Iran nuclear deal: When a deal can be worse than no deal

A US-Iran nuclear deal is likely this month, but it will be a watered-down deal that does not constrain Iran enough and will not please its neighbours.

Barring last-minute surprises, it now looks very likely that by the end of this month, the United States and Iran will conclude a deal over the latter's nuclear programme.

Talks began yesterday in Switzerland. The aim is for Iran and the six world powers - the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany - to agree on the outlines of a deal by March 31 and to have details fine-tuned by July 1.

If a deal is reached, it would still prompt a huge tussle between US President Barack Obama and the Congress. But the deal's broad outlines are clear - in return for accepting to halt its nuclear activities and have its facilities inspected, Iran will be allowed to emerge from international isolation and get relief from sanctions which have crippled its economy.

Governments around the world will undoubtedly rejoice. The Nobel Peace Prize committee, which awarded the world's most prestigious title to Mr Obama before he even thought about what to do with Iran, would claim to have been vindicated. And pundits will probably treat the US President more kindly than they currently do.

But amid all this anticipated backslapping, there is one inconvenient fact - none of the countries that neighbour Iran or are directly affected by it welcome the deal.

For the expected Iranian agreement will do little to lower existing tensions in the Middle East, provide no safeguards against a nuclear Iran, and offer no answer to the broader question of regional security.

Into the void

It would be churlish to deny the current US administration credit for trying to avoid the nightmarish choice that faces the world, one which former French president Nicolas Sarkozy once aptly summarised as "either Iran with a bomb, or Iran which is being bombed".

Mr Obama stepped into a diplomatic void that no other government was willing or able to fill. In the process, he also had to deal with the mistakes of former US presidents, while enduring the criticism of allies and foes, none of whom offered a workable alternative.

Yet paradoxically, it is precisely this diplomatic persistence that may turn out to be Mr Obama's undoing. For the US leader's determination to make a nuclear deal with Iran the epicentre of his eight years in the White House has not only eclipsed other important issues, such as the US pivot to Asia, but it has also conveyed to Iran the feeling that the US needs a deal more than the Iranians themselves.

In the process, the US neglected another key objective - reassuring its Middle East allies that any deal with Iran will not come at their expense.

US administration officials claim with some justification that they have spent a large amount of time reiterating America's security guarantees.

The US President also made a historically unprecedented gesture of flying to Saudi Arabia in January to offer in person his condolences to the country's ruling family for the death of the previous monarch, largely as another reassurance.

Yet deeds remain stronger than words and America's actions have been hardly reassuring. The US promised not to deal secretly with Iran. But the pledge was not honoured: American officials negotiated directly and in secret with the Iranians for years.

Administration officials also talk frequently about the potential for future cooperation between Iran and the West in confronting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria terrorist organisation.

That makes sense for someone based in Washington, but not for someone in the Middle East.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke for every government in the Middle East when he recently told the US Congress that, even if Iran and the West appear to share some interests at the moment, "Iran is a classic example that my enemy's enemy is not my friend, but still my enemy".

When Mr Obama came to office, Iran was struggling to control one country and influence two others. Now it controls Iraq and Syria, has a decisive influence in Yemen and Lebanon, and is terrifying the rest of the Middle East with its militias.

As Mr David Rothkopf, who runs America's influential Foreign Policy magazine, points out, "it is possible that by the time (Mr) Obama leaves office, no other country on earth will have gained quite so much as Iran".

Watered-down deal

Nor is there much credibility in the Obama administration's claim that a deal will ensure a nuclear- free Iran.

The US started with a demand to completely dismantle Iran's nuclear capabilities, a refusal to accept that it may reprocess nuclear fuel on its soil, and a demand that it accounts for its past attempts to hide its programme. The requirement to explain the past has long been forgotten, and the initial refusal to allow Iran to hold any of its centrifuges has been converted into an acceptance that it could hold "a few", then "a few hundred" and now a "few thousand".

It is not widely known that, if a deal is reached, the first consequence will be that the United Nations Security Council will have to vote to allow Iran to reprocess nuclear fuel. At the moment, the country is banned from doing so.

So, an agreement to "de-fang" Iran of nuclear capabilities will, perversely, start with offering the Iranians such capabilities.

US negotiators are fixated on the "breakout", the theoretical time it would take Iran to violate the treaty, reconfigure the cascades of centrifuges at its declared enrichment sites, and then make enough highly enriched uranium for one nuclear weapon.

The theory goes that a "short" breakout time - on the order of weeks - makes it somehow more likely that Iran will build a nuclear weapon, but if the breakout time is at least one year, as US diplomats want, then the Iranians will see no point in violating the deal.

But as Mr Jeffrey Lewis, a noted US arms control expert, points out, "breakout is a wonk's calculation - there is simply no evidence that political figures in Iran, like Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, think about the problem or are deterred by it". Furthermore, he asks, "how could the US be sure its estimate of warning time will remain intact in year five or year 10 of an agreement?"

Much will depend on the quality of Western intelligence capabilities, and that can be patchy: Iran spent years developing secret nuclear facilities in Natanz and Qom, and both were spotted more by luck than design.

Sunset clause

But the biggest problem is the treaty's own "sunset clause". Amazingly, the Obama administration is prepared to sign an agreement that will expire in a mere 10 years, after which all restrictions on Iran's nuclear programme will vanish.

From Mr Obama's perspective, that makes some sense. The world will be a very different place in a decade and perhaps even the mullahs in Teheran will be gone by then.

But the countries of the Middle East cannot afford to leave their fate to a wink and a prayer. So, far from stabilising the region, the conclusion of a deal with Iran will plunge the Middle East into a new era of instability.

Mr Netanyahu may lose power in tomorrow's general election in Israel. Yet whoever succeeds him will follow the same policy of viewing Iran as the deadliest threat to the Jewish state.

The same applies to the Arab monarchies of the Gulf and the Arab nations in North Africa. The race will be on for these countries to improve their defence capabilities and acquire missile delivery systems as a prelude to nuclear weapons.

Far from acting as a stop to future nuclear proliferation, the US-Iran deal as currently constituted will make it much more likely.

That is the reason the deal is not only opposed by people like Mr Netanyahu or some Republican hardliners in Washington, but "even Democrats on Capitol Hill who bought into (Mr) Obama's Iran arguments are now getting buyers' remorse", says Dr Gary Samore, research director at the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, a negotiating expert on Iran.

Going back to the Kennedy presidency, every major arms control agreement has been submitted by the White House to Congress for approval. The fact that Mr Obama does not intend to do so with the Iran deal is disquieting, not because the world is interested in the intricacies of US constitutional or political debates, but because the deal may end up being viewed as illegitimate not only by leaders in the Middle East, but also by future US politicians.

When he first embarked on this process, Mr Obama tried to reassure his critics by claiming that "negotiating a bad deal" is worse than getting no deal. Now, the US position seems to be that any deal is better than no deal.

And the outcome may be a bad deal, which also ultimately turns out to be no deal.