While Congressional support for President Obama’s nuclear interim deal with Iran remains fragile at best, two of the most eminent ex-US secretaries of state have also expressed doubt as to the plan’s viability. Henry A. Kissinger and George P. Shultz directed American foreign policy at the height and at the end of the Cold War. Both men were considered by their contemporaries to be giants in US strategic thinking.

The Kissinger opening to China was an acclaimed diplomatic maneuver which caught the entire world by surprise. Shultz was the overseer of a policy which so pressured the Soviet Union that it eventually led to its downfall. In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, the two former diplomats have offered the Obama administration some very cogent advice about Iran’s nuclear program and the Islamic regime’s designs for the region of the Middle East.

First and foremost, Kissinger and Shultz remind the president that a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear program is a desired outcome. But at no time do the two ex-secretaries devalue the military option in a misguided perception that any deal would be better than another Middle East war. On the contrary, the words of the two senior statesmen are clear and precise: “For two decades, American presidents from both parties have affirmed that the US is unalterably opposed to an Iranian nuclear capability. They have usually added a warning that – `all options are on the table’ – in pursuit of this policy”.

Here, the key language boils down to the words “capability” and “all”. Kissinger and Shultz reject outright the idea that Iran can become a threshold state. They define such a state as being able to break through to a nuclear weapon within months of its decision to do so. If the need be, however, an extreme toughening of the sanctions or a military option is certainly not excluded. The emphasis on “all options” is highly significant. For successful diplomacy to work, there must be a reasonable certainty that failure will entail consequences. The ambiguity of such consequences, in their totality, must not be lost on the offending state. The grave implication is that the Obama administration’s negotiation with Iran lacks sufficient ambiguity because it lacks a military option. And without a military option, the negotiation loses its finality and risks being perceived as a rapprochement. Then the interim deal risks perpetuation. In other words, through a series of interim deals (or merely an extension of the current deal), Iran becomes a de facto threshold state, while the sanction regime slowly collapses.

Threshold capacity and the finality of the six-month interim deal are the operational definitions of the two statesmen’s analysis. While not providing a precise atomic clock, the definition of threshold capacity is firm as to its implication. Verification as to breakthrough potential must be foolproof. Anything short of 100% verification is unacceptable. If an Iranian nuclear program is to exist, its essence must be civilian and peaceful. For Kissinger and Shultz, the very future of the non-proliferation regime is at stake: “A final agreement leaving this threshold capacity unimpaired would institutionalize the Iranian nuclear threat, with profound consequences for global non-proliferation and the stability of the Middle East”.

The issue of stability is a complementary factor with regard to nuclear capability. An Iranian threshold state by its very nature would be destabilizing. Kissinger and Shultz regard this fact as a given. But destabilization cannot solely be associated with nuclear capability. Other aspects of regional stability must also come into play. The question of hegemony and/or a regional balance of power must be addressed before even an appropriate and verifiable final deal could be signed. On this vital issue, the strategic thinking of the two ex-secretaries far outshines the current White House team. Since Iran’s role in the Middle East has been to reject the very existence of a Jewish state, any potential nuclear deal would only enhance Iran’s economy and thereby aid its hegemonic “axis of resistance”.

Here again, the words of the two elder statesmen affirm the significance of the regional dimension: “For 35 years and continuing today, Iran has been advocating an anti-Western concept of world order, waging proxy wars against America and its allies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and beyond, and arming and training sectarian extremists throughout the Muslim world. During that time, Iran has defied unambiguous UN and IAEA demands and proceeded with a major nuclear effort, incompatible with any civilian purpose, and in violation of its obligations under the NPT in effect since 1970. If the ruling group in Iran is genuinely prepared to enter into cooperative relations with the United States and the rest of the world, the US should welcome and encourage the shift. But progress should be judged by a change of program, not of tone”.

But for the Obama administration, the demand that Iran change its regional program doesn’t appear to be on the table. On the contrary, so-called “cooperative relations” with the US is strictly limited to nuclear negotiations alone. But without the regional component of either a strong proxy military option to confront Iran in Syria and Lebanon or a plan for a sustainable regional balance of power, the US holds little sway. As the nuclear negotiations proceed, Iran could “up the ante” in Syria and the rest of the Levant. With the US sitting on the fence, this absence of policy would only further alienate America’s traditional allies. Perhaps in response to Iranian actions or to send a message to the US of their profound discontent, the traditional allies might “up the ante” themselves.

Either way, a negotiated endgame to the regional dimension is the vital complement to any successful settlement of the Iranian nuclear program. The logic of the situation is clear. Any escalation of the war in the Levant, from any quarter, risks imploding the nuclear negotiations. While a nuclear negotiation without a regional component could lead to nuclear proliferation through the back door.

Kissinger and Shultz summarize the challenge to US diplomacy in the Middle East within the full context of its regional dimension. Their critique is most helpful because it is most telling. “American diplomacy now has three major tasks: To define a level of Iranian nuclear capacity limited to plausible civilian uses and to achieve safeguards to ensure that this level is not exceeded; to leave open the possibility of a genuinely constructive relationship with Iran; and to design a Middle East policy adjusted to new circumstances”.

These three goals are not mutually exclusive. They form a core package whose vital outcome possesses existential urgency for all the states of the region. But US policy in the Middle East under President Obama lacks coherence because it attempts to answer only the first of these challenges. Without Iran playing a constructive role in the region, neither a nuclear deal nor a new Middle East policy can be achieved. But to be fair, perhaps the days when US economic and military power could backstop diplomatic endeavors has waned. If that is the case, the three challenges to American Middle East policy must now become the task of the P5. In the years to come, this pivot to the UN Security Council could become Mr. Obama’s lasting legacy.