What’s Really at Stake in the Iranian Nuclear Deal

The interim nuclear deal with Iran is an important step forward, and the various negotiating teams can be justly proud of their achievement. Far be it from me to be a killjoy at this rare moment of progress, but let’s not lose our heads amid all the high-fiving and back-patting. Why? Because Iran’s nuclear program ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Photo: FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images

The interim nuclear deal with Iran is an important step forward, and the various negotiating teams can be justly proud of their achievement. Far be it from me to be a killjoy at this rare moment of progress, but let's not lose our heads amid all the high-fiving and back-patting. Why? Because Iran's nuclear program is not in fact the real issue. The more important issues are Iran's future relations with the outside world and whether the deal paves the way for reintegrating that country into the world economy and the broader international community.

There is something of a paradox in the ways that opponents and supporters of a deal approach the whole subject of Iran's nuclear program and the country's broader relations with the United States and other major powers. Opponents of a deal tend to believe that 1) Iran is governed by irrational and highly aggressive Shiite fanatics; 2) it is hellbent on getting a nuclear weapons capability; and 3) if Iran does get the bomb, it will have dramatic and overwhelmingly negative consequences for regional stability and world politics more generally. Given those (unwarranted) beliefs, you'd think hawks would be thrilled with this deal, insofar as it freezes Iran's current capabilities, will reduce the stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium (i.e., the stuff that could be enriched to weapons grade fairly quickly), and leaves all the truly significant sanctions in place. If the nuclear program is your big concern, then this is a great first step and a more far-reaching comprehensive deal would be even better. (The alternatives -- an unconstrained Iranian program or another Middle East war -- are clearly inferior.)

By contrast, many who support the current deal believe that 1) Iran's leaders are rational individuals seeking to advance Iran's national interests; 2) Iran has not yet decided to seek a nuclear weapon and probably prefers a condition of nuclear latency to a fully developed nuclear arsenal; and 3) getting the bomb wouldn't transform Iran into a major world power overnight and certainly wouldn't enable it to threaten Israel or blackmail its neighbors. If this view is accurate, then a final deal on Iran's nuclear program -- i.e., one that scales back those elements that shorten the breakout period but leaves Iran with some enrichment capacity -- isn't that significant by itself, because Iran wasn't really seeking a weapon anyway and its getting a few bombs wouldn't have that big an impact on world politics.

The interim nuclear deal with Iran is an important step forward, and the various negotiating teams can be justly proud of their achievement. Far be it from me to be a killjoy at this rare moment of progress, but let’s not lose our heads amid all the high-fiving and back-patting. Why? Because Iran’s nuclear program is not in fact the real issue. The more important issues are Iran’s future relations with the outside world and whether the deal paves the way for reintegrating that country into the world economy and the broader international community.

There is something of a paradox in the ways that opponents and supporters of a deal approach the whole subject of Iran’s nuclear program and the country’s broader relations with the United States and other major powers. Opponents of a deal tend to believe that 1) Iran is governed by irrational and highly aggressive Shiite fanatics; 2) it is hellbent on getting a nuclear weapons capability; and 3) if Iran does get the bomb, it will have dramatic and overwhelmingly negative consequences for regional stability and world politics more generally. Given those (unwarranted) beliefs, you’d think hawks would be thrilled with this deal, insofar as it freezes Iran’s current capabilities, will reduce the stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium (i.e., the stuff that could be enriched to weapons grade fairly quickly), and leaves all the truly significant sanctions in place. If the nuclear program is your big concern, then this is a great first step and a more far-reaching comprehensive deal would be even better. (The alternatives — an unconstrained Iranian program or another Middle East war — are clearly inferior.)

By contrast, many who support the current deal believe that 1) Iran’s leaders are rational individuals seeking to advance Iran’s national interests; 2) Iran has not yet decided to seek a nuclear weapon and probably prefers a condition of nuclear latency to a fully developed nuclear arsenal; and 3) getting the bomb wouldn’t transform Iran into a major world power overnight and certainly wouldn’t enable it to threaten Israel or blackmail its neighbors. If this view is accurate, then a final deal on Iran’s nuclear program — i.e., one that scales back those elements that shorten the breakout period but leaves Iran with some enrichment capacity — isn’t that significant by itself, because Iran wasn’t really seeking a weapon anyway and its getting a few bombs wouldn’t have that big an impact on world politics.

Thus, the paradox: Many supporters of a diplomatic deal don’t believe the danger of a "nuclear Iran" is all that momentous, while opponents of the current deal think Iran’s nuclear program poses a grave and imminent threat. One would think the former would be more relaxed about recent progress, while the latter would be more enthusiastic. But that isn’t the case: Those with a moderate view of the nuclear danger are much happier with the deal than those who (logically) ought to be more interested in anything that constrains what Iran is able to do.

In fact, the real issue isn’t whether Iran gets close to a bomb; the real issue is the long-term balance of power in the Persian Gulf and Middle East. Iran has far more power potential than any of the other states in the region: a larger population, a fairly sophisticated and well-educated middle class, some good universities, and abundant oil and gas to boost economic growth (if used wisely). If Iran ever escapes the shackles of international sanctions and puts some competent people in charge of its economy, it’s going to loom much larger in regional affairs over time. That prospect is what really lies behind the Israeli and Saudi concerns about the nuclear deal. Israel and Saudi Arabia don’t think Iran is going to get up one day and start lobbing warheads at its neighbors, and they probably don’t even believe that Iran would ever try the pointless act of nuclear blackmail. No, they’re just worried that a powerful Iran would over time exert greater influence in the region, in all the ways that major powers do. From the perspective of Tel Aviv and Riyadh, the goal is to try to keep Iran in a box for as long as possible — isolated, friendless, and artificially weakened.

But from the U.S. perspective, that’s neither a realistic nor a desirable long-term goal. As I laid out last week, America’s main strategic interest in the Greater Middle East is a balance of power in which no single state dominates. In such a situation, U.S. interests and leverage are best served by having good relations with as many states as possible and at least decent working relations with all of them. America’s long-term interests are best served by helping reintegrate Iran into the global community, which is likely to strengthen the hand of moderate forces there and make Iran less disruptive in other contexts (e.g., Lebanon). Managing this process will require reassuring existing allies, but this development would also force current allies to listen to Washington a bit more attentively, which wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Over the next six months, the fine details of a long-term nuclear deal will receive enormous attention and debate. Given the attention that Iran’s nuclear program has received over the past decade or more, that level of scrutiny is unavoidable. But in the end the nuclear issue doesn’t matter that much; what matters is whether an agreement on that issue will allow relations between Iran and the United States and the rest of the P5+1 to normalize in the months and years ahead. And it is that development that opponents of an agreement will be desperate to prevent.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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