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Iran Nuclear Deal – Neither Historic nor Catastrophic

The U.S. president was going to make this accord happen no matter what, and if it fails Israel still has recourse to military and other options.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Representatives of the world powers in Vienna on Tuesday, when the landmark deal with Iran was finally struck.
Representatives of the world powers in Vienna on Tuesday, when the landmark deal with Iran was finally struck.Credit: AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Politicians, diplomats and nuclear experts are sifting through the 159 pages of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreed upon early Tuesday morning between Iran and the P5+1 group of world powers, searching for rays of light, weak points and loopholes. But whatever their conclusions, the bottom line is that this deal was inevitable.

Since June 15, 2013, when Hassan Rohani was elected Iran’s new president – becoming, in effect, the desired interlocutor of an American president who had set out from the start of his administration to strike a grand bargain, or a geopolitical realignment with the country that has been the United States’ major enemy – this deal has been coming.

You can draw many conclusions from the protracted process which led to today’s signing of the JCPOA in Vienna, about the many concessions the American negotiating team made along the way, about the time it took for the Iranians to overcome their historic suspicion toward the West, and the obstacles put in the way by critics from all sides, including from Paris, Jerusalem and Tehran – but this was going to happen because Barack Obama set it out as his holy grail and even despite its weakened state, the office of the president of the United States still has the power to get some things done.

Divining Obama’s true motives in pursuing a rapprochement with Iran is pointless and too easily borders on the realm of conspiracy theory. Without digging too deep, it’s clear that this was a combination of his pragmatic belief in a world “playing by the rules” and his inflated sense of his own historical destiny. The personal dynamic there is similar to that of Benjamin Netanyahu, who has blended his opposing bleak worldview where no one plays by the rules with his certainty about being the man chosen by history to safeguard the Jewish people.

Even if the two leaders had been capable of building a better personal relationship, they would have remained on opposite poles on the Iranian issue. Obama can only see Iran as a potential partner, while for Netanyahu it will forever remain an implacable enemy.

Stripping away the rhetoric and hysteria, the professional view in Israel’s security establishment toward the Iranian accord has for many months now been one of pragmatic skepticism. The JCPOA won’t drastically change the geopolitical balance in the region in the short term. Iran remains on the threshold of becoming a nuclear threshold state – and if it sticks to the agreement, which for now it has a clear incentive to do, it will remain at that step for a decade or more.

Of course, it would have been in the same place if Iran had been forced to dismantle its nuclear program as Libya did a decade ago, but Iran isn’t Libya and much has changed over the last 10 years.

There are clear strategic advantages for Israel in this situation, and the option of an Israeli military strike which would at the least set Iran back by two or three years is still there if Iran tries to take advantage of the not-too-intrusive inspection regime that's been agreed upon. The money which will start, slowly at first, to pour into the regime’s coffers with the removal of sanctions is a worry, of course, but it’s not as if the Iranian leadership has been reluctant to finance its proxies in the region so far, often at the expense of its own citizens.

Emerging from isolation will also make it harder for Iran to conceal some of its activities. Those in the Israel Defense Forces and Israeli intelligence services who have felt for a long time that the focus on Iran has not allowed Israel to deal with other closer and more immediate threats, hope they will have a chance now to reallocate resources.

On a regional level, the Iranians are already heavily invested on multiple fronts and are badly overextended. They are facing powerful enemies in the shape of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Sunni regimes, and of course in the genocidally anti-Shia Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL.

The JCPOA only deals with the nuclear issues but its side benefits will allow the Iranians to allocate more resources to their strongholds and allies in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Gaza and elsewhere. It will also open up more options for them to cooperate with outside players, including the United States, who want them as a partner in fighting ISIS and perhaps in restoring some order to the region.

But if the facts on the ground remain the same, the Iranians are a non-Arab minority in a predominantly Sunni Middle East, and are viewed with suspicion by the other minorities (and many Shias as well). The stakes for them remain high and the new accord will give them a boost, but the way to gaining trust and winning over new allies will remain long and arduous.

For Netanyahu this is a political blow but not a fatal one. He certainly won’t be resigning over this and still has 60 days of battle in Congress to look forward to. He believed Obama was going to sign this deal anyway and he’s been vindicated in this. At least on the way, over the years, the premier played the main role of pushing the international community to ramp up the sanctions.

The Iranian issue has also bought Netanyahu relative calm on the Palestinian front, since the Obama administration has focused all its foreign policy energies on the deal and will continue doing so for months until it is implemented. The likelihood that, in the aftermath of the agreement, Obama will have the time or credibility in his last year in office to pressure the Israeli leader once again to make concessions to the Palestinians is diminishing.

Based on Obama’s less-than-stellar foreign policy record so far, the chances of success aren’t great. He bet on a “re-set” with Russia, supported a new democracy in Egypt, announced a pivot to Asia, called ISIS “a jayvee (junior varsity) team,” and invested valuable time and political capital in resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict – all these were miserable failures.

In an interview two months ago with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama admitted that his foreign policy legacy will be measured in the future by the success of the Iranian deal. He was right about that, and pretty soon it won’t be up to him. His reputation in history as a statesman is now in the hands of the Iranians.

Despite all the superlatives, the agreement on the JCPOA today is neither historic nor catastrophic. Its success or failure is entirely contingent on Iran and the direction it will take in the coming years, most likely after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei succumbs to his cancer.

If Netanyahu is right and Iran plays a two-faced game in which it uses the deal to continue secretly to work on a bomb and try to establish dominance over the region – then the agreement will collapse and a new American administration will be a lot less charitable toward Iran. Obama’s name will become synonymous with well-intentioned but delusional policies. If the president is right and a new, more pragmatic and less revolutionary generation is emerging in Iran, then today’s deal will just have been one more stage in that generational shift. Either way, all judgements are premature.

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