It is entirely fitting that the arms control agreement negotiated between Iran and the world’s Great Powers, was completed in Vienna, a city which immediately conjures up a faded European past of influence and consequence. When we think of Vienna we think of culture, café society, Sigmund Freud and the Austrian Empire, a greatness receding in memory. So too this agreement, whatever its virtues or flaws, feels straight out of the twentieth or perhaps even the late nineteenth century, a time when a few men (now women are included) can gather, lock themselves into a small but opulent room and chart the course of nations between whiskey and cigars. Even the reaction to the deal, from both supporters and detractors, tried to place it within the pantheon of twentieth century diplomatic achievements and failures. Is it Nixon goes to China? Reagan and the Soviets? Maybe another Camp David? Frightfully, could it be another Munich?
The deal’s supporters were out in throngs welcoming a triumphant return to the lost art of diplomacy, specifically Great Power diplomacy, as the principal method of conducting international relations, a sharp rejection of the militarism of the Bush years. But to what end? The agreement is built on a wobbly set of twentieth-century assumptions about nation-states and global order, which do not hold true in the twenty-first.
President Obama’s argument in favor of the deal posits that Iran is an important regional power whose genuine aspirations for national strength need to be respected and channeled into a productive future. Iran, the theory goes, has a young, westward looking population which elected a relative political moderate, Hassan Rouhani as president (of course all candidates must be approved by the radical Supreme Leader), on a platform of better relations with the West. On the military front, while Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism, their cooperation is necessary to achieve stability in Iraq. Thoughtful engagement with Iran will hopefully temper its violent side and has a chance of transforming it into a respectable member of the community of nations.
According to this line of thinking, this type of engagement offers the best chance of eliminating Iran’s genocidal ambitions against Israel, its hostility towards the West and its quest for regional hegemony. While undeniably appealing, this argument fails to account for the ways in which Iran actually operates or the core beliefs of its well-entrenched leadership.
Perhaps the most dramatic change in the global order this the new century has been the rise of non-state actors with the ability to shape regional if not global events. Many non-state actors control portions of a host country and set up their own mini state-within-a-state, such as Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. In other instances, non-state actors emerge in regions which are essentially ungovernable, such as the remote mountainous regions of Afghanistan where Al-Qaeda is from. And in other instances, nations, such as Syria or Iraq, which were patched together by twentieth century European powers, and previously held together by strongmen, are splintering with large swaths controlled by quasi-governments. As these artificial regimes collapse, the international community still clings to the notion that they must remain “one country,” which is why, for instance, although Iraq is already effectively three countries — roughly speaking, a Sunni West, Kurdish North and Shiite East — it is still treated as one and holding it together remains a goal.
The idea of the nation-state became sacrosanct in the twentieth century, with state sovereignty and clearly defined borders central to notions of global security. The whole United Nations system is based on the participation of member-states. In the twenty-first century, such notions no longer hold for much of the Middle East.
One cannot understand twenty-first century Iran without appreciating its regional strategy. No country has made more skillful and deliberate use of non-state actors than Iran. Whether Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, Houthis rebels in Yemen, or Shiite militias in Iraq, the entire Middle Eastern region is dotted with Iranian allies, fighting in the interest of their patron regime, which provides them with funds, supplies and direction.
When asked why they did not press Iran for concessions relating to its support of terrorist organizations across the region, administration officials insisted that the parameters of the negotiation strictly focused on Iran’s nuclear program. In theory, from the perspective of pure negotiation strategy, there is a certain logic to this approach. Presumably, any new demand would be met with a reciprocal request for a concession. So if America were to demand, say, a reduction of Iranian support for Houthis rebels, Iran would surely seek a concession over some other aspect of the deal.
Negotiators wanted to avoid this — to keep the scope of negotiations as narrow as possible — so that Iran would have no grounds to water down the restrictions on its nuclear program. But this approach did not keep Iran from getting concessions over its ballistic missile capabilities and arms trafficking, which have nothing to do with its nuclear program. So it remains unclear why Iran’s regional adventurism was not broached. Further, the Great Power’s narrow focus in the negotiations undercut the President’s broader goal of using the deal as a springboard to turn Iran into a more open society with better relations with the West. In fact, it is likely to accomplish precisely the opposite.
Think of it this way: Imagine if instead of Hezbollah, actual Iranian troops controlled southern Lebanon, had as many as a hundred thousand missiles pointed at Israel and were fighting alongside the butcher Assad in Syria. Imagine if instead of Hamas, members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard, operated in Gaza shooting rockets at Israeli cities. Imagine if instead of Houthis rebels, Iranian troops were fighting to overthrow the Western-backed regime in Yemen. And imagine if, instead of these amorphous “Shiite militias,” actual Iranian troops were fighting in and controlled large swaths of Iraq. If, instead of proxies, actual Iranian forces were in play across the region, this deal would have been unthinkable, the notion of separating Iran’s nuclear program from its other warlike behavior and naked imperial ambitions would have been laughable.
Iran’s alliance with and use of non-state actors — a kind of postmodern, twenty-first century outsourcing of warfare — allows it just enough deniability for its role in conflicts across the region. In actuality, Iran is slowly and deliberately attempting to encircle its foes, traditional American allies no less, and restrict their freedom of movement. What is the best deterrence for an Israeli strike on the Iranian program? The knowledge that Hezbollah will launch rockets at cities across Israel in number so commanding they could potentially overwhelm Iron Dome.
What this deal will allow the Iranians to do is welcome the West through the front door, while out the back use its newly found wealth from sanctions relief to fund its proxy armies, therefore dramatically expanding its military capabilities and influence. Far from discrediting the radical, theocratic regime, the deal grants it legitimacy. It is a signal to the world that ruthless, aggressive behavior is the best way to ensure not only survival but respectability. Qaddafi gave up his weapons program and he was deposed and killed. Assad held onto his chemical weapons program and struck a deal which kept him in power; Iran has now done the same. It should be noted that the United States will now need to spend billions in weapons upgrades for both Israel and our Arab allies to counter the impact of the deal which supporters are touting as the key to regional stability.
Iran’s goal is clear. It is not simply to obtain a nuclear weapon, although they clearly want one. What they want even more is regional dominance. Nothing about this deal makes that goal less likely. In terms of their nuclear weapons program, the deal does have its upsides. It provides some intrusive inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities and should temporarily degrade Iran’s existing capabilities. However, in the best case scenario, assuming Iran does not cheat (unlikely if history is any guide), they can simply wait out the enforcement provisions of the deal and resume their program in ten or fifteen years when their centrifuge technology will be far more advanced and breakout time much shorter.
And this is what scares me most about the Iran deal. That President Obama and his surrogates are right when they repeatedly tell us that there is no alternative to this deal. That this really is the best we can do. That the Iranians would never have agreed to more, such as “anytime, anywhere” inspections of the most sensitive sites, or a full-accounting of the history of their nuclear weapons program or an agreement to stop funding terrorist organizations.
The alternative to this deal is not no deal and not war, but a better deal. But if the world’s six most powerful nations could not squeeze more out of an economically strapped isolated state, then we have nothing to celebrate. This weak, short-term, modest arms control agreement would not have been anyone’s definition of success (other than Iran) when these talks began. I understand Prime Minister’s Netanyahu’s world view when he warns of catastrophe and demands actions. It is bleak but the ability to act, to change the course of history, is still possible. In insisting that this deal is the only alternative to war (and for the reasons I have noted, it is certainly not an alternative to war, given that Iran is already at war with much of the region) President Obama’s view is actually bleaker, far more downbeat, if we really have no other choices than to accept what the Iranians have given us.
Just like Vienna is no longer one of the world centers of power, so too antiquated is the notion that diplomacy can take into account the role of nation-states alone given the realities of twenty-first century warfare, especially in the Middle East. Among other flaws, that is precisely what this agreement fails to do and therefore it enables Iran to continue its pursuit of a new form of empire.