Dec 7th 2013

The Iran Deal: Only Time Will Tell

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

In the wake of the interim nuclear deal with Iran, many questions have been raised by people from different backgrounds, government officials, and the media inside and outside the Middle East about the validity and importance of the agreement. Characterizing it as good or bad, however, provides only a shallow assessment of a deal that potentially has major regional and global implications. Its success or failure depends largely on the extent to which Iran will, in fact, comply with its various provisions. The more important question is, will it lead to a permanent accord that will prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons? This is one question that no one can answer as yet with any certainty.

Below I raise a few common questions and try to answer them without taking sides, hopefully shedding some light on the more nuanced elements of the deal and how it is perceived by its detractors and supporters.

Why does Prime Minister Netanyahu oppose the deal?

There are four main reasons. First, Netanyahu does not trust the Iranians and is absolutely convinced that, as it has in the past, Iran will cheat to advance its nuclear weapon program. Second, he fears the provision that allows Iran to enrich uranium (which will become enshrined in any subsequent agreement), which is the key to developing nuclear weapons in the future.

Third, Netanyahu simply does not trust President Obama to take any military action should Iran be caught cheating, and as he sees it, the deal effectively removes the threat of an American military strike. He believes that Iran is playing for time and will pursue nuclear weapons at its own pace. Finally, Netanyahu knows that he cannot defy the US and take any military action during implementation of the deal and while negotiations on a permanent agreement are underway, which would allow Iran to cheat and potentially reach the breakout point.

Why is Obama supportive of the deal?

First, weary of wars and violence in the Middle East, President Obama feels that he has the obligation to change the political dynamics in the region and pursue a diplomatic solution to the conflict with Iran. He hopes to build on it and achieve a comprehensive agreement that will permanently prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Obama believes that Iran is a significant regional power and it cannot be coerced to submission even by military means, which can only delay – but not prevent – it from acquiring nuclear weapons. He is also convinced that the deal could help stabilize the region because Iran could become a positive player and assist in solving the crisis in Syria, stabilize the violent conflicts in Iraq and even Afghanistan, and have a positive impact on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In addition, from Obama’s perspective, the success of the deal could change the relations between the US and Iran, thereby ending the three and a half decades of estrangement between the two countries.

Should the deal with Iran collapse, what are Israel’s real options?

First, feeling vindicated, Netanyahu (if he is still in power) will try to persuade the US to issue an ultimatum demanding that Iran dismantle much of its advanced nuclear facilities within a specified period of time, impose new crippling sanctions, and openly prepare for military operations. Should his efforts fail in this regard, Israel is likely to make visible preparations to strike Iran on its own in order to increase the pressure on the US to take decisive action.

Should Netanyahu conclude that Obama is not prepared to use force in spite of the indisputable evidence that Iran is cheating and is about to reach the breakout point to acquire nuclear weapons, he will make it known that Israel will use any means available at its disposal to protect itself and may well act on his threat.

Can the US ensure that the interim deal prevents Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons?

There is absolutely no guarantee that Obama can prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, not only because of Iran’s propensity for cheating but because the Ayatollah Khamenei has never forsaken that as a goal.

From the Iranian perspective, becoming a nuclear power will dramatically enhance its prospect of becoming the region’s hegemon. The Mullahs are still terrified that the US’ ultimate aim is regime change and feel that only nuclear weapons will safeguard the regime against the US’ presumed goal.

Being that Iran is waging a proxy war between the Shiites and the Sunnis, the acquisition of a nuclear weapon will give it major psychological leverage in dealing with the predominantly Sunni Arab world.

Finally, even though Iran has had a long and continuing history, spanning over 4,000 years, nuclear weapons can solidify its newly acquired identity as the Islamic Republic and give it the recognition and prominence it seeks both regionally and internationally.

Should the deal with Iran succeed, how will it impact the civil war in Syria?

Many observers believe that Iran could play an active role to stem the civil war in Syria. Iran, however, will insist that President Assad is part of the solution. The US and Russia are already discussing Iran’s inclusion in the upcoming Geneva II conference.

That said, Iran’s role in solving the crisis in Syria revolves around its sole desire to maintain its influence and strategic interests because Syria is seen as the linchpin to its control of the land mass extending from the Mediterranean to the Gulf. In connection with that, Iran will continue to finance and politically support Hezbollah and use it as the conduit to safeguard its interests in Lebanon and, by extension, in Syria.

Will this deal enhance or further diminish Obama’s credibility?

Regardless of whether the deal succeeds or fails, Obama’s credibility is tarnished in the eyes of the US’ Arab allies, especially because of his vacillation and reversals in dealing with Syria’s civil war. The predominantly Sunni Arab states oppose the deal because of their hatred of Shiites in general, and are terrified in particular of a Shiite Iran in possession of nuclear weapons.

They feel strongly that Obama is hungry for a major foreign policy success and he is willing to sacrifice loyal allies for a misguided political strategy that might bear some positive results. They argue that he is naïve for buying into Iran’s rhetoric of peace and diplomacy while Tehran is aiding terrorists and supporting the criminal Assad regime.

As they see it, whether or not the deal succeeds, Iran will emerge as the winner because it will pursue nuclear weapons one way or the other.

In fact the Arab states see eye-to-eye with Israel and are in constant communication with the Israelis. Ironically, they trust Israel more than the US to deal with Iran’s potential acquisition of nuclear weapons. Netanyahu, not Obama, is seen as the leader that can stop Iran in its tracks.

In a weird turn of events, to demonstrate their derision of Obama, Israel’s President Shimon Peres was invited by satellite to address a recent Gulf security conference in Abu Dhabi. Many officials and experts from Arab and Muslim states were in attendance. This would have simply been unimaginable only a few months ago.

What is the likelihood that Iran lives up to the agreement?

Many detractors of the agreement argue that the various provisions of the deal do not suggest that Iran has given up on its ambition to acquire nuclear weapons. To begin with, Iran insisted (and succeeded) on maintaining uranium enrichment on its soil, to which Israel and nearly all Arab states are adamantly opposed.

Iran refused to dismantle any of its nuclear facilities and agreed only to freeze further development of its heavy water plants that produce plutonium and not introduce new centrifuges for the duration of the agreement. Those who oppose the agreement maintain that Iran can reverse all of that at will.

Iran further refused to ship out of the country the nearly 500 pounds of uranium enriched to 20% and instead agreed only to degrade half to 5% and convert the rest to oxide, which can be stopped should Iran decide to change course as opponents to the deal contend.

Although the Obama administration insists that Iran accepted an unprecedented, intrusive inspection regime, Iranian sources insist that they have agreed only to “managed access” and have yet to accept unannounced inspections of their most sensitive underground plants at Fordo (near the city of Qom) and the Parchin Military Complex, where they are suspected to have experimented with nuclear devices.

Finally, the hardliners, especially the Revolutionary Guard, have already made it known that relations with the US will remain hostile and that they will be looking for any display of weakness by President Rouhani to undermine the deal. They insist that Iran has demonstrated great flexibility and in return all sanctions should be removed permanently.

Although they will refrain from openly challenging the deal as long as Ayatollah Khamenei continues to support it, they will change course once Khamenei decides that it is no longer in Iran’s best interest to stick to the deal. They have the means, the ability and the network to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people at short notice, which is beyond the means of Rouhani.

So, is it a good or a bad deal? Only time will tell.

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