The Iran deal: four big questionsThe announcement last week that the P-5+1 (U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany) reached agreement with Iran on its nuclear program was not surprising since the Obama administration clearly wanted a deal. The deal is certainly historic, but many wonder how long this new history with Iran will really last. I fear it may not last long, but that depends on three big questions - and that then leaves one big question about what the agreement means for Korea and Asia.
What about Iran’s destabilizing behavior? The U.S. agreement provides Iran with $150 billion in assets and sanctions relief (about one-half the size of the entire Iranian economy), but requires nothing of Tehran in terms of halting its destabilizing support for the Assad regime in Syria, Shiite militias in Iraq, Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Hezbollah in Lebanon or Yemen. Iranian money - and there will now be a lot more of it - is being used to kill Israelis and undermine pro-Western governments throughout the region (and globally in some cases). If Iran continues these activities, it is hard to see how the United States will be able to avoid confrontation with Iran in the near future.
What about U.S. allies in the Middle East? The Obama administration has promised to provide more support for Israel and the Gulf States to reassure them, but Saudi Arabia, Israel and other allies were opposed to precisely this kind of deal and it is not clear whether promises of increased U.S. military assistance will assuage their concerns. That is because the question was fundamentally one of willpower and not just hardware - was the Obama administration prepared to use force or increase sanctions to stop Iran’s nuclear program? The answer was clearly no, which will raise questions about the U.S. willingness to stop Iranian support for the enemies of our allies now that Iran will have $150 billion more to fund those operations. If U.S. allies in the region begin hedging and defying the United States because they have lost faith in U.S. security commitments, this will force the next administration to take a harder line with Tehran.
Can the international community verify the agreement? There is a process for inspections in this agreement, but it requires an international oversight committee to agree, which could take days to reach a decision, allowing time for Iranian obfuscation. If Iran defies inspection demands, the administration has promised “snap back” sanctions, but it will be very hard to snap back anything if U.S. allies in Europe (and Asia) have begun reinvesting in Iran’s oil sector. If the deal fails and economic pressure cannot be reapplied, then a crisis in future is possible. Iran’s track record with the International Atomic Energy Agency thus far has been characterized by deception and concealment. Has this agreement changed that culture? Though this is a much better agreement for the United States than the Agreed Framework was with North Korea, Iran may nevertheless follow the North Korean model by using our commitment to implementing the agreement as cover while it continues clandestine missile and nuclear development. The bottom line is that the agreement leaves the Iranian nuclear infrastructure in place, with the exception of the Arak Reactor, subject to a highly imperfect inspection regime while Iran receives significant material benefits. It has a better prospect of working than the Agreed Framework did, but the Agreed Framework also offers a cautionary tale.
Will it apply to North Korea? The deal will almost certainly not apply to North Korea. First and foremost, this is because Pyongyang has demonstrated, in its behavior and new Constitution, an unequivocal intention to maintain nuclear weapons capability. The administration will also not be able to try this kind of approach with Pyongyang because there is no political capital left to do so. The Iran deal is the swan song of President Obama’s campaign promise to engage enemies unconditionally. With Myanmar, he had some success, though there is backsliding on press freedoms, ethnic conflicts and political participation. In the case of Cuba, there has been no relief of the human rights situation, but Americans are generally happy they can now visit sunny Havana while any efforts to exchange ambassadors will be blocked by Congress. With Iran, the administration has openly split with America’s closest allies in the Middle East and taken a highly risky gamble with a regime that continues to be a net exporter of instability to the region. It is possible that risk could pay off, but Mr. Obama has used up all his poker chips and has none left to gamble with Pyongyang.
And there should be no doubt that this deal with Iran is a gamble. It might pay off. Tehran may moderate its support for terrorist groups and dangerous states in the Middle East and open to inspections as it engages with the West. There is certainly much more prospect for that in Iran than there is in North Korea. But not many experts on the Middle East have confidence that will necessarily happen. What can be said is that the Iran deal removes pressures on the United States to position military forces near the Middle East for the time being, which frees up forces to focus on Northeast Asia. That is good. It would be bad, however, if Iran breaks out of the deal in a few years, “snap back” sanctions fail and the U.S. is suddenly confronting a more dangerous Iran. The Obama administration has left a heavy burden on the next president to make sure that does not happen.
*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
by Michael Green