The changing geo-strategic reality alone seems to argue in favor of approving the treaty. Despite the imperfections, it is technically sophisticated and perhaps the most intrusive nuclear treaty in history. Iran will be a major regional force—and mischief maker – with or without the agreement. But, an agreement will establish ties between Iran and the West (mostly the U.S.) that were not in place before and could be exploited for further ties.
By Steven E. Meyer
The nuclear deal negotiated between Iran and several other states is far from perfect. This fact has been clearly laid out by opponents of the agreement and even by its supporters. The pros and cons of the deal had been laid out ad nauseum even before it was signed on 15 July. In fact, apparently it was not even necessary for opponents of the deal to condemn it and some supporters to praise it without having read it.
Two recent excellent articles published by Trans Conflict have put the advantages and disadvantages into perspective: one by David Kanin is entitled Kicking the bomb down the road; the second is The good, the bad and the ugly about the Iran by Alon Ben Meir—both well worth reading. Kanin points out the “over-hyped” rhetoric of both supporters and opponents and Ben Meir argues—in reflecting philosopher Alain Badiou—that the agreement is not (yet) an Event, but he is willing to wait and see. As informative as both pieces are, there are, I think, two major points that should be explored a bit further, both of which, I think, suggest adoption of the agreement.
First is the geo-strategic perspective. It is almost trite now to say that the Middle East is in the midst of fundamental change; but it’s true. The post-World War I construction of the Middle East built primarily by the Sykes-Picot Agreement, is rapidly unraveling and in the event is leading to new political realities and communities. States are disappearing, boundaries are changing, incredible violence is common-place and philosophies of rule have been turned upside down.
But, it is not just the Middle East that is changing; so is most of the Western-dominated Westphalian international order. We are perhaps at one of those rare “hinge” points in history where major change is taking place while attitudes, emotions and understandings lag behind. In the contemporary international environment American attitudes have a major impact not only on the unfolding of policy with respect to the Middle East that is based on hubris, arrogance and a unique understanding of exceptionalism that have their roots in the very foundations of the country. These “truths” of American understanding of the “righteousness and certainty” of American policy lies at the heart of the misguided invasion of Iraq by the Bush Administration in 2003 and the expectation that the “Arab Spring” was the gateway to democracy and civil society throughout the Middle East. In fact, the powerful role of American misunderstanding both of the scope of American power and influence and the evolution of the Middle East underpin the tragic American-led policy in the Middle East. Certainly, once in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Obama’s haste to get out compounded the problem, especially with respect to reinforcing the rise if the Islamic State and the collapse of Iraq.
Whatever the differences between Presidents Bush (43) and Obama on many issues, at least they share culpability in so greatly misunderstanding the Middle East. It is not only this misunderstanding of the Middle East, but also their ignorance of or unwillingness to recognize the declining limits of American power that has led directly to the success of Iran in establishing itself as a dominant regional power and reinforcing a struggle for regional dominance with Saudi Arabia. Certainly, Iran would have been a power to be reckoned with under any circumstances, but the collapse of Iraq and Washington’s Pollyannaish view of the “Arab Spring” contributed mightily to the reconstruction of the Middle East.
The changing geo-strategic reality alone seems to argue in favor of approving the treaty. Despite the imperfections, it is technically sophisticated and perhaps the most intrusive nuclear treaty in history. Iran will be a major regional force—and mischief maker – with or without the agreement. But, an agreement will establish ties between Iran and the West (mostly the U.S.) that were not in place before and could be exploited for further ties. The deal may not, in Meir’s words, yet be an Event, but it is certain that without the agreement there would be no possibility of it becoming an Event. Without the agreement for certain Iran will remain a sullen, hostile, angry state that would have no positive, concrete strings to the West. As Kanin points out, the situation can be compared Churchill’s conundrum in the 1930s, but if the U.S. plays the game intelligently this agreement with Iran might in the future be compared as well with President Nixon’s opening to China in 1972 and President Obama’s opening to Cuba this year.
But, why not tie the Iranian nuclear deal to Teheran’s policies and activities throughout the region, as Meir suggests? Quite simply, I think, it would not work. Iran would never agree to a nuclear agreement with non-nuclear strings attached. Attempting to expand the scope of the deal would have quickly scuttled any possibility of a nuclear accord. The nuclear deal must be seen as sui generis. If the Iran nuclear deal is to be connected to anything it should—in the future—be the first step in addressing the dangerous expansion of nuclear weapons in the region. This would be a difficult undertaking, but the threat of nuclear war in such an unstable part of the world has grown exponentially in the recent past. Not only do India and Pakistan face each other with nuclear weapons, but Israel’s nukes are the worst kept secret in the region and Saudi Arabia has hinted at prospect of starting its own nuclear weapons program if Iran’s nuclear ambitions go unchecked.
The second consideration is connected to Kanin’s point comparing Soviet-American nuclear agreements with the P5+1-Iran nuclear deal. He notes that the Soviet Union and the United States were two secular states while Iran is a theocracy that might see a religious benefit in fomenting a nuclear conflagration. Specifically, Kanin points out, the Iranians see themselves living in “sacred times” and “nuclear war might motivate the emergence of the Hidden Imam.” This is an intriguing observation. There are a couple further aspects to this analysis worth considering. First, the long Soviet-American nexus was not devoid of deep ideological underpinnings, as well as a considerable dose of real politik. As such, the Soviets and Americans came close to nuclear war several times—at least that is the analysis of many experts. One only has to think of the Cuban missile crisis. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists started warning in 1947—via its famous clock– that nuclear war was close indeed; it was never more than a few minutes from midnight—the time when a nuclear exchange would happen.
Of course, Kanin has a point—the Soviet-American contest, as dangerous as it was, was not “theocratic” in the same way that Iran is. At the same time, there does not appear to be any convincing evidence that for the Twelver Shias the reappearance of the Hidden Imam would be aided by a nuclear cataclysm. In fact, the Hidden Imam is supposed to come in peace (along with Jesus!) to establish a world-wide peaceful caliphate. Nuclear war, with first, second and perhaps third strikes, would seem to undermine the work and goals of the Hidden Imam. The religious rulers of Iran are dedicated theocrats—and some certainly are fanatical, but they really do not appear to be suicidal. Even former President Ahmadinejad, as seemingly “unstable” as he was, was not suicidal. In my opinion, the argument of a religiously inspired nuclear war emanating from Iran is no more compelling than Christian dispensationalists wanting to blow up the world to hasten the rapture. Moreover, there is a growing diversity of political opinion in Iran that would challenge any interpretation of Shia Islam that sees a religious benefit from nuclear war.
As imperfect as it is, as Meir says, there is “no viable alternative to this deal.” Let’s not sacrifice the good on the altar of the perfect.
Steven E. Meyer is a partner in the firm TSM Global Consultants and a Fellow at the Center for Public Justice in Washington, D.C. Before that he worked for many years at the Central Intelligence Agency, where his last position was as a Deputy Chief of the U.S. Government’s Interagency Balkan Task Force during the wars of the 1990s. After leaving the CIA, Dr. Meyer taught national security studies, American foreign policy and comparative politics at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. Earlier in his career, he taught at the University of Glasgow and the Free University of Amsterdam. He received bachelor’s degrees from the University of Wisconsin, an M.S. degree from Fordham University in New York and a PhD from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., both in comparative politics. He has published in several journals and is working on a book on the changing structure of the international system.