Meager at Best: The New Iran Deal and its Implications
Israel and Palestine are often discussed in their own right. But no discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian political situation is complete without understanding the politics of the region. More specifically, no picture of Israel-Palestine is complete without discussing Iran.
Iran today is two countries. While its people, predominantly young, highly educated, and forward-looking, suffer from a pandemic that rages uncontrollably through the country, its leadership and its prized nuclear program thrive, careless of the reality that the pursuit of the latter exacerbates the former. This fresh round of nuclear talks, likely fated for meager improvements, is another act in the tragic play of modern Iranian history, one in which a backward, violent, extremist regime chokes the life out of the country and the people it purports to lead.
When President Trump stood in the White House and announced to the world that he was withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, it signaled a new policy towards the Islamic Republic: stubborn, dogmatic, and myopic. Despite the claims of its detractors, the plan, implemented in 2015, was successful in stunting the growth of the regime’s nuclear weapons program. The American withdrawal pulled the thread that held it all together. In the subsequent years, crippling sanctions have been reimposed and the weapons program restarted and accelerated. Today, representatives from the P5+1 — the US, China, Russia, UK, France, and Germany — are back in Vienna negotiating with the regime with the aim of a new agreement.
It's not 2015, however.
The Americans are different now — sort of — and the Iranians are certainly different. China has entered the fray in a meaningful way; a pandemic ravages Iran; the nuclear program is more developed than ever before and an Israeli red line is more than just on the horizon. All of these present a new set of challenges for this set of negotiations.
Firstly, most importantly, and most tragically, these negotiations are likely to fail to lead to an agreement on the scale or power of the JCPOA. Not only is Iran currently led by a hardliner mentored by Ayatollah Khameini and deeply committed to Iran’s perennial conflict with the US and Israel, but the US remains dedicated to its uncompromising opposition to an Iranian bomb. The dogmatism of the Iranians, burned by the withdrawal from the JCPOA, has manifested in extreme demands from the Iranian government, namely the lifting of all sanctions and release of $10bn in frozen Iranian assets. Meanwhile, the US and its allies cannot allow the continued growth of the nuclear weapons program and the potential development of a bomb. Despite their differences, the US, China, and Russia are all seeking to avoid a nuclear weapon in the hands of the Iranian regime. To that end, both sides are faced with extreme demands and a shared unwillingness to compromise, dooming any agreement on the scale of the JCPOA.
But just as the extreme demands make such an agreement unlikely today, they act as catalysts for a more limited, immediate agreement. Both sides are faced with situations that cannot be sustained for much longer: the Iranian economy is on its knees and the regime needs a relaxation in American sanctions if it wants a chance at avoiding economic collapse and the political instability that will ensue, while the Americans need to stop the accelerating weapons program before it is too late. Therefore, there is hope that a short-term agreement may be reached that includes minor concessions on both sides, with a lifting of certain sanctions in exchange for a limited slowing in the nuclear program.
A failure to reach such an agreement would be catastrophic for America's allies in the region, particularly Israel.
One of two things happens if the talks completely collapse. Either Israel and the Americans are forced to take preemptive action to stop and sabotage the nuclear program, as they have done in the past. This sabotage activity may take the form of a cyber attack or a kinetic one on nuclear facilities in Iran. Despite the danger of such a preemptive attack, it is undeniably preferable to its alternative. A collapse in the negotiations may lead to Iran successfully producing a nuclear weapon, violating the Begin Doctrine – which is Israel’s stated policy of not allowing any state threatening Israel’s existence to possess nuclear capability, and demanding of them a more extensive response to cripple Iran’s military capabilities. Such action may risk direct conflict between the two states.
A limited agreement, however, may itself prove insufficient for Israel. If Iran is truly dedicated to the production of a nuclear weapon and is genuine in its hard-line position which makes a complete suspension of all nuclear activity impossible, Israel may be faced with a growing threat, necessitating preemptive debilitative attacks on those facilities, which might dangerously lead to rapid escalation. Thus even a limited agreement with Iran will likely do little to assuage Israeli concerns about the threat posed by Iran. That, when combined with an influx of new capital following the alleviation of sanctions, only further serves to justify the fears.
The US is therefore faced with a kind of catch-22. It wants to re-engage the Iranian government in a deal that abates the growth of their nuclear program but it also knows that if the agreement produces anything short of a definitive halt to Iran’s nuclear developments, its closest regional ally, Israel, will pursue a calculated targeted campaign of disrupting or destroying that very program, thus undermining America’s position as a proponent of the agreement.