Testimony of Ray Takeyh: Implications of a Nuclear Agreement with Iran
Proponents of the view that Iran will not become a more aggressive regional power in the aftermath of a deal ignore how the Middle East has evolved since the Arab awakenings of 2011. The post-colonial Arab state system that featured the dominant nations of Egypt and Iraq is no more. Egypt is too preoccupied with internal squabbles to offer regional leadership while Iraq is a fragmented nation ruled by a Shiite government ostracized from Sunni Arab councils. Iran has embarked on a dramatic new mission and is seeking to project its power into corners of the Middle East in ways that were never possible before. This is not traditional Iranian foreign policy with its sponsorship of terrorism and support for rejectionist groups targeting Israel; imperialism beckons the mullahs, but it is also economically burdensome. Without an arms control agreement and the financial rewards it will bring — from sanctions relief, the release of funds entrapped abroad and new investments — Iran would find it difficult to subsidize this imperial surge.
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Still, the claim that Iran will invest a portion of the economic spoils of a deal on domestic needs is not entirely wrong. President Hassan Rouhani belongs to the wing of Iranian politics that has long been attracted to the so-called China model, whereby a regime purchases domestic consent by providing a measure of economic opportunity to its stifled citizenry. Two years into Rouhani’s tenure, his government stands as one of the most repressive in the post-revolutionary period. Many civil society activists languish in prison, media censorship has continued unabated and the intelligence services remain abusive and unaccountable. The state cannot sustain such an oppressive order without ameliorating some of its constituents’ misfortunes. It may come to pass that Iran, with its small, badly mismanaged economy, will not be able to emulate China’s authoritarian model, especially since the Green Movement that enlivened Iran six years ago continues to cast a long shadow. But to have any hope of success in his aims, Rouhani needs an arms control agreement as much as Khamenei’s Islamist imperialism.
The much-discussed terms of the impending agreement with Iran thus offer the theocracy all that it wants. The accord would concede a vast enrichment capacity, as well as accepting both a heavy water plant and a well-fortified underground enrichment facility that the United States once vowed to shutter. It would permit an elaborate research and development program and would likely rely on an inspection regime that falls short of indispensable “anytime, anywhere” access. In the meantime, the sanctions architecture will be diminished, and the notion of ever “snapping back” sanctions into place once they are lifted is delusional. And because the agreement itself would be term-limited, there would be no practical limits on Iran’s nuclear ambitions upon its expiration.
However, as disturbing as all this may be, the most important legacy of the prospective agreement many not even lie in the nuclear realm. The massive financial gains from the deal would enable the Islamic Republic’s imperial surge while allowing a repressive regime that was on the brink of collapse in 2009 to consolidate power. This would be no small achievement for Iran’s emboldened rulers.
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For much of the past three decades, the Islamic Republic’s inflammatory rhetoric and aggressive posture concealed the reality of its strategic loneliness. Iran is, after all, a Persian nation surrounded by Arab states were suspicious of its revolution and its proclaimed objectives. The Gulf sheikdoms arrayed themselves behind the American shield, Iraq sustained its animosity toward Iran long after the end of its war, and the incumbent Sunni republics maintained a steady belligerence. Iran nurtured its lethal Hezbollah protégé and aided Palestinian rejectionist groups but appeared hemmed in by the wall of Arab hostility. All this changed when Iraq was reclaimed by the Shias and the Arab Spring shook the foundations of the Sunni order. Today, the guardians of the Islamic Republic see a unique opportunity to project their power in a region beset by unpredictable transitions.
For the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei Arab Spring means “a people have emerged who are not dependent on America.” Whatever confidence-building measures his diplomats might be negotiating in Europe, the Supreme Leader insists that Iran is “challenging the influence of America in the region and it is extending its own influence.” In Khamenei’s depiction, America is a crestfallen imperial state hastily retreating from the region. Today Tehran sees an America unable to impose a solution on a recalcitrant Middle East. Whatever compunctions Tehran may have had about American power greatly diminished with the spectacle over Syria where Washington’s redlines were erased with the same carelessness that they were initially drawn.
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U.S. actions on non-proliferation strained relations with many allies, including the enterprising shah of Iran. It is a talking point of the Islamic Republic today that Washington looked the other way and even assisted the shah as he sought to develop a nuclear weapon capability. This claim has been accepted as a truism by many U.S. policymakers and analysts. But the historical record belies such assertions. The Ford and Carter administrations opposed the shah’s quest for completion of the fuel cycle and refused to give him access to sensitive nuclear technologies. Washington insisted that the shah, then head of a regime considered a reliable U.S. ally, forgo the capacity to either enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium.
To be sure there were failure along the way as India, Pakistan and North Korea defied the United States and built their own bombs. But Washington did not facilitate their programs and, in each instance, tried to derail their efforts. The positon of the United States remained that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty does not give any state the right to enrich and that the most suitable path to a civilian nuclear program is to forgo that option.
Today, by contrast, the U.S. appears poised to concede to an adversarial regime not only an enrichment capacity but also one that is likely to be industrialized after the expiration of a sunset clause. This would have been like Washington aiding the Soviets in constructing the bomb in the 1940s or helping China in the 1960s. There is no dispute between the Obama White House and its critics that Iran is a revolutionary regime seeking to expand its influence in the Middle East. Tehran’s destabilizing regional activities come at the detriment of the United States and its allies. The baffling part of all this is that Washington is seeking to conclude an agreement that envisions this radical regime gaining access to a sophisticated nuclear infrastructure that will not permanently be limited to peaceful exploitation of atomic power.