Nuclear deal with Iran would benefit U.S. interests
In addition to accomplishing its limited aims of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, the nuclear deal benefits U.S. interests in the region by opening up the possibility for greater cooperation with the Iranian regime to handle mutual threats such as the spread of ISIS.
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Despite Iran's undoubted success in embedding itself deeply into Iraqi politics and its continued, almost gleeful defiance of the United States, the EU, and the IAEA on the nuclear issue, it would be unwise for Iran's leaders to take their current good luck for granted. The Islamic Republic faces significant social and economic challenges that can only be made more difficult by alienating the West. The embarrassing and objectionable statements by its new president calling for Israel's destruction have harmed Iran's international image and aroused further anxiety domestically regarding his behavior. Regionally, Iran has poor relations with its Arab neighbors, and it cannot be assumed that Iraq's Shiite community will remain friendly and grateful indefinitely. Iran's vital national interests could be helped by ending the standoff with the United States. Likewise, the United States has more to gain than lose if it adopts a more coherent and pragmatic policy toward the Islamic Republic.
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During the Richard M. Nixon administration, the United States implemented a formal policy of constructive engagement with the People’s Republic of China, reversing more than two decades of unrelenting hostility. Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger sought to exploit Mao Zedong’s fear of the Soviet Union and use China as a de facto ally against it. This was during the Vietnam War, and China’s assistance to the North Vietnamese could have inhibited dialogue. Although US intelligence officials knew that China was supporting America’s foe, Nixon and Kissinger calculated that its contribution was not critical enough to prohibit meaningful dialogue. They recognised the role China was playing and used it to America’s strategic advantage. Like Mao’s China, Iran is undermining an American war, but, this does not outweigh the benefits America would reap from accepting and trying to harness Iran’s influence in the region. Moreover, just like improved relations with China accompanied the US setback in Vietnam, improved US relations with Iran might make failure in Iraq less painful and momentous. Moreover, determined diplomatic pressure could lead Tehran to stem support of its terrorist allies.
In that sense, the interim deal is only important to the extent it helps to produce that ultimate, comprehensive agreement. Fortu- nately, the deal has real value as a confidence-building measure.
Simply put, the United States and Iran don’t trust each other. That is understandable given how they have both behaved in the 34 years since the Islamic Revolution. Mistrust is so deeply rooted on both sides that it has often threatened to make any serious negotia- tions impossible.
What is most significant about the current deal is its potential to overcome that mutual mistrust. Both sides demonstrated a will- ingness to make concessions on the issues that the other side needed them to—and that is ultimately what will be necessary if there is going to be a successful final agreement. The United States needed to see the Iranians take meaningful steps to stop their pursuit of nuclear-weapons capability as reassurance that Iran was ready to give it up as part of a comprehensive agreement. Similarly, Iran needed some sign that the West (particularly the United States) would be ready to provide Tehran with meaningful sanctions relief in exchange for major concessions on its nuclear program.
That’s exactly what this deal did. The Iranians agreed to halt their progress toward a nuclear breakout capability for six months. Moreover, by agreeing to dilute its existing stockpile of uranium enriched to 19.75 percent purity, Iran demonstrated its willingness to scale back its nuclear program and move farther away from a breakout capability—the most critical element of any comprehen- sive agreement. Similarly, the West showed Iran that it was willing to give Iran some cash and to suspend some sanctions, which are Iran’s minimal requirements for a comprehensive agreement. It is true that the sanctions were suspended but not rescinded, and that they represented the least important of the sanctions on Iran. But the signal mattered more than the substance.
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The central finding of this study is that negotiations with Iran and offers of positive inducements in return for Iranian concessions on their nuclear program have real value even if they fail to convince Iran to agree to concessions in the near term. In other words, the United States and its allies ought to continue to negotiate with Iran whether or not there is a realistic chance of producing a settlement. Much of the cur- rent policy debate on the Iranian nuclear crisis centers on the prospects for such a settlement. This study finds that, although such a settlement would be very welcome, the potential for reaching it is not a necessary justification for diplomacy. In this sense, the debate misses an essential point. Continued efforts to negotiate offer strategic benefits beyond the possibility of reaching a deal. The continued offer of positive induce- ments can instead be viewed as an integral part of an overall contain- ment strategy: it helps build international support for U.S. nonprolif- eration efforts, undermines the position of the Iranian hardliners that currently dominate the regime while strengthening domestic political opponents, lowers Iran’s incentives to weaponize, and helps to further isolate Iran.
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The most effective way for Washington to resolve this uncertainty in its favor would be to practice more imaginative diplomacy. That would require more than a policy shift; it would require a paradigm shift. Guided by the notion of containment, U.S. policymakers have long seen the normalization of relations as the end result of a long process of negotiations. But with a new policy of engagement, normalization would have to be the starting point of talks; it would then facilitate discussions on issues such as nuclear weapons and terrorism. A strategy that seeks to create a web of mutually reinforcing security and economic arrangements has the best chance of tying Iran to the status quo in the region. In essence, a new situation would be created in which Tehran's relationship with Washington would be more valuable to the regime than either its ties to Hezbollah or its pursuit of nuclear arms.To provoke such a change, Washington must strengthen the hands of the pragmatists in Tehran by offering Iran relief from sanctions and diplomatic relations. Washington's recognition of Iran's regional status and deepened economic ties with the West might finally enable the pragmatists to push Khamenei to marginalize the radicals who insist that only confrontation with the United States can allow Iran to achieve its national objectives.
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If it hopes to tame Iran, the United States must rethink its strategy from the ground up. The Islamic Republic is not going away anytime soon, and its growing regional influence cannot be limited. Washington must eschew superficially appealing military options, the prospect of conditional talks, and its policy of containing Iran in favor of a new policy of détente. In particular, it should offer pragmatists in Tehran a chance to resume diplomatic and economic relations. Thus armed with the prospect of a new relationship with the United States, the pragmatists would be in a position to sideline the radicals in Tehran and try to tip the balance of power in their own favor. The sooner Washington recognizes these truths and finally normalizes relations with its most enduring Middle Eastern foe, the better.
An American-Iranian détente is in both countries’ interest—but it needn’t upset our special relationship with Israel.
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