Calling Zarif’s Bluff

After years of compartmentalizing its nuclear program from its behavior throughout the region, Iran’s foreign minister has now seemingly — and very loosely — linked the prospect of greater regime regional cooperation to a successful conclusion of the negotiations. Could Iran be running scared? Since the framework agreement was announced on April 2, nothing has gone very right for the supporters of this very bad nuclear deal with Iran. The Henry Kissinger and George Shultz op/ed in the Wall St. Journal (The Iran Deal and its Consequences–April 7th) was a devastating rebuttal of the framework and essentially predicted a Middle East without any kind deterrent architecture in a region awash with potential nuclear weapons. These two paragraphs, by two of America’s greatest strategic thinkers, certainly focus the mind on the overwhelming nuclear hazards that lie ahead:

“For the US, a decade-long restriction on Iran’s nuclear capacity is a possibly hopeful interlude. For Iran’s neighbors — who perceive their imperatives in terms of millennial rivalries — it is a dangerous prelude to an even more dangerous permanent fact of life. Some of the chief actors in the Middle East are likely to view the US as willing to concede a nuclear military capability to a country they consider their principal threat. Several will insist on at least an equivalent capability. Saudi Arabia has signaled that it will enter the lists; others are likely to follow. In that sense the implications of the negotiations are irreversible.”

“If the Middle East is “proliferated” and becomes a host to a plethora of nuclear-threshold states, several in mortal rivalry with each other, on what concept of nuclear deterrence or strategic stability will international security be based? Traditional theories of deterrence assumed a series of bilateral equations. Do we now envision an interlocking series of rivalries, with each new nuclear program counterbalancing others in the region.”

If the Cold War was essentially a game of nuclear chess played on a two-dimensional board between two players (the US and the Soviet Union), Kissinger and Shultz are predicting a three-dimensional game of chess on an elevated board with possibly four players or more. How would nuclear deterrence fit into this game? President Obama thinks of himself as a smart fellow, how come he hasn’t answered America’s two premier ex-secretaries of state on this crucial point of nuclear strategic stability? Don’t forget, this is a region whose traditional shifting balance of power has been historically portrayed by the use of the phrase — “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. In other words, it’s one thing to develop the technological and scientific knowhow to master the process leading to the manufacture of the advanced weaponry; it’s quite another to conceptualize the strategic and political structure to hold the use of such weaponry in check. And since President Obama has admitted that within thirteen years Iran will possess a breakout time of less than a month, then it’s certainly reasonable for this president to present to the American people a strategic conceptual architecture to enhance deterrence throughout a nuclear Middle East. I doubt very much if he could. I doubt very much if anybody could. As Albert Einstein once said: “Politics is much more difficult than physics”.

According to Kissinger and Shultz, the nuclear negotiations are indeed irreversible. Iran will become (at least) a nuclear threshold state. Obama has confirmed that fact. But the Iranian foreign minister Mr. Zarif and his boss President Rouhani know that, for the deal to be finalized, they’re going to need a few more American concessions. That’s because Zarif and Rouhani’s boss, Iran’s Supreme leader Ali Khamenei has issued his final word on the matter. First, he claims that sanctions need to be lifted completely and immediately after the nuclear deal is signed. Secondly, the Ayatollah expects the inspection regime to be restrained to inhibit the restrictions inherent within the concept of “anytime, anywhere”. That will be a tough lift for President Obama. So Zarif has offered a sweetener. In another op/ed in the New York Times (April 20th — A Message from Iran) The Islamic Republic’s foreign minister linked regional cooperation to the successful negotiation of the nuclear deal.

Actually Mr. Zarif called the nuclear deal a manufactured crisis (manufactured in Israel, one would presume) and stated frankly that the real important work of the region is to end the wars and chaos in order to establish some kind of peaceful equilibrium. “Good relations with Iran’s neighbors are our top priority”, he stated. But throughout Zarif’s entire essay, the region of the Middle East was never mentioned, only the area of the Persian Gulf. Does this mean that only Iran’s relations with the states of the GCC are in need of adjustment or are Syria and Lebanon included as well? And what about Israel? Is Zarif hinting at a possible Saudi-Iranian rapprochement between two nuclear threshold states sometime in the near future? And would this rapprochement (or even entente) be aimed at the Jewish state? Would Zarif be willing to allow for a new Sunni majority government to be established in Damascus as long as Shiite communities are protected throughout the Levant?

However you read the Zarif essay, the Netanyahu demand that no nuclear deal should be signed with Iran until they normalize their relationship with Israel is simply never mentioned. Yet Zarif wants to work with the Obama administration on achieving some kind of détente with his neighbors. Only a few days ago, President Obama ruled out Iranian recognition of the Jewish state as a part of his nuclear bargain with Iran. Obama said that such a demand was “unrealistic”. Now Zarif is talking about the really important work of regional and international cooperation to build a more peaceful “Persian Gulf” region. This sweetener might fool the isolationists and appeasers within the Democratic Party, but it shouldn’t be rejected outright by either Israel (Labor and Likud) or the Republicans in Congress or on the presidential trail. Instead, all parties concerned should simply call Mr. Zarif’s bluff. If Iran want to cooperate with US on a peaceful Middle East, Washington must insist on Israel’s inclusion. Likewise, Jerusalem needs to stipulate its vision of a peaceful region that includes all its neighbors but without the irreversibility of weapons of mass destruction.

Israel should define the region as composed of all the states within the broad range of the Middle East. The purpose of cooperative and friendly relation between neighbors should be expanded to include everyone, especially a potential Palestinian state whose nature and composition should be decided directly by the two parties to the conflict themselves, Israel and Palestine. Mutual recognition by all states of the region should be considered Israel’s and America’s top priority. The basing of foreign armies, air forces and navies should be banned from the region, unless a country is attacked by another country. Then outside help to the victim would be allowed. Only legitimate recognized states would be allowed to possess military equipment. Extra-territorial militias would be outlawed. All states of the region must become members of the NPT, and a nuclear-weapons-free zone should be established so that the nightmare of Middle East nuclear proliferation can be permanently avoided. The UN Security Council would establish the region as free of nuclear weapons and an “anytime, anywhere” regime of inspections instituted. Plutonium production and nuclear enrichment within the region would also be banned.

Israel and its Sunni Arab neighbors expect leadership from the US. In the last six years, this American leadership has truly been lacking. Now as the region of the Middle East spins out of control, the Obama administration has tilted its policy toward a certain nuclear weapons future. As Kissinger and Shultz correctly point out, what is a mere decade in the life of the Middle East? Can’t President Obama see this? Or are politics so distorted between left and right in the US that something as vital as stopping nuclear weapons proliferation has a horizon of a short decade. All this from a president who achieved the Nobel Peace Prize on the promise of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. One would hope that what is billed as the most deliberative political body on earth, the US Senate, could easily see through the president’s very flawed nuclear deal. Because if it is enacted, President Obama’s legacy and the legacy of the Democratic Party will become one of nuclear proliferation leading to G-d knows what.

But the alternative to this nuclear deal doesn’t have to be war. On the contrary, now that the Iranians have issued their appeal for a peaceful Middle East, Israel and the US should simply call their bluff. President Obama has repeatedly called for an alternative to his framework agreement with Iran. A nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East is the only alternative that could engender vast international support. With his generalized essay, Mr. Zarif has given the Israeli and American leadership an opening. Now let’s see if Iran is really serious about peace. Because nobody wants to play three-dimensional nuclear chess with four or more of their neighbors.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).
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