If you view Iran one way, the nuclear deal is good news. If you view Iran another way, the nuclear deal doesn’t do much. All things considered, everyone including Israel is better off than we were in 2009.
In 2009, you’ll recall, Iran was predicted to have a workable nuclear device within three to five years. This is not surprising: Israel’s current Prime Minister has kept a rolling prediction of a workable Iranian nuclear device at three to five years throughout his political career.
That Iran does not have such a device does not cast doubt on Benjamin Netanyahu’s abilities as a prophet or intelligence analyst. Unfortunate accidents have befallen Iranian nuclear scientists and engineers with enough regularity to ensure that Sayyid Khamenei (as his office prefers to call him) hasn’t got a big red button in his office.
In 2009, Netanyahu gave a shorter timeline: one to two years. Unfortunate accidents befell Iranian nuclear scientists and in 2013 a mysterious explosion rocked Iran’s Blofeldesque Iranian enrichment facility at Fordo. This presumably reset the clock, whether the Iranians’ or Netanyahu’s.
In 2009, the Iranian regime was feeling sparky. The price of oil had reached its highest price in recent memory a year before, and while the price came down there was a heap of revenue in Iranians’ pockets. Ahmadi-nejad had been re-elected with an unrealistic majority. Centrifuges were whirring away in more than one Iranian nuclear facility. Iran’s sphere of influence included Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
In the six years since, the Obama administration has co-ordinated a sanctions regime that has ruined Iran’s economy. Iran’s proxies have lost control of nearly all of Syria and much of Iraq, not to the Great Satan but to something far worse: Sunni Muslims. The price of oil has been pushed ever downward, putting the screws to Iran and not incidentally to Russia, Iran’s friendly neighbour to the north.
Iran began negotiating away its nuclear weapon capabilities not because they could but because they had no choice.
Iran could afford to negotiate away its nuclear weapon capabilities because it doesn’t need them.
Iran needs working deliverable nuclear devices like it needs a hole in the head.
Nuclear weapons mean, for Iran, instant proliferation from Pakistan to a nuclear Egypt and a nuclear Saudi Arabia. Israelis with nukes doesn’t keep Egyptians or Saudis awake at night: Israel is comparatively predictable and bound to the Egyptians and the Saudis through their relationships with the United States. A nuclear Iran, however, would necessitate more assurance than Uncle Sam can give.
Nuclear weapons would mean, for Iran, humiliating attacks from Israel. Not the mythical magical bunker-buster that would end Iran’s nuclear ambitions in one Osirak-style attack; but those unfortunate incidents in which Iranian citizens wake up with holes in their heads, and concrete-reinforced underground mountain laboratories blow up.
Iran needs to assert its right to develop nuclear weapons as a matter of national prestige: the pre-eminent power in the Middle East (for that is how Iran views itself) has the same right to the ultimate deterrent that the Little Satan has (not to mention the Great Satan and, most evil of all, the British). It emphatically does not need actually to have a device.
For Iran, a nuclear device is more trouble than it’s worth. The 149 page PDF I’ve just read, with the ink barely dry, establishes that. Iran has the right to have a nuclear weapons programme, just not at the moment. Iran has the right to produce biomedical isotopes and sell them. Iran has the right to build a nuclear power station that will enable them to sell electricity to their regional neighbours.
For Iran, this agreement is a win. Sanctions will slough off, and the world has recognised their right to be at least as nuclear as Israel (apart from the weapons). This gives Iran a stake in seeing this agreement succeed.
For the United States this agreement is a win. An American administration has engaged constructively with revolutionary Iran, a bugaboo since 1979. Not since the sainted President Reagan sold Ayatollah Khomeini Israeli missiles has there been this constructive an engagement between the United States and Iran. The US no longer has to expend political capital in keeping the Chinese, Germans and Russians compliant with a very rigorous sanctions regime.
For China and Russia and the interested Europeans this is a win: we can all go back to selling stuff to the Iranians, and those countries which prefer not to frack the hell out of their countrysides can go back to buying Iranian crude.
What about Israel?
Israel cannot realistically assess Iran’s time to completing a deployable nuclear device as one to two years from the present. It is definitely longer, probably at least ten years.
Even if Iran ignores Appendix I of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (for so we must call the document that details The Deal), Israel is no worse off than it has been since the Fordo plant mysteriously exploded in 2013. Israel is much safer from Iranian nuclear attack than it was in 2009, though this has a lot more to do with mysterious explosions and suddenly-dead Iranian scientists than with the agreement.
Israel will particularly not mourn Iran’s renewed ability to oppose Daesh and to support that unlikely force for stability in the region, Bashar Assad. Hizballah may welcome an infusion of Iranian cash (I can’t imagine they have shelf space for more missiles), but their most important concern right now is being bled white by the al-Nusrah Front in Syria.
I view view Iran, Iran’s regime and Iran’s governing philosophy of Vilayat e-Faqih (governance by the sage) as a strange, dangerous but significant regional influence. Everyone including Israel has watched them take a kicking over the past six years, and has seen the Obama Administration not only join in but convert that kicking into an agreement that Iran has publicly signed up to.
To my eye, Iran has walked away with its right to be nuclear affirmed, and the burden of devoting resources to weapons development taken from their shoulders. The United States has walked away with its Middle East policy a little bit less of a shambles than it was in the aftermath of the Iraq War. Europe, Russia and China can once again freely buy oil and pistachios from Tehran. Israel continues to be noisily abused by Iran, but is unlikely to be attacked any time soon (and is still capable of causing unfortunate accidents when required).
Some people view Iran as a state governed by wild-eyed religious fanatics who cannot distinguish between national interest and achieving the apocalyptic aims of Twelver Shi’a Islam. For you, this isn’t a loss. The sanctions weren’t going to last forever, and the price of oil won’t be eternally depressed by American fracking. At no point in the past fifteen years has any state (including Israel) been ready to go to war with Iran. Somebody had to bank the gains made at Iran’s expense over the past six years, and the Yanks have just done it.
Are the Iranians suddenly nice? Will they swear off their attachment to foreign adventures? Will they drop Twelver Shi’a Islam like a hot rock and embrace rock-and-roll? No, but that wasn’t going to happen anyway. This agreement won’t cause any problems that weren’t already there.
The agreement is flawed (for instance, paragraph 31 of annex I is missing a verb), but so are all of the works of mankind. We just have to work on improving the world we have to live in, with the poor sad creatures we have to live with.