Iran deal may project US weak­ness


On a ba­sic level, the frame­work deal be­tween world pow­ers and Tehran will be judged by whether it pre­vents an Ira­nian bomb, but that will take years to fig­ure out.

A more im­me­di­ate is­sue is the pro­jec­tion of West­ern power. Sup­port­ers of the frame­work deal can ar­gue that the U.S. and world pow­ers ex­tracted sig­nif­i­cant con­ces­sions from Iran, break­ing a decade­long im­passe and prov­ing that diplo­macy backed by tough sanc­tions can bring about pos­i­tive change even in the Mid­dle East.

But if, as crit­ics con­tend, the agree­ment ends up pro­ject­ing U.S. weak­ness in­stead, that could em­bolden rogue states and ex­trem­ists alike, and make the re­gion’s vast ar­ray of chal­lenges — from the Is­raeli-Pales­tinian con­flict and the Syr­ian civil war to the fight­ing in Libya and Ye­men — even more im­per­vi­ous to West­ern in­ter­ven­tion.

The United States wants to rein in Syria’s Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad as his ru­inous civil war grinds into year five. It would like to en­cour­age more lib­eral do­mes­tic poli­cies in Egypt and push Iraq’s lead­ers to gov­ern more in­clu­sively. De­spite years of set­backs, the U.S. would still like to see a two-state so­lu­tion to the Is­raeli-Pales­tinian con­flict.

But if lead­ers in those places read the fine print of the agree­ment the U.S. and other world pow­ers hope to reach with Iran by June 30 and con­clude that they were duped or have flinched, th­ese lead­ers will be less likely to give in to pres­sure in the fu­ture, ren­der­ing the Iran agree­ment a lonely for­eign pol­icy achieve­ment clouded by the re­gion’s chaos.

The im­pli­ca­tions may first be seen in Iran it­self. If the agree­ment leads to ac­cep­tance of Iran’s theoc­racy, hard-lin­ers could feel less pres­sure to curb their sup­port of re­gional mil­i­tant groups and crack down even harder on dis­sent at home. They would be flush with cash from the lift­ing of sanc­tions and em­bold­ened in their con­fi­dence that the West will turn a blind eye.

Al­ter­na­tively, the deal could mark a ma­jor victory for Pres­i­dent Has­san Rouhani, a rel­a­tive mod­er­ate, and a broader rap­proche­ment could bring about a Persian glas­nost of sorts that leads to demo­cratic re­form.

‘Wide-rang­ing im­pli­ca­tions’

Whichever di­rec­tion Iran goes will have wide-rang­ing im­pli­ca­tions for the rest of the re­gion. Iran backs pow­er­ful Shi­ite prox­ies in Iraq, Syria, and Le­banon. It also has sup­ported the Pales­tinian Ha­mas, the Sunni Is­lamists who rule Gaza. Sunni pow­ers like Egypt and Saudi Ara­bia fear and dis­trust Iran and have warned of a re­gional arms race if it be­comes a thresh­old nu­clear weapons state. Saudi-led war­planes are bomb­ing the Shi­ite Houthi rebels in Ye­men, who are sup­ported by Iran, though both Tehran and the rebels deny it arms them.

The im­pli­ca­tions of a weak United States, mean­while, are not just re­gional but global, af­fect­ing events from Rus­sia to China and North Korea — as well as the prospects for global ac­cords on cli­mate change or even sig­nif­i­cant trade deals.

Many of th­ese ques­tions will only be an­swered by the fi­nal agree­ment, as­sum­ing there is one. For now, both sides are pre­sent­ing the frame­work ac­cord as a ma­jor ac­com­plish­ment.

On one hand, Iran ac­cepted lim­its on its en­rich­ment lev­els and cen­trifuge num­bers to pre­vent the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of weapons-grade ma­te­rial for a decade or more. “Break­out time” to a bomb would be ex­tended from mere months to a year or more.

But on the other, its right to en­rich ura­nium would be en­shrined, its fa­cil­i­ties would re­main in place, the sanc­tions would be lifted and a sort of le­git­i­macy be­stowed.

Crit­ics in Is­rael and else­where can­not un­der­stand why world pow­ers, who could af­ford to play for time, did not squeeze Iran by pre­sent­ing it with a mind­clear­ing choice be­tween hav­ing a nu­clear pro­gram and hav­ing an econ­omy. They never be­lieved Iran’s claims that — with oil in gen­er­ous sup­ply — it was in­vest­ing such ef­fort for nu­clear en­ergy and re­search. They ex­pect Iran’s en­er­gies to now fo­cus on fool­ing the in­spec­tors and de­vel­op­ing a bomb.

That won’t be easy. Un­der the frame­work deal the U.N. nu­clear agency would have sub­stan­tially more author­ity than it has had in the past. The fact sheet is­sued by the U.S. says Iran has agreed to grant in­spec­tors more in­tru­sive ac­cess to both de­clared and un­de­clared fa­cil­i­ties — ac­cess that may not be “any­time, any­where,” but goes far be­yond any­thing that was in place when weapons were de­vel­oped by In­dia, Pak­istan, North Korea — and Is­rael.

‘The only re­main­ing op­tion’

Sup­port­ers of the deal ar­gue that any risks that may re­main are prefer­able to war. Im­plied is the ad­mis­sion that a global con­sen­sus on tougher sanc­tions to force Iran to its knees was unattain­able — Rus­sia, China and even In­dia could not nec­es­sar­ily be cor­ralled. That would leave armed force, never taken off the ta­ble, as the only re­main­ing op­tion.

Some also note that view­ing Iran as an im­pla­ca­ble re­gional men­ace is sim­plis­tic. Iran backs groups like Ha­mas and Hezbol­lah, which the West views as ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions, but it is also train­ing and sup­port­ing Shi­ite mili­tias bat­tling the Is­lamic State group in Iraq, where Wash­ing­ton and Tehran have found them­selves on the same side of the con­flict.

Wash­ing­ton’s bri­dled am­bi­tions are un­der­stand­able given its re­cent fail­ures in the re­gion. Both Afghanistan and Iraq are still at war more than a decade af­ter the U.S.-led in­va­sions. The Is­lamic State group, an al-Qaida break­away, con­trols a third of both Syria and Iraq. A NATO in­ter­ven­tion helped top­ple dic­ta­tor Moam­mar Gad­hafi, but Libya to­day is a failed state in the grip of ri­val mili­tias and ji­hadi groups. The Is­raeli-Pales­tinian peace process is in sham­bles.

One senses, be­yond the specifics of the Iran deal, an im­plied ad­mis­sion by the global pow­ers: there is a limit to coun­tries’ abil­ity to in­ter­fere with one an­other, how­ever in­ter­de­pen­dent the world may be.

Iron­i­cally, it is Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Benjamin Ne­tanyahu — the most out­spo­ken op­po­nent of the Iran deal — who might have rea­son to ap­pre­ci­ate this kind of hu­mil­ity. Re­cently re-elected and at odds with the White House, Ne­tanyahu faces a global clamor to end the West Bank set­tle­ment project and en­able the cre­ation of a Pales­tinian state. If the United States and other pow­ers got se­ri­ous about en­forc­ing their will on other coun­tries, Is­rael could be no less a can­di­date than Iran.

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