Testimony of Frederick W. Kagan: The Regional Implications of an Iranian Nuclear Deal
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What would happen, then, if Iran actually abandoned that program? The international sanctions regime would be unwound, large amounts of money and human capital would flow into Iran, the regime would be able to stabilize itself internally and would have enormously greater resources with which to pursue its regional goals. A nuclear agreement would advance the regional interests of the US only if it led to a fundamental change in the nature of Iran’s attitudes toward and relationship with the US and its allies.
Such a shift seems most unlikely, however. The entire ideological foundation of the current Iranian regime rests as much on anti-Americanism as it does on anti-Zionism (without much distinction between the two). One could imagine a nuclear deal in which Iran yields almost all of its enrichment capability in exchange for full sanctions relief, but the tone of the agreement would be like the tone of US-Russian relations after the signing of the SALT treaty in 1972. There might well follow a period of détente, but there is no reason to imagine a wholesale change in the fundamental thinking, strategy, and approach of the Islamic Republic. The history of arms treaties amply demonstrates the degree to which the spirit of cooperation in which they are negotiated can be separated from an overall atmosphere of hostility.
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The basic outlines of such a strategy are clear. The urgency of the situations in Iraq and Syria demands active American involvement in those conflicts, not necessarily through the deployment of US combat troops, but certainly through the deployment of advisers, support elements, enablers (including air power), and intelligence to assist the majorities in both countries who seek to reject both al Qaeda and Iranian domination. Hezbollah’s invasion of Syria has exacerbated rifts within Lebanon and opened the possibility of driving a wedge between Hezbollah and other parts of Lebanese society. Aggressive diplomacy and well-targeted assistance could help weaken Hezbollah’s control over its vital base, forcing it to refocus on Lebanon and away from supporting Assad. The US must also work seriously—and not through speeches—to regain the confidence of our Arab allies, particularly Saudi Arabia and Turkey. America’s retreat from the region has increased the costs of implementing such a strategy, but we must keep in mind that things are not going terribly well for Iran either, despite the current euphoria in Tehran. A strategy that combines continued sanctions with meaningful efforts to displace and disrupt Iran’s proxies and Iran’s strategies in the region is essential to creating any prospect of long-term change in Tehran’s attitudes and of regional stability.
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A nuclear agreement that verifiably eliminated Iran’s ability to acquire nuclear weapons capability would of course be desirable, although I do not believe that it is achievable. Certainly Tehran has not put anything on the table thus far that comes even close to meeting this standard. The Iranian penchant for pursuing secret nuclear and weaponization programs and admitting to them only after the U.S. finds them does not bode well for full transparency, particularly considering the Iranian conviction that the International Atomic Energy Agency is an espionage network for the West. There is also the question of how to ensure continued Iranian adherence to any agreement in the absence of sanctions. Sanctions have been absolutely essential in bringing the Supreme Leader to the negotiating table at all. Once lifted, they will not be easily or quickly restored. Without the credible threat of the rapid restoration of crippling sanctions, pressure on Tehran to abide by any agreement will be considerably less than the pressure that has been required to bring Iran to the table. Even a deal could only work, then, if the Iranians really undergo a fundamental change of heart on the nuclear issue—something for which there is no evidence whatever to suggest.
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The national security policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran is designed to prevail in the war Tehran believes the United States and Israel are waging against it. Supreme Leader Khamenei declared in March that international sanctions on Iran became “an all-out war” against Iran in 2011. He denied that sanctions have anything to do with Iran’s nuclear program: “One day, their excuse is the nuclear issue and another day, it is the issue of the enrichment. One day, it is human rights and another day, it is other such issues. Sanctions existed against us before the nuclear issue was brought up and they will continue to exist…even if the nuclear issue and these negotiations are resolved.” He sees American enmity in everything: “From the beginning the enemy has made extensive efforts, and the more we advance, the clearer their work becomes. They use thousands of TV networks, radio programs, and the internet to curse the Islamic Republic.” He even blames us for al Qaeda: “Today Takfiri groups are working against Islam and Shi’as in certain regions and carrying out evil acts, but they are not the main enemies. The main enemy is the one who provokes them and provides them with money.” Even the supposedly reformist Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani declared in 2010: “Radical Islamic groups such as al Qaeda and the Taliban are the creatures of the espionage service of the United States and the West.”
These are not isolated statements. The Iranian national security leadership regularly repeats and expands on them. Tehran has evolved a national security strategy around the concept of “soft war” that seeks to defeat the supposedly subtle and complex efforts of the US and Israel to destroy Iran with everything from smart missiles to internet pornography. This strategy sees any American influence in the Middle East as anathema and a mortal threat, and its goal is the complete expulsion of the US, the destruction of Israel, and the creation of a Persian hegemony. The Islamic Republic sees itself as the revolutionary vanguard that will overturn the current immoral, unjust, and infidel world-order in favor of its preferred religious-ideological vision. Iran seeks to be not merely a great-power rival to the US, but a force to destroy the US-dominated (from Tehran’s perspective) world system.