The Iran deal: A diplomatic speed hump

The Obama administra­tion made a risky gamble when it signed the flawed nuclear agreement with Iran. Washington squan­dered its bargaining leverage and settled for a deal that could dan­gerously undermine the long-term national security interests of the United States and its allies.

US President Barack Obama entered the negotiations pledg­ing to cut off all pathways to a nu­clear weapon, but the agreement amounts to little more than a diplo­matic speed hump that will delay, but not permanently halt, Iran’s drive for a nuclear weapons capa­bility.

The ill-considered deal, in ef­fect, legitimises Iran as a nuclear threshold state. Once key restric­tions on uranium enrichment ex­pire in 10-15 years, Iran will have the option to develop an industrial-scale enrichment programme that will make it easier for it to sprint cross that threshold.

Tehran used “red lines” and deadlines to wear down and out-negotiate the US administration, which undermined its own bar­gaining position by making it clear that it wanted a nuclear agreement more than Tehran seems to have wanted one, despite the fact that Iran needed an agreement more for economic reasons.

The administration’s downplay­ing of the military option and front­loading of sanctions relief early in the negotiations reduced Iranian incentives to make concessions. This gave the Iranians bargaining leverage they have used shrewdly.

Iran dug in its heels on key red lines proclaimed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, while the administration’s red lines gradually became blurred pink lines.

Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is left largely intact. Centrifuges will be mothballed but not disman­tled. Iran’s illicit nuclear facilities — Nantaz and Fordow — whose op­erations were supposed to be shut down under multiple UN Security Council resolutions, have been le­gitimised, despite their being built covertly in violation of the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.

Instead of dismantling Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, the agree­ment dismantles the sanctions that brought Tehran to the negoti­ating table in the first place.

This fact is not lost on US al­lies, friends and frenemies in the region. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who under­standably sees Iran’s potential nu­clear threat as an existential issue, denounced the deal as “a historic mistake”.

Sunni Arab states threatened by Iran are likely to hedge their bets and take out insurance by work­ing to expand their own nuclear options. Saudi Arabia has let it be known that it will demand the same concessions on uranium en­richment that Iran received. The Saudis have begun negotiations to buy French nuclear reactors and this civilian programme could be­come the foundation for a future weapons programme.

Other Arab states and Turkey are likely to tee up their own nucle­ar programmes as a prudent coun­terweight to offset Iran’s expand­ing nuclear potential, after some of the restrictions on its uranium enrichment programme automati­cally sunset.

The end result could be accel­erated nuclear proliferation and a possible nuclear arms race in the most volatile region in the world. Another major problem is verifica­tion of Iranian compliance. The ad­ministration’s initial insistence on “anytime/anywhere” inspections was downgraded to “sometimes/ some places”.

Iran has up to 14 days to weigh the requests of inspectors of the In­ternational Atomic Energy Agency. If it decides to object, its objections would be relayed to an arbitration committee that would have seven days to rule. If it rules against Iran, Tehran would have another three days to arrange an inspection.

This gives Iran up to 24 days to move, hide or destroy materials sought by inspectors. This is far from a foolproof system, particu­larly in light of Iran’s long history of cheating.

Sanctions relief is another po­tential headache. Tehran would benefit by the release of about $150 billion of its money frozen in over­seas accounts. Ultimately the Ira­nian economy would be boosted by tens of billions of dollars more through a surge of oil revenues as oil sanctions are lifted.

This could help Iran reshape the regional balance of power and es­tablish hegemony over Iraq, Yem­en, important oil resources and oil supply routes. Much of this money no doubt will go to fund the Assad regime, Hezbollah, Yemeni Houthi rebels, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other terrorist groups. This would rapidly lead to escala­tion of the wars, shadow wars and civil wars already taking place in the Middle East.

The dangers posed by Iran’s en­hanced ability to finance global ter­rorism would be compounded by the administration’s last-minute capitulation on the UN arms em­bargo, which will be gradually eased if Iran remains in compli­ance with the agreement.

This would allow Iran to up­grade its conventional weapons through imports from foreign sup­pliers and enable it to more eas­ily arm its foreign allies and sur­rogates.

The bottom line is that the Obama administration has signed an agreement that will expand Iran’s power and influence, strain US relations with its regional friends, weaken long-standing non-proliferation goals on restrict­ing access to sensitive nuclear technologies and contribute to the evolution of a multipolar nuclear Middle East.

 - James Phillips is the senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Phillips Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Originally appeared in The Arab Weekly