking the US’ assumed total air dominance would provoke an immensely harsher reaction than blowing up a squad of infantry on patrol. They continued to act, but did so in a way that maximized its policy gains while minimizing its risks. When forced to, they modified their goals and methods to conform with their practical constraints.

            That’s pretty much the definition of rational behavior.

            The Iranian Hostage Crisis was a tense moment, but in the history of Iranian-American relations, I don’t think it is the most egregious or tragic event by any reasonable standard. Remember that the hostages’ release was secured through peaceful negotiation.

            As to their “ICBMs” (Iran does not possess any missiles remotely comparable in terms of throw-weight or range to true ICBMS like the SS-18), did you forget about the USSR? Not even in their wildest dreams could Iran’s hardliners wield anything approaching the destructive power of the Soviet Union. Despite the truly apocalyptic arsenal pointed at it, the US still diplomatically engaged the USSR fruitfully.

            Moreover, strategic arms like ICBMs are only useful for deterrence. Quiz: when was the last time ICBMs were used in interstate war? Answer: Never. This is because even *launching* an ICBM is potentially enough to trigger a retaliatory strike that would achieve MAD. As a result, no one uses them.

            In fact, Iran’s preference for a stockpile of strategic rockets is a pretty clear indicator that the Iranian security posture is fundamentally *defensive*. Had it invested in a large navy or air force (the main mechanisms by which states can project power abroad), fears about Iranian aggression against countries in the region (the vast majority of which are US allies) would be at least plausible. Since Iran has not actually launched any of those hundreds of missiles since acquiring them, the same logic used to justify Israel’s nuclear monopoly can be deployed to legitimate Iran’s IRBM arsenal. Iranian missiles are not a threat to anyone, provided they do not attempt to invade or otherwise try to externally change the regime. Deterrence is achieved.

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav


            Not withstanding all your examples, all it takes to get into an irreversible confrontation is ONE, just ONE miscalculation!

            They may act rationally 10 times but the 11th time they may go down the path of brinkmanship. Are you saying they (Iran) haven’t got it in them? Well I beg to differ. I hate to do it but I have to bring up the Iranian hostage crisis again. I might mention how the proxies of Iran, Hezbollah murdered hundreds of American marines and French soldiers in the 1980s in Beirut, with their truck bombs. And in those days Iran certainly did not even have nukes. How do you think they would behave if they would posess nukes? More brazenly? Or less brazenly? I would say, the former…

            Moreover, Lo, the Iranians are not alone in their affinity to miscalculate. I’ll say it again, John Kennedy wasn’t irrational either yet he chose the path of brinkmanship with the Soviets during the Cuban missile crisis. That crisis could have easily finished differently. Thank goodness it did not. I ask again, do you really want to take the chance with the Iranians?

            As for the ICBMs, I won’t argue the point for now. But I’ll repeat… Europe is already within reach of Iranian missiles. I know you don’t care much about us Israelis. Hey, that’s life, but are you saying that Europe is dispensable too?!

            Reply to Comment
          • Lo


            I completely agree with your concern about the risk of miscalculation with nuclear weapons. The U.S. has an honestly shocking record of accidents and barely-averted disasters involving its massive, highly sophisticated nuclear arsenal (if interested, Eric Schlosser’s “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety” is an excellent/terrifying book about how close we’ve come to nuking ourselves). I can’t speak with full certainty about Russia, the PRC, or any other nuclear states, but I have my suspicions they are just as fallible (if not more so, with IND/PAK/NK).

            That is why I am of the mind that the optimal outcome is for no state to have nuclear weapons in the region. There are diplomatic instruments that would enact protocols to do just that, such as the NWFZ agreement in effect in South America. I understand very keenly that that your neighborhood isn’t exactly the same (although there are remarkable similarities between the military autocracies of the MENA and the ones we supported in Latin America) as our backyard, but such a regime is absolutely not inconceivable.

            I have no argument regarding the malice & heinousness of the embassy hostage-taking or Iranian support for proxies in Lebanon/Syria. However, I don’t think Iran’s machinations remotely approach the level of power-rebalancing flagrantly engaged in by the U.S. (and before it, the U.K. and France). Besides the sordid history of colonialism and the haphazard, benighted carving up of the region, we need to remember that *the United States of America, in service of British commercial interests, overthrew a democratically-elected nationalist government in Iran.* In terms of damage done to each country, I think Iran’s most evil bullshit doesn’t really approach the damage and humiliation inflicted by mine.

            Again, we’ve seen this movie before. The USSR tested under Stalin. The PRC tested under Mao. Both countries had official, declared policies of hostility to America and its treaty allies (which by some accident of history does not include Israel). Both countries did not have to spend decades to refine enough HEU to build a single bomb like Iran; they were able to assemble (deployable) arsenals within years after testing. With both countries, we were not only able to contain their foreign policy interests, we were actually able to pit one against the other (one of the few good things Nixon/Kissinger ever did) to NATO’s advantage. The Sino-Soviet split would have been another leftist catfight if the U.S. hadn’t been able to meticulously exacerbate grievances on either side. We have a long, glorious, and successful history of containing nuclear powers *far* more capable than Iran. Moreover, Ali Khamenei is apparently a drastically more pragmatic and humane man than either Mao or Stalin were.

            As far as the Iranian missile threat to Europe, let me repeat myself: it is small potatoes to what our European allies were able to cope with successfully just decades ago. In a world where we very recently had massive deployments of nuclear and conventional forces in places like the Fulda Gap and along the 38th parallel to counterbalance much more capable foes than Iran, why should we set our hair on fire about some theoretical, tinkertoy Iranian arsenal?

            Let me be as clear as I can: Between the nuclear arsenals of the U.S., the U.K., France, and Israel (Fancy Dolphins you got there. Wonder if they’ve got any fancy SLCMs…), Iran is a glass parking-lot within 30 minutes of it launching against Israel. The disparity between the extant, deployed nuclear arsenal of Iran’s foes against whatever nuclear force Iran could theoretically rush in to production (Remember, one bomb in a bunker is useless; only distributed/hardened nuclear delivery systems are actually threatening) is so hilariously vast that even the most addled of the ayatollahs would realize how silly a nuclear breakout/first-strike would be.

            Reply to Comment