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Why It’s Too Early to Tell How History Will Judge the Iran and Greece Deals

Both were tough to hammer out, but the real test will be making them work.

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The most frequently mis-told foreign-policy anecdote is almost certainly the story of Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai’s response after Henry Kissinger asked him, in 1971, to assess the impact of the French Revolution. As the story goes, Zhou responded with, “It is too early to tell.”

What really took place, according to those present, is that Zhou misunderstood the question and, rather than being asked to assess the impact of the epochal events of 1789, he thought Kissinger’s question referred to the student protests that hit Paris in 1968. In recalling the exchange, former foreign service officer Chas Freeman stated that “there was a misunderstanding that was too delicious to invite correction.” Or as we in the media like to say, the story was so good it hardly mattered whether it was true or not. As it happens, though, the tale also reveals the difference between a story that is true and one that contains a good deal of truth.

The truth is that our take on seemingly big events, as they occur and for some time afterwards, is clouded by the emotions of the moment and the efforts by those close to the events to spin them as they are still happening. Later, those views are often rendered wrong or even ridiculous when the events in question are placed into the context of their consequences. As we consider the two big deals that have dominated the news this week — one pertaining to Greece’s economic crisis and one to Iran’s nuclear program — this need for perspective is worth emphasizing. Because the emotions being stirred up in both cases are intense as are the efforts to “frame” the events by their authors and opponents alike.

The two deals are both as deeply flawed as they are hard won. Both will be measured as successes or failures not so much by how difficult they have been to hammer out, nor on their apparent high stakes, but rather by their subsequent implementation: how both sides address their interpretation and enforcement and how they are handled in the context of other related events, policies, and initiatives.

To some degree both the Greek and Iranian deals have been viewed through a distortionary lens for months because some of those close to the deals have seen it as within their interests to inflate the stakes involved. In the case of the Greek deal, it was posited that if Greece left the eurozone, it might fall into the clutches of evil Russian President Vladimir Putin and China or, alternatively, that if it left the eurozone, the EU itself might fall to bits. In the case of Iran, pro-deal forces (including the president, as reflected in his remarks announcing the deal on Tuesday morning) argued that the alternative to a deal was war with Iran. Neither threat stands up against much scrutiny.

In considering Greece’s supposed cozying up to Putin for a lifeline, the fact of the matter is that Russia is broke and has the same power to gain economic favor in Greece today as it would have if there wasn’t a deal (Greece is going to need all the help it can get, EU deal or no). Furthermore, Greece’s economy is so integrated with that of the EU that it could never really turn away, especially toward an economy as thin and fragile as Russia’s. Finally, there was never any real threat that the departure of Greece would undo the economic imperatives that link the core nations of the EU and the reaction of financial markets to the crisis. This — as well as the absence of a scintilla of serious talk about how this might occur from the principals — underscores that it was all just overheated talk.

As for the idea that no deal would increase the likelihood of war with Iran implies there is a side willing to go to war with Iran and frankly, absent the United States’ will to lead that effort, it seems really unlikely. And make no mistake about it, posturing aside, the Barack Obama who has shown no inclination to get meaningfully involved in the catastrophe in Syria and is tiptoeing his way through the meltdown of Iraq, all the while heading for the exits in Afghanistan, was not going to go to war with Iran under virtually any circumstances. Indeed, on the contrary, since his statement during the presidential campaign in the spring of 2008 that he would reach out to engage Iran, it seemed that Obama has been on a trajectory to try to warm up the relationship between Washington and Tehran. And though Israel, for example, might have struck out against Iran, it could not sustain a protracted conflict, and Iran’s neighbors in the Gulf lack both the will and the means necessary to engage that country in a war. (It should be noted that another flaw in the “it’s the deal or war” argument is that Iran is already involved in four other wars in the region, deal or no.)

So, already we can see the stakes for these deals are not exactly as they’re depicted in meant-to-scare headlines and podium-thumping speeches. But that doesn’t mean these deals might not someday be seen by history as important. Not only does the Greece deal have a big impact on the near- to medium-term economic and political fate of a country whose people are struggling with high unemployment, inept government, and a spluttering financial system, but how this deal was handled raises important questions about the commitment of rich members of the eurozone to poorer members and reveals something about the rules for staying in that club. The Iran deal does take material steps to, at least for the moment, reduce the extremely serious threat of Iran gaining nuclear weapons and has a broader impact on how effectively the international nonproliferation regime is seen to operate. It might also be a useful complement to a broader international effort to stabilize the Middle East — if such an effort were ever to materialize.

So the potential for lasting value exists within these deals. Will it materialize? Naturally, that turns largely on whether the deals achieve their stated goals.

Will Greece make the changes and start to grow its way out of its crisis? Will shopping on Sunday (a provision of the deal) and mandatory pension reform turn Greece into a little Germany on the Mediterranean? Well, er, no. But is there a chance this near-death experience may lead to constructive changes and progress? Yes. The engagement of the International Monetary Fund in the solution will be key as will be the attentiveness of EU officials and the political courage of the Greek leadership. The critical X-factor will be the patience of the Greek people. There will be no next bailout. If the current deal doesn’t lead to lasting change in Greece, then this will go down in history alongside other such deals announced with great fanfare that didn’t produce exactly the progress hoped for. (See the debt deals of the 1980s that were followed only a decade later by the emerging markets crises of the 1990s and the Argentine debacle of more recent vintage.)

Is the Iran deal a good deal? Again, while the media was, within moments of the deal’s announcement early on July 14, awash with Tuesday-morning quarterbacks explaining how they would have done it better, it is the deal we have. Further, no one can reasonably argue that it is not better to have some agreement that at least makes ending Iran’s nuclear weapons program a possibility for the foreseeable future. The key is how leaders in Iran and around the world act once the deal is in place. We have seen deals in the past that have simply not been effective. (See North Korea.) But there is a path forward with this deal that will certainly be better than the uncertainty that has hung over this issue for the past 13 years. If the deal’s terms are enforced and it translates into real inspections that are regularly and even aggressively conducted, where violations are marked without hesitation — and, of course, the Iranian government has the intent to honor its terms — this deal will be seen as successful.

In short, the spirit that led to the deals may well not be the one essential to ensuring they work. In the case of the Greece deal, the draconian toughness of the EU negotiators is going to have to be matched by more humanity in its implementation — and Greece’s leaders will need to go from pleading their case to actually buckling down and instituting the tough policies that will make it work. Similarly, the Obamaian “audacity of hope” that underlies an Iran deal based on the good will of a nation that has a four-decade track record of bad actions and intentions and the notion that near-term relief of the threat will produce longer term benefits will be seen as pure fecklessness unless he and especially his successors approach the implementation of this deal with vastly more skepticism than shaped its terms.

Obama asserted in his remarks that once the deal expires, the United States will be in a stronger position to get tough if Iran strays. But of course, after a decade or so of sanctions relief, integration into the international community, enhanced interdependency with China and others, and likely continued efforts to expand its influence in the Middle East, it is far more likely that a decade from now Iran emerges as the party to the deal that is most greatly strengthened. For these reasons and based on Iran’s current activities in the region, it is also vital this president of the United States and, more importantly, his successor, work to ensure that Iran does not threaten regional stability in other ways that would essentially negate the security gains afforded by this agreement. If Iran continues to seek to destabilize the region, continues to sponsor proxies like Hezbollah that do so, continues to pose a direct threat to important U.S. allies from Israel to the Gulf, or worse, if it uses resources from this deal to increase those threats, then this deal will be seen as having missed the mark. Indeed, it will be seen as having missed the point altogether if tensions between Iran and its neighbors continue to rise, Iran is seen to gain permanently in places like Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, and the result is war or a perceived motivation on the part of some of those threatened to pursue their own paths toward proliferation.

That the deal in question leaves so many looming questions and solves so little in a lasting and irreversible way is lamentable. But lamenting it or trying to undo it will likely be less productive than focusing on what needs to be done by America and the other members of the P5+1 and our allies in the region, as well as by Iran, to work to make the deal we have a success. Above all, this means that no one — the president of the United States, his team, the Iranian government, or anyone else — sees the deal as an end in itself. It is just another step on what has already been a decade-and-a-half long journey. As intensive as the diplomacy that produced this deal was, similar efforts will be required to ensure the implementation of the deal and the resolve of the international community to enforce it. Any let up (or perceived let up) will be seen as an opportunity by hard-liners in Tehran and as a real threat by Iran’s rivals in the region. This deal is not enough. Other initiatives that support our allies, give them confidence that they can rebuff Iran, and send a message to Iran that their hegemonic ambitions will not stand must be pursued as diligently as this deal was or they will be seen as a halfway measure, a victory with a painfully short half-life. (For a recent poignant example, see the Syria chemical weapons deal.)

In the case of both of this week’s deals, therefore, the really hard work begins now. Getting the deals was tough. Keeping them will be even tougher. But fortunately, thanks to the deals, we have a path forward, something to react to, to work with. The flaws are both clear and manifold. But in both cases an opportunity for a better future has presented itself.

It is certainly far too soon to tell whether these deals will be seen as the game-changers their architects hope they will be, but to the critics of the deals I would say that rather than fighting them, you should recognize the essential role you ought to play in making them work. No one is better positioned to ensure their success in the eyes of future generations than those who today are most acutely aware of their flaws.

Photo credit: JOE KLAMAR/AFP/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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