Testimony of Kenneth M. Pollack: Implications of a Nuclear Agreement with Iran
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More than that, I believe that the terms of such a deal are of less importance to America’s national interests than how the nations of the Middle East respond to it. Since the election of Hassan Rouhani as President of Iran, I have believed that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah ‘Ali Khamene’i, concluded that he did not need an actual nuclear arsenal because he calculated that there was little likelihood of either an American or Israeli attack and perhaps that Iran was far enough along toward being able to build a nuclear weapon as it needed to be given that threat environment. I also believe that Rouhani’s election convinced him that relieving the pressure of the sanctions on Iran’s economy was a higher priority than making further progress toward fielding a nuclear arsenal—so long as Iran did not have to give up its nuclear capability entirely and forever in return for the lifting of sanctions. Based on this analysis, I suspect that the Iranian government does not intend to cheat on any nuclear agreement or to use it as a cover to covertly acquire nuclear weapons as North Korea did, at least not for now or for the foreseeable future.
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As this analysis suggests, I believe that Iran’s most likely course after a nuclear agreement will be to continue to pursue the same regional strategy it has pursued over the past three years. That strategy is inimical to the interests of the United States and its allies in many ways. However, there is a much greater danger: the danger that Iran will interpret American behavior after a nuclear agreement as a sign of further disengagement from the Middle East. If that is the case, it is highly likely that Iranian goals will become more expansive and its policy more aggressive as it believes that the U.S. will not be as willing (or able) to block Iranian moves. Thus, the most important variable in Iranian regional behavior after a deal may well prove to be the U.S. reaction, rather than anything derived from Iranian strategy or politics itself.
Iran has always seemed to fashion discrete policies toward different states of the region. In each case, it has a certain set of interests in a country and engages in a policy debate over how to act toward that country—in which Iran’s complicated domestic politics interact with various strategic perspectives to produce a policy toward that country. Right now, Iran probably has a Syria policy based on its interests and its politics as they relate to Syria. It appears to have an Iraq policy based on its interests and its politics as they relate to Iraq. And the same for Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, etc. Neither those interests nor those politics appear likely to change much, if at all, as a result of the nuclear deal. Instead, Iranian actions toward all of those places seem precisely calibrated to what Iran is trying to achieve there, and that is unlikely to be affected by the nuclear deal one way or the other.
It is also worth noting that, across the region, the Iranians seem pretty comfortable with the status quo. Their Shi’a allies are dominant in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. In Syria, the Asad regime is embattled and has suffered some setbacks, but it remains in power and Iran continues to commit its own resources and the troops of its Iraqi and Hizballah allies shore up the Alawi position there. Most reports indicate that the Iranians exert far greater control over Asad’s rump Syrian state than they ever have in the past, Iran may feel its position has improved in Damascus, even if Damascus’s control over Syria has taken a beating. Tehran may also feel it could be doing better in Bahrain, but of the countries in play in the region, that’s the only one Iran cares about where Tehran may not believe it is “winning.” So there is no particular reason to believe that Iran is looking to increase its aggressive involvement in any of these states but has been somehow constrained from doing so by the nuclear negotiations.
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Yet the Saudis are often far more subtle and creative than others give them credit for. Even if Iran were to acquire an actual weapon or a near-term breakout capability, the Saudis might not simply take the obvious path forward and buy a nuclear weapon itself. There are many ways that the Saudis could take actions that would create ambiguity and make Iran (and others) wonder whether the Saudis had acquired a nuclear capability without declaring that the Kingdom had joined the nuclear club. Riyadh could build a nuclear plant of its own and begin to enrich uranium, perhaps even hiring large numbers of Pakistanis and other foreigners to do so very quickly, in almost exactly the same manner that the Iranians have proceeded. A favorite Israeli scenario is that one day, satellite imagery of Saudi Arabia suddenly reveals the presence of a half-dozen nuclear-capable Pakistani F-16s at a Saudi air base. Pakistan has long contributed military support, equipment and even whole formations to Saudi defense, so this would not be anything extraordinary. Everyone would wonder whether the F-16s had brought nuclear weapons with them and the Saudis could studiously avoid answering the question. The Iranians, and the whole world, would not know. There would be no proof that the Kingdom had acquired a nuclear weapon and therefore no particular basis to impose sanctions on Riyadh. Yet overnight, the Iranians would have to calculate that the Kingdom had acquired a nuclear weapon, but it would be very difficult for anyone to punish the Saudis because there would be no evidence that they had.