The Iraq war anointed Iran as a regional heavyweight—not the Vienna agreement

The most common objection to the Vienna agreement that may secure Iranian nuclear cooperation is that the deal essentially blesses Iran to become a regional hegemon. Avi Issacharoff writes that “US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry essentially determined the future of the Middle East, and established Iran’s hegemony in the region at the expense of Saudi Arabia and the Sunni world.”

Issacharoff, Dennis Ross, Ron Ben-Yishai, and others generally concede that the agreement, if upheld, would block Iran’s path to a bomb. The agreement goes further than some of them thought possible. But, they—and conservatives who oppose the negotiations altogether—point out, Iran stands to benefit economically from relief of international sanctions. Ross points out that even if 90% of the windfall revenue goes to non-military causes, Iran could spend an additional $15 billion on its security forces.

New funding for Iran’s overseas activities is especially unwelcome at a time when it seems that they have a finger in every simmering conflict in the Middle East—in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon, Gaza, etc.

This highlights the most fundamental problem with the Iranian nuclear deal: It solves a problem from 2002 in 2015. It was August 2002 when an Iranian dissident group first exposed the existence of a uranium enrichment facility at Natanz and a heavy water reactor in Arak. At this point, the long-worried theoretical prospect of an Iran with nuclear weapons became a policy crisis. The process of IAEA inspection of these sites began, and by 2005 the agency held that Iran was not in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The matter was referred to the UN Security Council, and the slow process of building sanctions began. The U.S. and Israel also worked tirelessly to delay Iranian progress through sabotage operations.

By the time the sanctions and covert actions brought Iran to the negotiating table, in late 2013, the Middle East was a completely different place. The biggest change in the landscape was the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which had several hugely detrimental effects in preventing Iranian nuclear progress.

  1. Virtually all American regional policy attention from 2002 to 2006 was on Iraq. Iraq became the prime topic of news, policy resources, military manpower, and money.
  2. The Iranians made huge geostrategic gains with the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The Iranians probably even attempted to encourage the invasion covertly. Hussein was Iran’s natural counterweight, and removing him empowered Iraqi Shia to set up an Iran-friendly regime.
  3. American intelligence on WMD was shown to be highly flawed. Attempts under the Bush Administration to pressure Iran were made more difficult by people like Mohammed ElBaradei pledging not to let Bush wage another war on faulty intelligence.

These combined effects of the Iraq war guaranteed that Iran would emerge a more powerful country regionally and exhausted American regional power projection, forcing President Obama to rebalance American military commitments at a time of budget austerity and war weariness. The United States, like Iran, is a different country now than it was in 2002. A generation of Americans has not seen a world before the disaster of Iraq and has come to doubt the use of military force in a preventive capacity.

In retrospect, the optimal time to have taken military action against Iran would have been in 2002. It seems that American intelligence agencies detected the construction at Natanz by early 2002, several months before their existence was leaked by Iranian. The centrifuge facility was still under construction, and no uranium was being refined there yet. It doesn’t appear President Bush ever considered military force as an option, however. By the time the intelligence reached his desk, a different country caught his eye.

Another lesson in retrospect is that perhaps Israel, in an effort to raise alarm and attention internationally, overplayed its hand. The current Prime Minister has said at every opportunity that he considers Iran’s leadership to be Hitler in 1938. The nuclear deal was not just a security dilemma, but an existential threat. Risky options would be necessary to stop Iran from getting that capability. The Prime Minister went to the United Nations and talked about how quickly Iran could become a nuclear weapons state given its uranium stockpile.

So, here is a deal that reduces Iran’s uranium stockpile by 98% and caps it at that level for 15 years. It also limits Iran to employing 6,100 first-generation (slower) centrifuges, a far cry from the much higher numbers Supreme Leader Khamenei said Iran would strive to deploy without a deal. The deal also involves repurposing Iran’s heavy water reactor at Arak into a light water reactor, which is more resistant to nuclear proliferation. IAEA presence and verification, under the terms of the agreement, would go far beyond normal IAEA regulations, and even beyond an Additional Protocol. On paper, this blocks every possible path to a bomb and keeps Iran’s nuclear “break-out” clock at a liveably safe distance.

But this is not enough for the deal’s opponents. Now, they say, an agreement cannot be approved because Iran has expanded its regional power and has non-nuclear levers. Now, this is about more than just preventing nuclear Holocaust.

Whatever Israeli errors in strategy were made, the worst of all was surely an American one. The effects of that mistake are enormous, irreversible, and still being felt around the region.

But it was not Obama’s mistake.

About the Author
Dan Rozenson is a graduate student in security policy at George Washington University in Washington, DC. He also writes about baseball at Baseball Prospectus.
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