U.S. President Barack Obama achieved his overall goal with the signing of the nuclear agreement between the major powers and Tehran on Tuesday: depriving Iran of a military nuclear capability for the next decade at least. Instead of Iran remaining only about three months away from such a capability, the time span will expand to about a year.
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So much the better, but other than this achievement, the agreement signed in Vienna doesn’t give much reason for rejoicing in the West or Israel.
At the center of the talks was an effort to balance the oversight of Iran’s nuclear program with the pace of lifting the economic sanctions. The compromise that gives foreign inspectors the right to visit sites only after scheduling the visits with the Iranians provides an opening for delay and deception by Tehran.
And the mechanism for reimposing sanctions 65 days after detection of an Iranian breach appears convoluted. Recent leaks indicate that there was disagreement over the Iranian demand that the embargo on the sale of conventional weapons to Tehran be lifted. Ultimately it was agreed that the embargo would be extended another five years.
Reports from the final stretch of the talks raise concerns that the American cow wanted to provide even more milk to the Iranian calf than the calf wanted to drink. It’s understandable that achieving an agreement was also an Iranian goal, but all along the way the ideological ambivalence of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was also apparent.
The elderly leader was concerned that the lifting of sanctions, though it would save the country’s economy, would open Iran to the West and let the Americans lead a velvet revolution that would gradually change the face of the regime under pressure from the people. But he signed the agreement despite his reservations and aggressive speech on Iran’s red lines three weeks ago — he apparently felt the deal was too good to pass up.
The agreement between Iran and the world powers is the most important event in the Middle East since the beginning of the Arab Spring four and a half years ago. It comes as the Middle East is riven by wars with a clearly religious component — a Shi’ite-Sunni split. And Iran has been playing a central role.
Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey, which are concerned about Shi’ite Iran and seek to maintain their dominance in the region, may enter the arms race in an effort to become nuclear threshold states — at least. This would accompany their suspicions that Iran will again cheat the West and find a way to bypass the agreement.
And the money that will begin flowing into the Iranian economy as the sanctions are lifted may also expand the resources made available to the regime of President Bashar Assad in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Signals from Washington over the past year suggest that the Obama administration has been seeking a kind of détente with Tehran under which the two sides would sometimes cooperate; for example, in the fight in Iraq against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
The serious crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations, at whose lies the tense relationship between Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, has produced a situation in which the prime minister’s influence over the nuclear talks’ final stages was marginal.
Now, beyond the criticism that he will level at the U.S. president, Netanyahu is expected to gear up for the battle in Congress in an effort to hamstring Obama. In other words, he will strive to block the administration’s promises to lift Congressional sanctions on Iran.
Despite Netanyahu’s following among Republicans and the fact that the delay of the Vienna signing date added two months to the Congressional approval period, Netanyahu’s success hinges on recruiting 13 Democratic Senators to the nuclear agreement’s opponents. Prospects for that don’t appear high at the moment, despite the agreement’s many flaws.
In any event, the Prime Minister’s Office will invest huge effort in the battle, which will of course also see a sharper tone vis-a-vis Obama and his policies. One would hope that disagreements on principles and personalities won’t burn the bridges that link Jerusalem and Washington.
Ultimately, even after the confrontation in Congress, Obama is expected to be waiting at the White House, checkbook in hand, for Netanyahu. He’s expected to put together a package giving Israel generous military compensation for the Iranian agreement.
Obama and his spokespeople will try to promote the deal as a huge American foreign-policy success, as the most important development in the president's two terms. In practice, one could have hoped for a better agreement, but even if the Vienna accord is full of loopholes, it’s close to being a fait accompli. On the other hand, despite the fervent rhetoric of some Israeli politicians, an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear sites is no longer a relevant scenario.
If, as Obama expects, he overcomes Congressional opposition, we will be left with Iran as a strong regional power with its slew of bad intentions, but at this stage without a military nuclear capability.
The Israeli response to this threat depends on achieving closer ties with the United States, enhancing the Israel Defense Forces’ capabilities with American assistance, and strengthening the cooperation with the more moderate Sunni countries in the region. It’s a complicated picture, but not necessarily the bleakest one.