The big question is, what is actually being transformed?
- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
The president of the United States has argued that the Iran nuclear deal, which will almost certainly become the centerpiece of his foreign-policy legacy, is not transformational. In a confident and telling interview with the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, President Barack Obama asserted that, “We are not measuring this deal by whether it is changing the regime inside of Iran.”
That statement — which came amid a list of assertions by the president of what the deal is not — is unsettling for several reasons, even for those of us who support the flawed but useful deal.
First, it is unsettling because it runs directly contrary to the argument that senior administration officials and supporters of the deal have been giving for some time now defining why the deal was important — that it would ultimately change Iran. While it is understandable that the administration would seek to cut back possible avenues of criticism of the deal, the pivot from building up to pruning perceptions of the impact of the deal, is not only intellectually dishonest and an obvious defensive gambit, it also poses other, greater problems.
One of those problems was highlighted by the very next effort at expectation management offered by Obama to Friedman in that interview: “We’re not measuring this deal by whether we are solving every problem that can be traced back to Iran, whether we are eliminating all their nefarious activities around the globe.”
The president’s point, taken in conjunction with his previous one, is troubling because the greatest threat Iran has long posed to the region has not been its nuclear program, but rather its “nefarious activities” like sponsoring terrorism, seeking to impose its will, and aggressively expanding its influence throughout the Middle East — including via one of history’s most notoriously bloodthirsty regimes, the one in Syria. Focusing on a deal that addresses, at least for the near term, only the second- or third-greatest threat posed by Iran to the region, while ignoring a greater and more current threat, would have to be considered an error of priorities if little else was being done to offset the greater problem. But the problem then grows even worse if the deal actually amplifies the biggest threat by channeling more resources to an “untransformed” Tehran.
And this deal does exactly that with the massive sanctions relief it affords Iran, estimated as in excess of $150 billion. Secretary of State John Kerry has argued correctly that the United States and the rest of the P5+1 countries must be vigilant of the potential consequences of this aspect of the deal. But the administration has, on other occasions (like the Camp David Summit with leaders from the Persian Gulf), repeatedly made the case that they believe the Iranians intend primarily to use the funds for domestic purposes — in part because the Iranians have told them so.
The president’s pitch that the deal should not be evaluated on terms beyond its legal scope is lawyerly and, in the end, grossly unrealistic. The deal can’t be removed from the context of regional, political, and security dynamics or separated from its unintended but still-possible consequences simply because it makes it easier to defend.
That said, the biggest problem with Obama’s argument that the deal is not “transformational” is that the argument is wrong. Because whether the deal ultimately changes Iran or not, it is a game-changer for the Middle East and relations between and among not only the major players in that region, but also between and among them and the major powers of the world. In fact, it is already transforming those relations on many levels.
One does not have to look too hard or too far for evidence of this. Today, America is fighting alongside Iranians in the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq. Despite the fact that administration and U.S. military officials regularly repeat the mantra that the United States is not coordinating with them, that is just not true. We are. We are together fighting a common enemy. We are communicating through interlocutors like the Iraqi government. We are effectively accepting them in a role in which Iranian military leaders like Qassem Suleimani, who once directed Iranian-supported militias in battles against U.S. soldiers, are seen on the ground in Iraq as heroes of the fight against the Islamic State. We can say all we want to the contrary. The reality on the ground says differently. Furthermore, no honest observer can disregard how different America’s attitude toward the Iranian involvement against the Islamic State is now compared to what our position once was.
In considering this, one might reasonably conclude that the desire to get this deal done on the part of an administration starved of a foreign-policy legacy has, for a while now, colored its view of that country. The president’s shift in his stance toward Iran’s proxy in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad — from calling for his ouster to tacitly accepting that he remain in power — might reasonably be seen as another example of that shift. Certainly, it is hard to suggest our goals with Iran have had zero impact on our behavior in Iraq or Syria. Similarly, the United States’ behind-the-scenes efforts to get the Saudis and other Gulf States to dial back their efforts in Yemen against Iranian-backed troops was seen by those in the region as another intervention on behalf of Iran — public rhetoric about our support for our allies, who knew better, notwithstanding. (Our failure to push Russia too hard after the invasion of Crimea is another case where, because we needed them for this deal, we sought, in the words of one very senior U.S. official at the time, to “cauterize that wound” as quickly as possible.)
But however you may view the shifts in U.S. attitudes that have taken place in the run-up to this deal — whether you see them as coincidence, as part of a calculated plan to get to this deal, or as part of a pragmatic approach to managing the problems of the region — the clearly transformational dimensions of this deal go much further.
Think of the impact of the deal on the U.S.-Israel relationship. Whether or not you’re sympathetic to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s arguments against the Iran deal, it is impossible not to see the rift the deal is causing as these two governments battle over their opposing views. Going forward, the deal’s impact is likely to take new forms. Not only are Netanyahu and Obama going to continue to alienate one another, but after the deal wins approval — over Israel’s now-active efforts to overturn the deal in Congress — Netanyahu will have to come up with a new U.S.-Israel agenda because the failed one he is sticking to for now will be moot. If he continues to argue that Iran is a threat, he will be doing so in an environment in which the U.S. president and his supporters have a stake in proving the deal is “working.” But Netanyahu will also be operating against the interests of many of the world’s leading economies — already eager to trade with Iran — who will soon have greater stakes in preserving those commercial ties to the newly available Iranian market.
What will Bibi do without Iran’s nuclear threat? He will be adrift. His principal excuse for attending to the much more challenging problems he faces at home — including the need to come to grips with the inevitability of Palestinian statehood — will be gone.
Similar transformation-related challenges await America’s allies in the Gulf, notably Saudi Arabia. They have been seen as invaluable because of their opposition to Iran. Indeed, this role has made the alliance with them essential even as they were seen as a very problematic partner due to the support that has come from within their borders for extremist groups, their repressive attitudes toward dissent and toward women, and their historic enmity for America’s ally, Israel.
But now senior U.S. officials and senior international officials who supported this deal will have an incentive to cast Iran in a different light — to illustrate that their handiwork has been something more than “just a (short-term) nuclear deal.” Further, Iran — in seeking to take advantage of international sanctions relief, welcome foreign trade and tourism, and regain international standing — will take steps periodically, if not consistently, to shore up support for its new role. (I would not be a bit surprised if one or more of the Americans being held in Tehran were released prior to the Senate vote.) This does not have to produce a 180-degree shift in views to have a seriously negative impact on the Saudis, the Qataris, the Turks, and others. Incremental change could result in there being less tolerance by the United States and the international community for their various abuses. This could be a good thing. Or it could add uncertainty to already fragile alliances. We can debate the degree of impact. But I think it is hard to argue that things will be the same post-deal as they were pre-deal.
And Iran will gain financially. The price of oil will go down, squeezing countries like those in the Gulf. Europe will grow closer to Iran as its companies are already champing at the bit to do more business there. China and India will buy more of Iran’s oil. Russia and China will see Iran as a potential for important arms sales as limitations on arms and missile trade expire in the next few years. All these countries will have a greater and greater stake in Iran being seen as a tolerable member of the mainstream.
All the other countries of the region have already seen Iran rise relative to them, thanks to the chaos of recent years as failed governance, economic dysfunction, social unrest, and the rise of extremism has spread among them. They have struggled. Iran has taken advantage of those struggles. Now, Iran has repositioned itself with the world’s powers. To be sure, the leaders in those powers speak as though they will remain wary of Iran. There will be posturing by hard-liners in Iran to show they are still present and gestures by the countries that were party to the deal to show they are vigilant. But for a few years anyway, there will be, for the first time in memory, potent, behavior-affecting, countervailing impulses. Some motivated by politics. Some motivated by hope. Some motivated by naiveté.
Make no mistake, this deal is just the latest in a series of seismic shocks that are remaking the modern Middle East. Some have been generational. Some have been technological. Some were manifested in the Arab Spring. Some have been driven by America’s growing energy independence or the rise of China as the global resource market of last resort. Some came with the end of the Cold War. Some came with the evolution of the extremist threat from al Qaeda, to the Islamic State, to whatever comes next. Some are unique to the massive changes taking place within individual countries — from Israel, to Syria, to Libya, to Yemen, to Iraq. But all are part of this being a transformational moment, and all will be impacted by this deal and its consequences, intended and otherwise.
For the president, this administration, and our allies, therefore, it is essential that they don’t make the mistake of believing their own spin. This is a transformational deal in the midst of a transformational moment. The deal’s architects and its champions must recognize that it is up to them to determine what kind of transformation that entails. But so, too, must its opponents.
Almost certainly, bigger changes are to come. Old alliances may falter. Power is likely to shift further. Iran is almost certain to rise in influence. And that, of course, is where we come to one of the biggest looming questions of all. Because if this deal is transformational for the region, fueling further Iran’s relative rise, but not for Iran itself, then history is certain to judge it very harshly. The president cannot hide behind pronouncements about the limits of American power and the “we did all we could do” on this point. He cannot suggest the deal stands alone on its merits. It is a considerable accomplishment, but it also must be viewed as setting up an enormous challenge for this president, his successors, and our allies worldwide.
Photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images