The Long Train of (Likely) Consequences

For good or ill, Monday’s UN Security Council vote rendered the debate over whether this is a good deal or a bad deal a matter of strictly historical interest. The deal has now been done and the US Congress’s vote is merely symbolic. The UN vote means that the international sanctions are going to be lifted irrespective of what Congress wants or doesn’t want. Not even an over-ride of an Obama veto would make a real difference. The horse is about to leave the barn and there is no stopping it.

So what will the deal accomplish? We don’t know and cannot know. Ten to fifteen years without nuclear weapons seems like a fair bet as to the initial outcome. And then what? In part this will depend upon whether the nature of the Iranian regime changes in the interim and if it decides to give up its nuclear ambitions.

The most likely scenario is that they are just one turn of the screw away from a nuclear weapon in year 11 or year 16, and the world, or more specifically the US and/or Israel, will have to figure out what to do about this.

Perhaps, like Israel, Iran will choose a policy of nuclear ambiguity, which is a way of securing all the fruits of having nukes without incurring the downside consequences of going public about having them. And perhaps Iran and Israel can achieve a modus vivendi under such circumstances.

If only this was the whole story, but alas it is not. Even leaving aside the question of Iranian cheating and the 24 day gap regarding “snap” inspections, the deal gives the Iranians the right to retain and further develop its nuclear enrichment capability, which is why Obama himself observed that by year 10 or 15 the Iranians will be a legitimate nuclear (weapons) threshold state.

The question, however, is what will this mean to the neighborhood. What will the Saudis, the Egyptians, the Turks do? Will they sit idle and hope that Iran does not decide to pursue nuclear weapons even while the pending deal permits them to continue to develop their nuclear program? I think not. Indeed I think that it is a fairly good bet that these states will either seek to advance their own nuclear weapons r&d programs or to buy such weapons from Pakistan and to do so during the next ten years during which the Iranian program is still largely mothballed. (After all the Saudis apparently bankrolled the Pakistani program, and presumably did not do so from purely altruistic motivations.)

But the ultimate irony is that the unintended but rather predictable consequence of the deal between the p5+1 and Iran is likely to be a proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region — ironically first among the Sunni regimes, and then, as a “consequence” by the Iranians as well who will decide to “reverse” their opposition to nuclear weapons as unIslamic in order to defend the Shiites, not against Israel, but against the Sunnis!

Moreover, all of these regimes know that the only reason Kaddafi was toppled by NATO is because he did not have nuclear weapons. It is not lost on any of them that Kaddafi would still be in power if he had acquired a nuclear weapon and a delivery system for it. And thus I am sure that, at the end of the day, the Iranian revolutionary regime looks at such a weapon not as a weapon to be used against its neighbors but as the best form of long term life insurance for the regime itself.

In fact, the only chance of securing a nuclear weapons free Middle East would be a multi-party agreement to forgo nuclear weapons among all the potential nuclear weapons states of the region to respect one another’s borders and sovereignty. But of course Israel is not about to accept such a deal, while Iran, for one, is also unlikely to be willing to stake its future on such an agreement.

Only if Iran had been forced to dismantle its entire nuclear program, and to accept stringent restrictions in perpetuity on its development of dual-use nuclear technologies was there a good chance of avoiding the outcome of a broadly nuclearized Middle East.

Finally, it should be noted that comparisons with the Cold War, in which mutually assured destruction actually served to keep the peace, are misplaced when it comes to nukes in an unstable region that is populated by illegitimate and antidemocratic regimes, that is rife with sectarian and ethnic civil wars, and in which millennialist sects who might actually be willing to employ these doomsday devices proliferate like flowers in the desert after a spring rain.

In a word, welcome to the new world. Hope I am wrong but the wheel is now in spin.

About the Author
Trained as a political theorist at Columbia University and in Religious Studies at Harvard, Michael Gottsegen (Ph.D., 1989) has worked in and out of academia since the early 1990s, having taught at Columbia and Brandeis before coming to Brown. A book based on his thesis, "The Political Thought of Hannah Arendt," was published in 1994.
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