Monday, August 10, 2015

Roots and implications of the Iran nuclear deal

Peter T., who has guest-posted and commented insightfully at this blog, sent me an analysis (link) of the Iran deal by Sharmine Narwani.  She argues, essentially, that the changed strategic situation in the region represented by the rise of ISIS and its gains in Syria and Iraq (and continued strength of other extremist Sunni groups, e.g. the Nusra Front) drove the U.S. to make an opening to Iran in 2012 in order to take "the old American-Iranian 'baggage' off the table..., allowing [the U.S. administration] the freedom to pursue more pressing shared political objectives with Iran."  Iran stood up to 'the Empire' and its allies, Narwani maintains, rode out UN sanctions, and emerged with an agreement that, in exchange for sanctions relief, blocks it from doing something it never wanted to do in the first place: namely, acquire an operational nuclear weapons capability.

While Narwani's assessment has its strong points, it perhaps goes too far in painting a rosy prospect of Iranian-U.S. strategic cooperation in the region.  The two countries do not have formal diplomatic relations; unilateral U.S. sanctions on Iran that are unrelated to its nuclear program but relate to its support for groups such as Hezbollah are, afaik, unaffected by the nuclear deal; and 36 years of 'baggage' cannot be entirely taken off the table, istm, in one fell swoop. The past several decades must have left a substantial residue of psychological scar tissue between Iran and the U.S. that no agreement, no matter how 'win-win' in its basic structure, can remove overnight.

Narwani's piece looks behind certain statements of the principals to get at what she thinks are the real motivations behind the deal.  This mode of proceeding is not without merit, but it risks overlooking some points.  The main U.S. ally in the region, for better or worse, is Israel, to the maintenance of whose military superiority -- its 'qualitative military edge', in the ghastly-sounding bureaucratic phrase -- the U.S. is committed to the tune of several billion dollars a year (a commitment that may go up).  This fact standing alone imposes certain limits on the degree to which Iran and the U.S. can jointly pursue their "shared political objectives".  Iran's human rights record and the fact that it still has several American citizens, one of whom is an American-Iranian reporter for The Washington Post, in custody also tells against an immediate warming of U.S.-Iran relations in the wake of the deal (assuming the deal survives congressional scrutiny and Obama retains enough congressional support to sustain a veto of a disapproval resolution, which I think he will).

Finally, it might be worth scrutinizing the "shared political objectives" of the U.S. and Iran a bit more closely.  Iran is of course a major backer of Assad.  And the fact that the Pentagon, as detailed for example in a front-page NYT article of July 31, is trying (with very limited success to date) to train 'moderate' Syrian fighters primarily to attack ISIS, rather than Assad, might suggest, as some other developments (including arguably the deal itself) do,  a convergence of interests between Iran and the U.S.: ISIS is the main perceived threat by both.  And yet the very same NYT article of July 31 pointed out that the CIA still has a covert program in place to train Syrian fighters to battle Assad, noting that the CIA and Pentagon programs are working somewhat at cross-purposes.

Narwani may be right that the nuclear deal represents a quasi-epochal shift in strategic alignments in the region.  I would be inclined however to a more muted judgment.  The Obama administration was not motivated to reach, along with its allies, a deal with Iran mainly because of the rise of ISIS, contrary to what Narwani suggests. The Obama admin was also facing a situation in which the pressure for a military "solution" to the perceived Iranian nuclear "problem" was rising, both domestically and also from Israel.  What the nuclear deal most obviously and immediately does is remove much of the pressure for a military "solution," pressure to which the Obama admin was unlikely to have succumbed but which might have grown increasingly irksome and irritating. This, it seems to me, is perhaps the deal's most significant implication.

Note: Minor edit after initial posting.

Added later: For another perspective, see this article in Counterpunch (7/15/15), which views the nuclear deal as a move toward U.S./Iran détente and examines the forces impelling it as well as the motives behind the opposition.  


LFC said...

Fuller cite for the NYT article, which I read in hard copy: "Abductions Hurt U.S. Bid to Train Anti-ISIS Rebels," NYT, 7/31/15, p.A1.

Peter T said...

The Iranian line is fairly clear - and has been consistent and open since 1979. Iran wants a civil nuclear program as a sign of its status as an independent power - this is the central element. And that independent power status flows through to aid to various allies (Hezbollah, Hazaras, Iraqi Shi'a), condemnation of Israeli policies, and its own path to development. Given this, a complete US-Iran rapprochement seems unlikely, although it does clear the way to minimising some of the inevitable frictions.

I don't know if the US administration gets that Iran is not seeking a bomb, but needs to deal with the perception that it is, or if actually believes it. I'm inclined to read Obama's justification as the simple truth - this is the best deal that could be got; no better options remain, and time does not favour the current US position.

LFC said...

In the Counterpunch article that I linked at the end of the post, Lachmann/Schwartz/Young argue that the deal is not mainly about the nuclear issue at all, but is an exploratory move by the Obama admin toward a reorientation of policy in the direction of trying to modify Iranian behavior in the region (e.g. aid to Hezbollah, Hamas, etc.) through the use of (though they don't use this terminology) carrots rather than sticks. It is a bet that opening Iran to more Western (and spec. US-based) investment will also draw it more into the US's 'sphere of influence' (not sure I wd use that phrase but they do). They quote Gary Sick to the effect that ending Iran's relative economic isolation will also change "the way regime operates," i.e. the way it operates politically. I'm not 100 percent convinced by this (the example of China suggests that entanglement in the global economy does not necessarily lead to drastic change in the way a regime operates at home or in foreign policy), but it's possible. The material in the piece about Israel's interest in Med. natural gas and possible competition w Iran to supply nat. gas to Europe is also interesting (or at least some of it was new to me, though I was vaguely aware of the issue).

Btw, there was a piece in World Policy Journal a year or two ago (that I was going to post on but didn't) that argued that one of Ahmadinejad's achievements was solidifying a domestic consensus in favor of Iran's civilian nuclear power program -- that Ahmadinejad succeeded in making this a 'mass' or popular issue rather than something that was mostly of concern to elites or just discussed in elite circles. FWIW.