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A Time for Fist-Bumping

The interim Iran nuclear deal is worth celebrating, but it’s just a small piece of a much bigger puzzle.

Senate Hearing for Prospective U.N. Ambassador
WASHINGTON, DC - Jan. 15: President-elect Barack Obama's pick to be U.N. ambassador, Dr. Susan Rice and Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., after her nomination hearing before Senate Foreign Relations. (Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

For those commentators who took issue with U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice fist-bumping a colleague during Thursday’s White House announcement of the interim Iran nuclear accord, I have a word of advice: It is time to up your meds. That the national security advisor might be feeling good following the administration’s tireless and thus far seemingly successful effort to employ diplomacy to defang Tehran’s nuclear weapons development efforts is perfectly natural. Heck, Bill Clinton and his first national security advisor, Tony Lake, smoked a victory stogie after the rescue of a single flier in the former Yugoslavia, an event so comparatively inconsequential that Owen Wilson was selected to portray the pilot in the forgettable movie based on it.

Besides, Rice & Company have not had all that much to celebrate recently. They deserved to savor this moment, even if that is precisely what it was — a moment that will extend into a positive step forward along a long, twisting path through some of the most complex and challenging terrain in the world. The White House’s management of Thursday’s announcement was, to its credit, well orchestrated, with clear communication of the points of the better-than-expected deal, outreach to allies, and excellent remarks from U.S. President Barack Obama, who expertly and effectively hit every note required. From citing the strengths of the interim agreement to underscoring the White House’s focus on its finalization, careful implementation, and enforcement; from underscoring the importance of counterbalancing Iran in the region through collaboration with key allies to giving credit to the people who actually made the deal happen, it was pitch perfect.

Even acknowledging that this is just an interim step and that the devil lies into the details of its translation into being an ongoing operational reality of a changing Middle East, there are still plenty of folks who deserve great credit for this. That includes our allies in the negotiating process, and it includes the skillful yet constructive work of our counterpart, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Especially worthy of note is the negotiating team that has worked tirelessly on the deal for years, including Undersecretary Wendy Sherman; special negotiators like former Deputy Secretary Bill Burns and former national security advisor to the vice president, Jake Sullivan; their colleagues; and, in a tour-de-force performance in the final stages of this process, Secretary of State John Kerry.

It is also worth noting that the roots of this process go back much further and that, in some ways, it represents a consequence of unusual bipartisan effort in Washington. It was George W. Bush’s administration that began the sanctions push on Iran, and it was a Republican Congress that pushed the tougher sanctions that were ultimately adopted by the Obama team. A sign of the quality of the interim deal has been its endorsement or acceptance by former GOP officials like Ambassador Nicholas Burns or our own regular and much valued contributor, Kori Schake. (As a general rule of thumb, I find that if you aren’t sure where to come out on an issue and you want to take an informed and responsible stance, do what Nick Burns does. He’s one of the best.) This is particularly noteworthy because I remember the early days of the Obama administration during which there were substantial concerns about the White House’s lack of an effective Iran policy even at the very highest levels of key cabinet departments. Mistakes were made, but so too was progress achieved. In our generally screwed-up system, that’s not chopped liver.

In Obama’s remarks from the Rose Garden on Thursday, he was careful to put the deal into perspective. He said, “Many key details will be finalized over the next three months, and nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed.” He also said, “Of course, this deal alone, even if fully implemented, will not end the deep divisions and mistrust between our two countries. We have a difficult history between us. And our concerns will remain with respect to Iranian behavior so long as Iran continues its sponsorship of terrorism, its support for proxies who destabilize the Middle East, its threats against America’s friends and allies, like Israel. So make no mistake: We will remain vigilant in countering those actions and standing with our allies.”

These words, and the president’s subsequent comments about the importance of supporting and working even more closely with allies like the Gulf Cooperation Council states and Israel, are critically important — if they are followed up with concerted and meaningful action. That’s a concern because this is an administration that has always been better with speeches and ceremonies than it has been with follow-through and the blocking and tackling required to get things done. But this diplomatic breakthrough is not only promising, but it also appears to be important enough to the president and his team that they are willing to change their actions to support it. We have seen evidence of that in recent weeks as they showed themselves to be more careful about appearing to directly support Iranian-backed forces in Iraq, at least tacitly supportive of the Saudi-led initiative in Yemen, and, most tellingly, willing to reverse their stance and restore significant arms shipments to Egypt. Make no mistake: Whether the White House would acknowledge it or not, those were not isolated events; they were tangible signs the president would move heaven and earth to make this deal work. (There is an upside to the eagerness the administration has shown regarding this deal — if properly directed by those in the government closest to the situation on the ground and harnessed cannily by the well-intentioned among our allies.)

Most importantly, these caveats and framing statements address something that it is all too easy to lose sight of in the midst of the enthusiasm for this not inconsequential development at the negotiating table: The greatest threat posed by Iran is not its development of nuclear weapons. It is a vital concern. But it is secondary to Iran’s active, aggressive, and long-term strategy of seizing influence in the region by whatever means necessary. For three and a half decades, Iran has systematically supported proxies — from Hezbollah to the Assad regime to the Houthis in Yemen and Shiite militias and politicians in Iraq — that have been destabilizing the region or gaining direct control over important territories and peoples. That is a crucial thing to remember/bear in mind. The Iranians have a strategy. As of yet, there is no reason to assume we do and plenty of evidence to suggest we don’t. (As an aside, others have strategies that seem to be working better than ours, ranging from Assad’s strategy for survival, to the Islamic State’s and al Qaeda’s strategies for extending their reach and impact, to China’s strategy for gaining influence in a part of the world on which it is increasingly dependent for energy supplies and thus for its security.)

If the president’s remarks Thursday were more than just words and he really intends to insist his team works with traditional allies in the region to not only increase their ability to counterbalance Iran but to actually take action to do so, then perhaps we can remedy the consequences of the reactive half-measures and hesitations of the past six years (and the errors of the Bush years). If Obama meets with the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council states as promised and works out a real plan, backed up with real resources, better communication, and more dependable action that brings them around to the idea that we will actively continue to counter Iran (rather than warm to it in the wake of the deal and thus give it more room to dominate in the region), then that would also be welcome progress and frankly of much greater near- to medium-term consequence than this deal.

This effort needs to take into account that an Iran that benefits from the lifting of sanctions will also have greater resources to pump into places like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, or Gaza and thus could become even more dangerous. If we see that happening, then we must consider other sanctions — just as the president’s own new cyber policies suggest we must if the Iranians continue their cyberattacks on the United States. We must also recognize that the willingness of Iranians to actually put boots on the ground in places like Iraq and provide direct and substantial cash support to their proxies has given them a kind of political leverage we can never counteract unless we too are seen to be more willing to take risks and invest in the outcomes we seek.

Further, since its initial conception, the benefits of an effective nuclear deal were not only supposed to come from just stopping Iran’s nuclear weapons program. They were also to include reducing the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation throughout the region. One of the interim deal’s greatest weaknesses is that it seems unlikely to do that. The one-year breakout period the accord seeks to keep as the time it would take for Iran to get to weaponization will not and should not comfort the Saudis, the Egyptians, or others in the region. They will also note with great concern that the deal does nothing to address Iran’s apparent commitment to develop missile-delivery capacity that could be used once warheads were manufactured. The administration must acknowledge these weaknesses with eyes wide open and come up with the kind of security guarantees that will keep our allies, friends, and other regional powers from responding to this deal with “OK, if this is what you’re giving Iran, we’ll take that too.” A region containing multiple states that are a year or so away from nuclear weapons capability will be much more dangerous whenever it comes to pass. We cannot make the mistake of thinking that finalizing and implementing this deal with Iran, has also solved what is a much bigger — and far reaching — problem.

Restoring trust with our allies will be crucial to helping to contain Iran because they are the ones who are key to reducing Sunni-Shiite tensions and to finding lasting solutions to the region’s other great problem — the rise of Sunni extremism. Not only will a few isolated actions or a single set of remarks not fix this problem, but the president must recognize (from the reaction of the states of the region to the announcement of this interim deal) that many view it with enormous skepticism.

Thus, even though a good deal of work remains before the deal with Iran is finalized and more still will be involved with ensuring its effective implementation and enforcement, a much, much greater challenge remains — shaping, executing, and convincing our allies to go along with the kind of regional strategy we lack but require. For it’s that strategy that will determine whether this deal is a turning point for the better or whether it will someday be seen as a well-intentioned but ultimately dangerous distraction from addressing the snakes’ nest of problems currently bedeviling the modern Middle East.

Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images

About the Author

David 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. @djrothkopf

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