Iran watchers have had an exciting few weeks.
First, we witnessed the controversy over Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress. The resulting bickering between Republicans and Democrats highlighted the extreme partisan divide in Washington DC.
Then came the “open letter” to Iranian leaders, written by Senator Tom Cotton and signed by 46 other Senate Republicans. This provided those outside America with yet another glimpse of the fears of many Washington insiders about the efficacy of the nuclear deal being negotiated with Iran.
The letter also illustrated how fears of Iran and partisan politics have helped pushed debate about the issue into the realm of the absurd, even as the actual negotiations continue to be conducted.
These spectacles have focused attention on American political dysfunction and the ability of a handful of US senators to hijack the media spotlight over a multilateral diplomatic process underway for years.
Not just about US
As Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif helpfully reminded the authors of the letter, the negotiations are multilateral, not bilateral.
The response to the Republican letter by Javad Zarif made this point eloquently:
“I should bring one important point to the attention of the authors and that is, the world is not the United States, and the conduct of inter-state relations is governed by international law, and not by US domestic law.”
What’s more the concerns about Iran’s nuclear program are not just American concerns. The implications of possible nuclear proliferation in the Middle East have the potential to destabilize an already fragile and, in some parts, broken region.
Likewise the addition of Iran to the nuclear weapons club would be a disaster for the global non-proliferation regime. As well as further exacerbating Israeli and Saudi Arabian fears, a nuclear Iran could potentially trigger an arms race in the region. This would be a truly terrible development.
However, the hysteria with which Senator Cotton has consistently viewed Iran highlights his lack of a nuanced understanding of US options and the consequences should diplomacy fail.
What’s at stake
First, Iran does not have a nuclear weapon.
The most recent statements by intelligence officials indicate Iran has not made a decision to develop a nuclear weapon.
However, and this is an important caveat, Iran has the expertise and the ability to develop one, if the Iranian leadership do make that decision.
Whether Iran’s leaders ever decide to do so will depend to some degree on how it perceives its own security interests. The negotiations can help provide a context in which Iran has little incentive to develop a weapon.
What the current multilateral negotiations hope to achieve is a framework that will do two things:
First, through ongoing inspections and monitoring, the international community will be able to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program is only being used for peaceful purposes. If the Iranian regime did engage in any activities related to developing a weapons capability, it would be able to respond.
This leads to the second aspect of the diplomatic deal. The P5+1 (US, Russia, China, the UK, France and Germany) are negotiating a set of conditions in Iran that significantly limits the scope of its nuclear program; this would provide the international community with a significant lead time in which to respond to prevent Iran from developing a weapon. This is called a “break out” capability, or alternatively, a “sneak out” capability. Either way, we want to extend as much as possible the amount of time it would take Iran to develop a weapon.
It’s important to acknowledge that any agreement between Iran and the P5+1 will be deeply problematic. Iran currently possesses the knowledge and the skill to develop a nuclear weapon. No deal is going to change that.
How best to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons
The international community now finds itself in this uncomfortable position largely because the George W Bush Administration was reluctant to negotiate with Iran back in 2003 when its nuclear infrastructure and expertise was far less advanced than they are today.
The success or failure of the Iran negotiations has broader implications beyond the relationship between Iran and the US. America is just one actor in an important global non-proliferation regime that works towards preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.
In many ways the current Iranian crisis represents a test of that regime, which includes the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, (NPT)the monitoring and inspections work through the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the numerous other international legal agreements and treaties that control and limit aspects of nuclear weapons development and proliferation.
Jeffrey Lewis, of the Arms Control Wonk Blog, succinctly summed up the potential consequences of a failed diplomatic agreement and the misguided hope that the US can somehow pressure Iran to dismantle its entire nuclear program:
“This is a fantasy, a unicorn, the futile pursuit of which ends with a half-assed airstrike against Iran, a region in flames, and eventually an Iranian nuclear weapon.”
I would add to this scenario the fundamental weakening of the global non-proliferation regime. The relevance of the NPT would be further undermined, and the efficacy of diplomacy as an effective and beneficial tool in the fight to prevent nuclear proliferation would be materially damaged.
It would also be a signal that short of military action, there is very little the world can do to stop a country from developing a nuclear weapon. This is an extremely dangerous message to send, especially when even the most optimistic assessments of military strikes against Iran predict they would only result in winding the nuclear program back a few years, and that they certainly wouldn’t destroy a weapons capability completely.
This is a disturbingly high price to pay because some Republicans in Congress have such loathing for the Iranian regime that they can’t bring themselves to acknowledge that a diplomatic solution, while certainly not perfect, is the best hope the international community currently has of limiting, and containing the Iranian nuclear program.