Global Affairs

There's no better deal on Iran

But hostilities between US and Iran remain, as does the unease in Israel and Arab states

LONDON • The Iran nuclear deal is now concluded, but the political battle over its implementation and over broader security prospects in the Middle East is just beginning.

There is no shortage of diplomatic initiatives. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius is flying to Teheran this week as part of a new European effort to engage the Iranians.

In turn, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is expected in Qatar, where he hopes to arrange a summit with the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council. A few days after that, it will be US Secretary of State John Kerry's turn to arrive in the region, in a bid to reassure America's allies.

Yet, notwithstanding this upbeat diplomatic tempo, prospects for regional stability are not encouraging. For although peace may be on everyone's lips, further war is on everyone's minds.

"Moronic, myopic, malevolent, mendacious" - that's how one writer dismissed the US-brokered nuclear deal with Iran in Israel's Jerusalem Post newspaper.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

But that's just naive, niggly nonsense. The Iran deal is a considerable diplomatic achievement in more ways than commonly acknowledged.

US ASSUMPTIONS

One aspect that deserves greater mention is the contribution which the Europeans have made to the deal.

Britain, France and Germany set aside their different approaches and joined hands in persuading consecutive US administrations to explore the possibilities of a peaceful solution to the nuclear stand-off, often at times when the US seemed to be edging towards military strikes against Iran.

To be sure, it was US President Barack Obama who made the final decision to strike a compromise, but European support provided him with the necessary credibility, both worldwide and within US domestic politics.

The deal is also a reminder that, despite all the fashionable talk about America's supposed decline, there is no substitute to the US on the global stage.

A nuclear-armed Islamic state such as Iran throwing its weight around as far as Afghanistan and Central Asia would have been a real threat to Chinese security.

But where were the Chinese initiatives to prevent such a situation from happening?

Russia is also far closer to Iran than the US, and has everything to fear from its own restive Muslim minorities. So why was there no Russian plan to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons?

At the end of the day, it was only the US that picked up the cudgels of nuclear non-proliferation; China's and Russia's main contribution was to not stand in America's way. The lesson of the Iran negotiations is that the US remains the world's indispensable superpower.

And, finally, it is simply wrong to blame the Americans for signing a deal on which the Iranians are "bound" to cheat, as critics now argue. True, the danger that the deal will unravel is high.

The US Congress should be encouraged to ratify the Iran nuclear agreement, and governments should do their best in enforcing it. But that's not because this would either resolve the question of a nuclear Iran or stabilise the Middle East. Rather, it's because nobody else has a better alternative.

And the possibility that Iran would use every subterfuge in order to evade the deal's provisions is equally significant: after all, subterfuge is the story of the entire Iranian nuclear programme since its inception during the 1960s.

But the danger of violations exists with every arms control treaty. The Iranian one is no more "naive" than the disarmament deals which the US and the Soviet Union signed during the Cold War; all of which were dismissed at the time by American hardliners as "sell-outs", yet were all largely respected by both parties.

Nevertheless, the fact that the deal with Iran is deeply mistrusted by both Israelis and Arabs - the sort of unanimity seldom seen in the Middle East - cannot be dismissed as just an aberration.

For it is based on genuine and logical fears - and not so much about the actual clauses and provisions of the treaty but the optimistic spin put on the deal by the Obama administration, and the easy, lazy assumptions the US is making about the region's future.

Washington is correct to claim that Iran has agreed to an unprecedented level of inspections of its nuclear facilities.

But, even if one was to assume that the Iranians will respect all the inspection provisions and will never be tempted to interpret them in any different way - in itself a big assumption - does anyone believe that the entire world will remain fixated on such inspections for the next decade, as crises erupt in other parts of the world?

That's why Dr Henry Kissinger and Mr George Shultz, two of America's most prominent secretaries of state, had warned against the dangers of being lulled into complacency by "theoretical models of inspection" that are unlikely to be materialise, if only because of the sheer resources and political attention span that nobody will put into them.

A similar word of caution is in order about the US claim that, if Iran violates the agreement, economic sanctions on the country will be reimposed.

These "snap back" provisions look impressive, but only until one begins to think about how they will actually work.

Although the US is theoretically free to resume sanctions when it detects an Iranian violation and other countries are theoretically obliged to follow, in reality the case for such a hostile act against Iran will have to be made, and much of the argument is bound to depend on intelligence material which the US will have at its disposal, but will not be able to release.

Would world governments and public opinion go along with an American "snap back" sanctions demand, or would the instinct of commentators and politicians everywhere be to dismiss such claims as bogus, similar to the allegations about Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction a decade ago? Unless the Iranians are truly reckless and openly defy the treaty they have just signed, it will take the US months, if not years, to persuade other countries to join Washington in seeking to isolate Iran again, making "snap back" an idea which won't survive collision with reality.

IRAN'S INTENTIONS

And the same disconnect between reality and optimism applies to the Obama administration's assessment of Iran's future regional intentions. Officials in Washington appear to be genuinely persuaded that, when Iran regains control of its estimated US$180 billion (S$247 billion) of assets frozen by sanctions around the world, it will use all this cash to spur domestic economic development.

But, besides the fact that there is no historic basis to assume that Iran's Islamic government will prioritise economic prosperity - having done nothing of the kind over the past four decades - the US' optimistic scenario ignores Iran's domestic power realities.

Having accepted the deal, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, now has to keep happy Iran's Revolutionary Guards, the mainstays of the regime, and also the main financial beneficiaries from the economic sanctions.

That will mean that the Guards are virtually guaranteed access to large financial resources, cash which they will use to finance their growing involvement in support of Hizbollah in Lebanon, the Assad regime in Syria, the various militias in Iraq, rebels in Yemen and Shi'ite movements across the Middle East.

Ayatollah Khamenei's appearance with a Kalashnikov machine gun in his hand days after the nuclear negotiations were concluded and his bizarre tweet over the weekend of a mock picture of President Obama committing suicide, are early indications that the hostility between Iran and the US continues unabated, and that the Iranians interpret the deal as a sign of American weakness, an invitation for more Iranian meddling in the Middle East.

During his forthcoming trip to the region, Mr Kerry will offer America's allies in the region plenty of support to "push back" against Iran's regional influence, another one of the cliches being thrown about now in Washington.

Israel is already being offered new weapon deliveries, and the Arab monarchies of the Gulf will also be promised additional US military presence.

But neither Jerusalem nor the Arab capitals believe that President Obama has either the disposition or the desire for a greater intervention in the Middle East; all worry that the only connecting thread between the "push back" and "snap back" strategies is that the US will turn its back on the Middle East.

Notwithstanding all these dangers, the US Congress should be encouraged to ratify the Iran nuclear agreement, and governments should do their best in enforcing it.

But that's not because this would either resolve the question of a nuclear Iran or stabilise the Middle East. Rather, it's because nobody else has a better alternative.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 27, 2015, with the headline 'There's no better deal on Iran'. Print Edition | Subscribe