War with Iran or in Iran — 2018?

It is easy to take sides in any topical issue in the Middle East, but in the case of the 2015 Nuclear Agreement with Iran perhaps the real issue is that it was doomed from the onset.

Few if any agreements between non-democratic regimes last longer than the life of the leader who signed it; while between democratic states this is not much better. Conditions that gave cause for the agreement might have changed, or the relative strength of the signatories shifted. A side may interpret an agreement differently due to genuine confusion ie translation or maybe because of a deliberate attempt to gain an advantage through subterfuge. This is also the case with international organisations or collective security arrangements whose life doesn’t exceed its necessity such as the Warsaw Pact and SEATO while others such as NATO have evolved its mission.

When the 2015 Iranian Nuclear Treaty was negotiated it was known that if the Iranians wanted to build a nuclear weapon, they would do so with or without an agreement. Then the risk involved in going to war to destroy the Iranian missile and nuclear program was voiced as being too high (militarily, financially, and politically) so it was decided to sign the deal.

Proponents suggested that lifting sanctions, subsequent trade and benefits would make the costs to high for Iran to risk continuing its missile and nuclear programs. Media sceptics and those opposing the Obama administration and his party voiced that Iran could take the benefits of the sanctions being lifted and then build nuclear weapons anyway.

Now in 2018 there is no denying that Iran has continued its missile program. The potential threats from Iran and its proxies in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza have not diminished three years since the treaty was signed and sanctions lifted. The Iranians loudly justify the need to develop missiles and test but disavow a militarised nuclear program leading American President Trump to pronounce that it has not held to the treaty.

None of the signatories to the agreement have the ability to turn to a court to request a judge to determine if they are upholding their part of the deal and to enforce the others to uphold theirs. There is no such international court or judge. States usually must resort to war when such agreements reached by diplomatic negotiation fail.

It might have been an illusion from the onset for America to have leverage over Iran through the agreement. It could be debated further on the same line that should America withdraw from it and re-impose sanctions that it would have any or more leverage. Indeed it may well be more of an illusion that terminating the agreement would punish Iran sufficiently to force the Iranians to abandon their course. Another uncertainty or illusion is whether the Iranians would build a nuclear bomb if the agreement were to be suspended as is the uncertainty that if a new agreement were to be reached that it would stop Iran from building a nuclear bomb.

Problematic is the agreement is not bi-lateral America and Iran. Other signatories EU, Russia and China regard the agreement as part and parcel of a longer negotiating process because of energy needs with Iran being the supplier. Such different views by the various signatories highlight that the longevity of international agreements rests less on the wording of the agreement and the facts and more so on the perspectives by each side or in other words how deep their pockets are; economics is often more important that politics!

In weighing such the only certainty is that all signatories need to adhere to the agreement for it to be an agreement. Pundits may argue that the Iranians are violating the agreement but they also argue that an agreement may still be the best strategy because the alternative is war. Certainly suspending the 2015 agreement turns the debate back to whether any agreement would be better than war or not. There is little likelihood of a new and different agreement being reached between Trump and Iran.

Trump and Israel must now make a decision on how to proceed. If war isn’t the chosen option given the view that the 2015 deal has not succeeded, and new sanctions or a new international agreement are not going to leverage Iran; then Iran is the victor without firing a shot but because it could as a nuclear power.

The bleak option then and now is one of two options accepting Iran with a missile program and a nuclear bomb or waging a war to prevent it. So the bottom line now in 2018 as it was in 2015 is to have a non-binding, non-enforceable, non-verifiable international agreement or war.

Today there is small print to this that might resolve the dilemma of difficult choices. Israel and America may not have to face the casualties of war in a war against Iran in 2018 that was a consideration for not going to war in 2015. Recent events of street demonstrations throughout Iran pose the characteristics of a civil war, a counter revolution to the clergy who took control in 1979.

About the Author
Dr Glen Segell is Fellow at the Ezri Center for Iran & Persian Gulf Studies, University of Haifa.
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