President Barack Obama and his administration made history by landing a deal on Iran’s nuclear program but now they’ll have to fight to ensure this history stays made. The pact has to get past Congress, where a sixty day review period for it is currently underway, and, as Senator Bob Corker notes, the White House is obliged “to come up here and convince us that our nation, the region, the world is better off with this deal than not.” That shouldn’t prove too difficult. It’s a no-brainer that this agreement will alleviate Mideast tensions for a time by kicking the can down the road, which would certainly leave the world better off to say the least. Nevertheless, I thought I’d explore if there would be any benefit to the deal not going through.
First, let’s assume the status quo won’t be the result and Tehran green-lights nukes. Congress’s disapproval would ironically be the catalyst that paves the path for Iranian nukes because, as the administration admonishes, the U.S. will be unable to muster up a coalition for a military option to stop Tehran from rushing for them. Should the U.S. unilaterally attack anyway the international reaction would make the outcry against the Iraq war look like, “child’s play”, as an administration official told Chemi Shalev, “compared to the external challenges and internal upheaval that America could face in case of an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, carried out under such circumstances.” At that point, would the U.S. rather face those most unpleasant consequences or make its peace with an easily containable nuclear-armed Iran?
Every single politico in Washington would agree with Nancy Pelosi word for word when she said “A nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable to the United States, unacceptable to Israel, and unacceptable to the world.” Yet how come this wasn’t true of any of the other nations that have gone nuclear in the Post-WWII era? Why was the campaign waged against Iran not done against, say, Pakistan and North Korea? President Obama explained to Jeffrey Goldberg the thinking behind why Iran’s case was unique:
“The potential for escalation in those circumstances is profoundly dangerous, and in addition to just the potential human costs of a nuclear escalation like that in the Middle East, just imagine what would happen in terms of the world economy. The possibilities of the sort of energy disruptions that we’ve never seen before occurring, and the world economy basically coming to a halt, would be pretty profound. So when I say this is in the U.S. interest, I’m not saying this is something we’d like to solve. I’m saying this is something we have to solve.”
A nuclear arms race tanking the global economy would be the scariest of scenarios but one which can be remedied with the immediate implementation of a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone where Iran and Israel agree to disarm their arsenals. What is the real danger then? Like Israel, an Iranian nuke wouldn’t threaten the U.S.’s physical security but would have a game-changing impact on Washington’s position in the region. Andrew Krepinevich–in a Foreign Affairs article arguing for “A new strategic framework” for the U.S. that is much more dedicated to “preserving access to key regions and the global commons, which are essential to U.S. security and prosperity”–levels with us, writing “The challenges that China and Iran pose for U.S. security lie not in the threat of traditional cross-border invasions but in efforts to establish spheres of influence in, and ultimately to control access to, critically important regions.” A Department of Defense paper from 2012 saw “access denial” becoming more likely in the future and concluded that, “the United States must maintain the credible capability to project military force into any region of the world in support of [its] interests.” The U.S. would risk losing that “credible capability” in the Persian Gulf if Iran got its hands on the ultimate “access denial” weapons.
So what we have here is fear over the mother of all access denial scenarios—the expulsion of the U.S. from the Persian Gulf and the passing of control of the Gulf’s oil to Iran which would enable it to, in the words of a 1982 secret memo to the National Security Council, “have a very large political as well as economic influence in the world,” as the U.S. enjoys at present. At worst, Iran could use its nukes to give the US the boot but would they? It would certainly be tempting for Iran but it sounds like they’d prefer Washington stay around to help keep order in the vital waterway. Robert Kaplan comments that “the accord creates a better context for U.S.-Iranian cooperation throughout the Middle East where their interests overlap,” one of those mutual interests being that “they both want predictable maritime rules-of-engagement in the Persian Gulf.” Then again, I doubt Iranian nukes could oust the U.S. in the first place. Nuclear coercion doesn’t exactly have a stellar track record. The only advantage Iran would gain from nukes would be to deter nuclear strikes and conventional invasion.
So is there any benefit to there being no deal? Well, the world wouldn’t be any worse off seeing that an Iranian bomb wouldn’t be a nuclear nightmare unlike any other before it. The upside to this deal’s rejection by Congress lies in the correction there will be to U.S. foreign policy. For you see, the deal will become a reality regardless. The P5+1 will simply switch to being the P5-1 and the accord will continue to be honored. A precedent would then be set where major international issues are settled upon without the U.S.’s participation. To reverse the damage done to the U.S.’s stature as a global leader, there will be a fiery reaction against the Iran deal opponents’ mentality of permanent confrontation and overwhelming support going forward for international cooperation, peace-making, and shared global leadership roles.