Hearing of the second extension to the Iran nuclear talks, I’m sure everyone who was rooting for the comprehensive agreement’s success felt annoyed and was wondering why the negotiators had to delay the deal again and couldn’t get on with it already. It was also true of those who have been advocating for more sanctions, which would violate the interim agreement and torpedo negotiations. Senator Robert Menendez, co-author of new sanctions legislation, found the diplomatic failure “disappointing and worrying” and boldly declared “I intend to work with my Senate colleagues in a bipartisan manner in the coming weeks to ensure that Iran comprehends that we will not ever permit it to become a threshold nuclear state.” Alright, Mister lame duck Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but do you and your colleagues plan on building a time machine?
Colin Kahl told Laura Rozen last year that “We have perhaps 12-18 months until they [Iran] reach a breakout capability,” and once that happens “Iran becomes a de facto nuclear-armed power whether they build a bomb or not and the prevention and diplomacy game is up.” Well, then the P5+1 negotiations have been a sham from the start because Iran achieved breakout capability years ago and, having enriched a couple tons of uranium, has been a nuclear threshold state the entire time. The type of diplomacy that Menendez and other Iran hawks support that demands Iran’s civilian nuclear program be dismantled was indeed never viable and they don’t expect Iran to make a deal that pleased them. But the hawks only dare flirt with sabotaging the diplomatic process because they know the Europeans will take a sledgehammer to the sanctions’ architecture if Congress is responsible for the talk’s failure. So, although they’d personally prefer it if the talks failed and Iran be at fault for it, the hawks will be content with a deal as long as non-nuclear sanctions remained.
Imposing sanctions on Iran has been the name of the game for Congress’s hawks and Washington’s Middle Eastern allies and Anthony Bubalo explains why:
“Ending Iran’s political and economic isolation will allow it to better pursue its regional ambitions and to realise its economic potential. But this is precisely what regional adversaries such as Israel and Saudi Arabia (as well as their supporters in the US Congress) fear. This is not to say that they do not fear a nuclear-armed Iran. They do, but they also recognise that the utility of nuclear weapons is limited and that a nuclear-armed Iran would be isolated and sanctioned, and would bring even stronger regional security guarantees from the US. The Israeli and Saudi preference, therefore, is to see Iran sanctioned and contained. As I argued in part 1, even if a nuclear deal leaves Iran less isolated and more influential in the region and internationally, I think over time, the end of its economic isolation will pose a more direct threat to the regime and to the interests of hardliners than the current sanctions regime. But for those regional countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia with justified fears about what a more powerful Iran means for their interests and the security of their citizens, this is unlikely to prove reassuring.”
The U.S., Israel, and Saudi Arabia don’t want this economic siege to cease not only to keep Iran much weaker than it should be but also to protect the Islamic Republic. Bubalo is right that an Iran that’s fully open for business poses the risk of the regime being unseated and that would mean those countries would lose a precious enemy and handy scapegoat for all that ails the Middle East. They might even fear that the easily maligned and caricatured mullahs would be replaced by a sophisticated, secular regime that retains the anti-imperialist ideology of the Islamists. That would cause migraines for the U.S. as a democratic Iran arises to become the leader of the Non-Aligned Movement and makes revolutionary waves with its impactful denunciations of the American empire.
That covers the hawk’s motivations but what is the White House trying to get out of these negotiations? The administration knows, as Barbara Slavin writes, that “ultimately, nothing can stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons if its leadership chooses to do so,” but they’re placing their bets on Slavin’s recommendation that “The best insurance that Iran won’t do this is to bind it back into the international community through trade, investment and people-to-people ties.” Bubalo agrees that President Obama is setting the stage for a measured détente and another objective besides:
“I think Obama wants to remove the nuclear issue as an obstacle to gradually normalising relations with Iran. But there is another dimension. Both enhanced sanctions, and now the nuclear negotiations, are not just designed to stop Iran from getting the bomb, they are also designed to stop some of America’s allies in the region taking unilateral military action against Iran. In particular, what I think Obama fears is that any military strike by Israel will risk drawing America into any subsequent conflict between the two. To a lesser degree, by diminishing the nuclear threat, Obama also reduces the reliance of regional Gulf allies, in particular Saudi Arabia, on US security guarantees. This again helps him recalibrate American policy and posture in the region.”
Getting a final deal is all about removing the millstone that is our Middle East allies from around our necks and avoiding additional security commitments so the administration can finally make good on pivoting to the Pacific. They have been using the threat of drawing Washington into a regional conflict in order to stop that pivot and avoid US pressure on doing things they’d rather not (like for Israel, ending the I-P conflict). But, while there is a minuscule chance now of an Israeli or Saudi assault, it would be impossible after the deal. Once relations with Iran improve and IS is wiped out, the U.S. will be able to say sayonara to any more major wars in the Middle East.