The nuclear deal with Iran has been praised by Western leaders. EU High Representative Federica Mogherini called it an “historic day” and the chance for “creating the conditions for building trust and opening a new chapter in our relationship”. German Chancellor Merkel named it a big success and asked for fast implementation of the agreement’s main points while French President Hollande welcomed Iran’s constructive role in the negotiations which leads to peace in the region. It seems that the nuclear agreement is expected to change a lot more then only Iran’s nuclear program.
This article does not share the same optimism. It argues that there is much to be worried about. We would be wrong to only identify criticism with hawkish Republicans or paranoid Israeli and therefore ignore it. This article will focus on three arguments why you are allowed to question the Iran deal.
The first argument is that this agreement won’t change Iran. This statement may seem dubious because it suggests some form of Western imperialism where we can tell how Iran should behave. It must however be interpreted as a reaction to the statements by the observers and analysts supporting the agreement. They claim that the lifting of sanctions and the opening of the international market to Iran will bring Western ideas and ideals to the country. Western media quickly showed cheering Iranians on the street of Tehran in the hope their misery would end. US President Obama even stated that “by the time Iran could build a nuclear bomb again the country might be a very different place”. According to him “this deal demonstrates that American diplomacy can bring about real and meaningful change”.
A part of the money may actually go to Iranian society and help millions of people. President Rouhani has enough leverage to do so and the Iranian leadership does not want a new Green Revolution. However, the question remains if poverty, inequality, and human rights are the regime’s top priority. Iran, even when it stood on the brink of bankruptcy, built its own defense industry, including its own aircraft industry and its own Elbit Systems of the ‘90s. Tens of billions of dollars give Iran the chance to make even more advanced weapons. Furthermore, one of the main institutions likely to benefit from this deal is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRGC). This military group was founded to protect the Islamic Republic from internal and external challenges but over time has developed into an extremely traditional force dominating the regime it was meant to protect. It is the biggest economic actor in Iran with a hand in almost every sector. They will not give up their position now more money will flood into the country. The prediction is that the IRGC will definitely not support major changes or reforms and corruption survives.
Furthermore, there is the human rights problem in Iran. The nuclear deal may actually soften voices pressuring Iran to make improvements on this topic. As Suzanne Nossel of the Pen American Center says: “If the centrifuges slow down but the executions continue, Iran could forge a path to international acceptance that legitimizes and further entrenches its repressiveness”. China and Russia are examples of countries who have complete access to global markets but did not pick all of our Western ideals. Both cases offer ample proof that heightened global stature, an improving economy, and rising living standards do not automatically guarantee human rights gains. Why would the case be any different for Iran? When the West looks for rapprochement with Iran, when our companies look for access, we should have a clear approach with “direct engagement to Iran’s relatively liberal civil society” and not only the regime and its allies. This is one of the few options left to prevent the Islamic regime from misusing the deal for purposes that only benefit its loyal allies.
A second argument deals with the claim that this agreement will bring peace and security to the region. Iran has never made a secret of its regional ambitions. From start they have seen the turmoil in the Middle East in a different way than our leaders. As recently as the spring of 2013, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei delivered a speech to an international conference of Muslim clerics lauding the onset of a new global revolution. What elsewhere was called the “Arab Spring,” he declared, was in fact an “Islamic Awakening” of world-spanning consequence. This reawakening of Islamic consciousness was opening the door to a global religious revolution that would finally vanquish the overbearing influence of the United States and its allies, bring an end to three centuries of Western primacy, and unify the global Muslim community. After the deal Khamenei responded by saying Iran will uphold its anti-American policies and continue to support regional allies opposing Western interests. Iran is already extremely involved in the Middle East. The IRGC, also driving Iran’s foreign policy, is directly fighting and giving support to Shiite militant groups in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. We have to underline that Sunni states have similar strategies but Iran, receiving a badly needed influx of cash, can push to further extend its influence in countries where it already plays a key role. Why would this strategy be changed?
Obama has sketched an optimistic scenario in which the nuclear deal builds trust and shows Iran the benefits of cooperation with the West. This hope is entirely based on common enemies for both Iran and the West. Tensions between The West and Iran might actually ease over the coming years. Trade relations could strengthen and Iran won’t have the same pariah reputation. However, this does not necessarily pacify the region. It mainly mirrors a changing international balance of power. As Haaretz-Correspondent Ari Shavit stated: “Here on the ground, between Casablanca and Kabul, the Vienna agreement could be perceived as evidence that America is in retreat, Europe is declining and Shi’ite power is on the rise”. Traditional strong ties with China and Russia are more likely to be strengthened. The Kremlin and Tehran have announced several high-level trade and cooperation agreements in the years leading up to the current deal. Iran sees advantages in positioning itself as a leading regional power and international critic of the U.S. but this rivalry does not have to be hostile. The secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, told the Financial Times that even if a nuclear deal is reached, the U.S. and Iran still would not be partners. But the two “can behave in a way that they do not use their energy against each other”. The deal is America’s ticket out of the region but does not lower international tensions.
The third argument is the most important one. It elaborates on the question to what extend Iran will uphold its commitments made in the agreement. The deal with Iran certainly kicks back Iran’s capacity to build a weapon in the coming years. However, at the moment that ambition may have become less important for Tehran when looking to the current situation in the region. It does not take into account what happens in the long term. One of the main concerns is that the agreement does not completely dismantle Iran’s nuclear option. Almost every vital part of the process to build a nuclear weapon survives. Iran keeps a part of its enriched uranium. The Arak heavy water reactor, the plutonium production plant, and the underground uranium enrichment facility it built secretly at Fordo, are not dismantled but only converted. Also a large part of the centrifuges can remain. Within a certain amount of years, Iran is allowed to build faster ones that will enable it to break out to the bomb far more rapidly than is currently the case. The deal specifically says that Iran can continue testing with centrifuges and “commence testing of up more advanced ones after eight and a half years”. Or what about Iran’s ballistic program? The rockets that could carry and drop a nuclear weapon anywhere in the world? The deal does not prevent any ban on this or any other military program indirectly connected to a nuclear weapon.
The time frame of the deal is 8 to 15 years. This may seem like a long period but a lot can change. The context wherein Iran does decide to restart its nuclear program could be very different from the situation right now. Both the US and the EU could have lost more of their grip on world events. More importantly, Iran will be strengthened by the lifting of sanctions and its increased role in the region. The country may even have become less sensitive for external actions such as sanctions. But there are also risks in the short term, for example when Iran decides to go back on the nuclear track the day after the ratification of the agreement. Tehran can delay any set of inspections for a total of 24 days. There is a lot of illegal activity that Tehran can hide within this period. Furthermore, if Iran is convicted of wrongdoing the sanctions will be partially or completely reinstated. The Iranian regime will as a result decide to not uphold any commitment in the deal. This all may sound very logical but is at the same time a huge problem. As Mark Dubuwitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies explains: “The only thing you’ll take to the Security Council are massive Iranian violations because you’re certainly not going to risk the Iranians walking away from the deal and engaging in nuclear escalation over smaller violations.” He further explains that it will be very difficult to convince European companies to leave Iran again. The first time already took decades and that was in a context of Iran as an international pariah targeted by several UN Security Council resolutions.”
In short, this article does not claim that Iran will definitively go back on the nuclear track. It is a possible route the country can take. However, we should not be surprised when they do. We should also not be surprised when the Middle East becomes even a more tense region. The truth is that we don’t know what will happen and that is the major concern of this deal. The sanctions almost choked a country but at least prevented Iran to quickly develop a weapon of mass destruction.
Tjeerd S. Ritmeester