Managing success of the Iranian nuclear deal

Five scenarios to consider, even if an agreement is reached next week.
By: /
July 3, 2015
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (2nd L), U.S. Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman (2nd R) and staff watch a tablet in Lausanne as U.S. President Barack Obama makes a state address on the status of the Iran nuclear program talks. REUTERS/Brendan Smialowski

The dangers of Iran getting the bomb are well known. Israel, Canada, and others have made sure of it, and for good reason.

But the dangers of actually getting a nuclear deal with Iran are also significant. The international community — if that’s what the P5+1 side of the negotiating table represents — should be just as focused on the ripple effects a deal could have on the region and on global power dynamics.

As the deadline for reaching an agreement is now extended until July 7, hopefully there are groups of smart folks in Washington and other allied capitals laying track for managing “success” by gaming out a range of scenarios, including the following:

Scenario 1: There may be ratification hiccups

Both ‘good cop’ negotiating parties, principally the American and Iranian negotiating teams, have ‘bad cop’ constituencies back home: Congress and Ayatollah Khamenei, respectively. Both could be deal breakers.

If it’s just about building leverage, the American act is a convincing one. Just days ago congressional Republican leader Mitch McConnell signalled a willingness to use his majority in the House of Representatives to scuttle the agreement if it’s not deemed robust enough by the GOP conference.

What happens if Congress won’t budge? Obama would have to stake his presidency on ramming the deal down American’s throats, most of whom don’t believe in the deal anyway. Would he?

Scenario 2: Iranian reforms beyond the nuclear file may lose steam

This nuclear negotiation has dominated headlines for months. If you include its previous iterations, years even. For many onlookers and politicians, the nuclear negotiations have become synonymous with the whole Iran dossier.

As I wrote in 2012 during the Turkey-based nuclear talks, the Iranian regime’s sponsorship of terrorism, its hateful ideology and its systemic human rights violations are threats to peace and security every bit as real as nuclear weapons.

While some consider the nuclear file to be the key to unlocking co-operation on a range of additional issues, the opposite could just as well be true.

By letting the nuclear file dominate the entire public perception of Iran, the West loses leverage to fuel reform once the ink is dry. Down the road, if America wants the deal to survive more than Iran does, it also puts Iran in the position of holding the deal hostage as it advances its agenda in other areas.

Scenario 3: Nuclear proliferation

If the deal isn’t robust enough — its chief critic, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, claims it’s a “dream deal for Iran, and a nightmare deal for the world” — it risks fuelling nuclear proliferation across the Middle East and around the world.

As Georgetown professor Matthew Kroenig said in a recent speech to the conservative Heritage Foundation, “What this Iran deal does is make an exception, not just for any country, but for Iran, a country that’s continually cheating on its agreements. So in the wake of the deal, I think it becomes very hard for us to go to our allies and say, ‘we trust Tehran with this technology, but we don’t trust you’.”

Several states have made noise about going nuclear if Iran does, or if their overall confidence in the U.S. security umbrella is shaken. Even if the Iran nuclear agreement is good enough for the seven powers represented at the table, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good enough for the likes of Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Scenario 4: Significant damage to Israel-U.S. relations

The Prime Minister of Israel has elevated the Iranian nuclear file to highest political significance, in keeping with his judgment that a nuclear Iran — even just at ‘break-out’ capacity’ — is an existential threat to Israel. If it’s not just bluster and Israel judges the current deal to be a clear and present risk to Israel’s core security goals, the agreement could lock in an era of hostile U.S.-Israeli relations.

The Obama-Netanyahu relationship has been notoriously prickly, but if the Americans commit to a deal that the Israelis truly can’t accept as the new status quo, that animosity could be locked in for a generation. It could also precipitate the need for a fundamental re-think of U.S. strategy in the middle east, which has always placed Israeli security — along with nuclear non-proliferation, stable energy supplies, and preserving the power balance — at its heart.

Scenario 5: Back to the future worst-case scenario

Finally, the world should take every reasonable step to avoid another Iraq. In the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003, the global security system became paralysed by the existence of a rogue, potentially nuclear state that refused to fully and verifiably comply with its official diplomatic commitments.

Even if the ‘snap-back’ sanctions that Mr. Obama promises are tucked into the final deal — here is an interesting analysis by the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies — it’s almost inconceivable that they could actually be fully re-operationalised swiftly.

Once the deal is done, Iran could conceivably nibble away until its force and effect is an open question.

And then we're back to the future worst-case scenario: a world divided by a rogue, despotic, terror-sponsoring, potentially nuclear regime in the heart of the Middle East, and no consensus on what to do about it.