Depending on which side of the political aisle you fall on, the treaty from the nuclear negotiations with Iran is either the best thing Obama has done overseas, or the worst thing since the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage. (I know, that wasn’t that long ago, but if you’re part of this latter group, that was probably pretty heartbreaking. Different story, ANYWAY…). Here’s my thoughts, and I’ll be blunt. I don’t like the treaty. Inspections regimes could have been stricter. The arms embargo could have been rolled back more slowly. A lot of things could have been done. But at the end of the day, this is what we have, and frankly, it’s our best shot. Let’s take it.
First, the bad about the treaty. Iran has up to 24 days to delay inspection of its nuclear sites, particularly its military ones. If it wants to go longer, it can go before the UN Security Council, which has to vote to extend sanctions relief in such a scenario. Realistically, if Iran really REALLY wanted to continue its nuclear weapons program, it could. Juggling equipment and inspectors isn’t INCREDIBLY hard when you have three weeks notice. Let’s not forget that a neutral cargo vessel, the Maersk Tigris, was seized in international waters in the Strait of Hormuz during the negotiations. Iran gets to keep a number of centrifuges in operation, and their breakout time, the time between decision and access to a nuclear weapon, is about a year. Western response will have to be unusually quick and decisive to halt such an attempt. All economic sanctions are due to be progressively lifted in shows of good faith by both sides, and Iran immediately gains access to the international arms market for defensive technologies, followed five years later by offensive technologies and three after that for ballistic missile technologies. It does not address Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism, and it doesn’t address a handful of Americans held hostage in Iran.
Here’s the good about the deal’s technical bits. For starters, sanctions will only lift progressively, as Iran complies with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) requirements. This isn’t an immediate lift with no consequences. Next, the Security Council has to vote to maintain sanctions relief, should Iran act up. Any permanent member can veto such a measure, turning Russia and China’s usual game back on them for once. Inspectors will have access to any site they ask for, lest they refer Iran to the Council, and will be given fairly free access to all parts of the nuclear program, including the PMDs, or Potential Military Dimensions. Iran now becomes a signatory of the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, further enhancing IAEA powers, and with three weeks notice for snap inspections, Iran’s nuclear weapons program, should it continue, will be severely limited in size and scope in order to operate without detection. Such a program is, in my estimation, unlikely to yield useful numbers of working weapons prior to the ten year lift anyway. All of Iran’s advanced centrifuges are being shut down, and less than a third of the total at the moment, all old obsolete machines, will be allowed to continue running.
Why didn’t the treaty deal with Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism? It didn’t because that wasn’t the point of these negotiations. The entire focus of these negotiations was the nuclear program. This is why Hizbollah, Hamas, the Houthis, and other organizations aided by Tehran were not addressed. They were and are irrelevant to this discussion. Cold as it is, this is the same reason the captive Americans are not part of this deal either. This is a very sensitive subject, for forces on all sides, but the Iranians in particular, for reasons I will go more in depth in in a moment. Should Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism be addressed? Yes, one hundred times yes. This is neither the time nor the place to do it.
Here’s where the deal gets tricky. Dicey as it will be to sell this deal to the other Arabian states, who publicly are accepting the deal with caution, and to the American public, President Rouhani has a far harder, and arguably more important sale to his own people. Israeli complaints aside, where it should be noted that the military and intelligence communities are far more accepting of the deal, pragmatic lot that they are, there is no reason for the American Congress to turn this deal down. The most compelling reason for them to accept this deal: to strengthen President Rouhani and to make a stronger, more prosperous Iran.
Wait, aren’t the Iranians and the Americans sworn enemies? Yes, if you ask their governments. And by and large, America doesn’t particularly feel the effects of the sanctions on Iran. However, in Iran it is a different story. To say that the sanctions have hurt the economy would be to say that leg irons are an irritation when swimming. Their economy has been savaged by the sanctions, and the young, growing middle class in Iran is getting tired of it. An older, more reactionary guard still hold power, particularly in the Ayatollah himself and in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the separate, ultra-warlike branch of the Iranian government that acts like the military but isn’t. In the streets however, people are fed up. The abortive Green Revolution several years ago showed that. And while the Ayatollah might blanch at trading, or even becoming allies with the Great Satan, many of his citizens, particularly of the generation known in the US as the Millenials, would be more than happy to do that.
What is oft forgotten in discussions of Iran is that it is not like the other Arab states, even more than the Islamic Shia/Sunni wars. Iran, for starters, is Persian, not Arabian. It is also far less dependent on oil than its neighbors, has a far more educated populace and a strong industrial base that has begun manufacturing indigenous cars in the absence of foreign ones. There is a growing middle class, one that tried and failed to exert its will in the 2009-2011 Green Revolution. Iranian politics can be as fractious as those of anywhere else, and many often forget that Mr. Rouhani is a moderate, and far less hawkish than his predecessor, his boss the Ayatollah, or his country’s international reputation. This is where the treaty comes in.
The Iranian middle class is ready to return to the international community. This is a generation that has grown up in the Information Age, and they are not nearly so sheltered as their North Korean counterparts. They understand where they are in the world, and where they can be going if the sanctions are lifted. To date the nuclear program has been supported under a tribal, us-or-them mentality the sanctions have worsened. News of a prospective treaty was met with such celebration that the government ended up lifting the curfew normally in place, lest they end up arresting millions of peaceful celebrants.
Again and again the comparison is made to the deal with North Korea about its nuclear program, that they couldn’t be trusted and why should we trust Iran. To be perfectly frank, the comparison stops at hostile to American interests, and is pursuing nuclear weapons. North Korea is a completely isolated nation; its people have little to no access to outside information, and all media is run by state propagandists. There is little indigenous industry and the population is poorly educated, what of it little better than pure propaganda. Iran is the opposite to all of the above, a well-educated nation, with access to the outside world, an industrial base and a middle class.
There is no question among anyone watching these negotiations and now the all-important ratification stage that the lifting of sanctions will give Iran a massive economic shot in the arm. Billions of dollars are being unfrozen, and Iranian oil is now back on the international market (ok, that’s not a lot of help but still.) Iranian manufacturers and technology firms can now work together with their international counterparts, leveraging their home-brew solutions (they’ve reverse-engineered the modern car for heaven’s sake, a significantly non-trivial accomplishment). It’s true much of the state’s new cash will go straight into its regional and terror proxies. Much of the money however, the vast majority in my estimation, will instead go into the country itself. Investments in infrastructure, education and other such necessities are high on Rouhani’s agenda, who recognizes Iran needs a hand at home as much as abroad. And much of that money will go into the pockets of the Iranian middle class, the group most needed to reform the country on a fundamental level. Everything we do for Iran’s middle class, we do for the whole Middle East region.
At this point, anyone with an understanding of military affairs will tell you the military is off the table to remove Iran’s nuclear ambition. No campaign of airstrikes would ever root out every last facility, destroy every last expert and piece of technology. It will only serve to cement Iran’s tribal mentality, their hatred of the United States will finally be real and more than propaganda, and the campaign will inevitably backfire, resulting in a nation brought together in the search of a weapon capable of exacting a proper revenge. An invasion will also fail, and likely result in an ISIS fully in control of the entirety of Syria and Iraq, making probing attacks at every other nation in the region, including the American occupiers of Iran itself. In short, the military is the ultimate last resort.
At the end of the day, we stand right now in a position where the efforts of the international community will likely not have a serious impact on the Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon. I would treat it almost as a given at this point in time. If your end goal is preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, you have no options left, and frankly you’re playing the wrong game. Iran will get a nuclear weapon. If the United States is really interested in peace in the Middle East, just preventing an Iranian nuclear arsenal won’t do it, and is at this point impossible. What the United States should be focused on is re-engaging Iran in the international community, convincing them that they neither need the bomb nor want to use it.
I’ve been emphasizing the huge growth the Iranian middle class will see as a direct result if this treaty is ratified. That needs to be the goal of the United States of America, because those people are our allies in aims, if not in name. The Iranian people are tired of being an international pariah, they’re tired of being shut down and shut out. This treaty will let them do that. It will bring money, knowledge, ideas, and most importantly, power to the Iranian people. If the Iranian people become invested enough in the world economy, they will not stand for threats to their new-found prosperity and power. If the Iranian people become powerful, it will weaken the Islamic Revolutionary Guard who control them now by default. The IRGC, the ultra-militarist, ultra-nationalists that they are, are the real enemy of the United States of America, not the people of Iran, and we have a singular opportunity to drive them apart. If the IRGC is destroyed and the Ayatollah crippled or overthrown, Iran will return to the peaceful, prosperous, liberal nation it was before Cold War geopolitics killed the crown jewel of the Middle East and a natural ally of American ideals. Such a nation has no use for nuclear weapons, and that is unambiguously good for the United States of America.
To bring down the IRGC, the Iranian middle class must be strengthened. To strengthen the middle class, sanctions on Iran must be lifted and a president that understands this must be in power. That president is Mr. Rouhani, and those sanctions can be lifted with this treaty. If the United States is still trying to prevent an Iranian nuclear arsenal, they are playing the wrong game. If the United States makes Iran prosperous again, if the United States helps build an Iran invested in peace, invested in its own middle class, invested in the international order, Iran will have no need for nuclear weapons, and the United States will have accomplished its aim anyway. That will be an Iran that stands for peace in the Middle East, an Iran the United States can have constructive dialogue with about international issues, and an Iran both the world and Iran itself can be proud of. If the United States Congress really wants to protect the Middle East, it will ratify this deal, and allow Iran to return to its former glory.