by Robert E. Hunter
Over the last century, July 20 was more than once a consequential date, for good and ill. The ill was in 1944: the unsuccessful plot to kill Adolph Hitler. The good was in 1969: the first manned landing on the moon. Success on the former July 20 might have spared at least some of the terrible suffering that continued for another 10 months; the latter ushered in a new era of expectations.
Will this year’s July 20 bring good or ill? The answer depends on whether Iran and the so-called P5+1 countries (the US, UK, France, Russia, China, and Germany) can reach a final deal by that day on the Iranian nuclear program.
Secretary of State John Kerry has said Iran must choose by the 20th: “No extension is possible unless all sides agree, and the United States and our partners will not consent to an extension merely to drag out negotiation.” If no agreement is reached by that time, it’s not clear what the US would do: impose more sanctions on the already beleaguered Iranian economy? Start bombing? The former is unlikely to work if current sanctions don’t; the latter is absurd.
If a deal is not reached, it will not be for want of US effort. This weekend, Kerry travels to Vienna to meet with the other top negotiators, and will make recommendations to President Barack Obama on the way forward. Iran, take note: while just about every deadline is flexible, if the US president is to sustain his diplomatic offensive to close a deal, refusing to meet him half-way will make it far more difficult for Obama to persevere in the face of strong political opposition in Congress and by some US regional allies to cutting any deal.
The Day After a Deal
For purposes of argument let us assume that an agreement is reached, if not on July 20, then within a timeframe that the P5+1 and Iran find acceptable. The term “tectonic shift” is not too strong to describe the possible regional response.
Within Iran, the promise of eased and eventually eliminated sanctions will be welcomed by the vast majority of Iranians, who want as much access to the West and its promises as possible. America is immensely popular among Iranian youth, and Western firms are already queuing up to invest, trade, and develop Iran’s economic and human potential.
If an agreement proceeds as it must in order to be accepted by the US and the other Western P5+1 states, regional politics will begin to shift, perhaps decisively over time. But not everyone will be pleased. Saudi Arabia and most of the other Persian Gulf states have depended on US-Iranian mutual hostility to contain what they believe to be an onslaught from Shia Islam. Of course, the Iranian revolution proved undesirable almost everywhere else in the Middle East, and this has been clear for about two decades now, but that is no matter! With a newly positive relationship between Iran and the West, Sunni Arab fears of Iran once again becoming a major regional power would be heightened. This would complement Gulf Arab fears that they might no longer be able to count on being Washington’s “most favored nations.”
For its part, Israel would be ambivalent. Objectively, a verifiable end to the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon would eliminate what has been called an “existential threat” to Israel. At the same time, some right-wing Israelis fear that the reduction of US-Iranian tensions could lead to increased pressure on Israel to face up to issues regarding the Palestinians. The argument has been compelling: How could any Israeli government negotiate seriously about the West Bank under the threat of a nuclear apocalypse? For Israel, too, competition for power and influence in the region would be complicated by Iran’s return to the game.
By contrast, for the US in the region, success in the nuclear negotiations with Iran would open up possibilities — though not certainties — of renewed cooperation over the future of Afghanistan, which came to an end when President George W. Bush added Iran to an “axis of evil” list in January 2002. Some cooperation might also become possible in Iraq, where both countries are worried about anarchy, though this is a more complex question.
The US would be better suited, however, to persuading Gulf Arab states to stop letting their citizens support– with ideas, money, and arms — the worst of the worst Islamist terrorists in Syria and Iraq.
The US could also then start fashioning the elements of a long-term security structure for the region to benefit all of its countries, provided that everyone — including US allies — prioritized common interests over the pursuit of narrow, national and sectarian ambitions. This is a tall order and would take many years to create, but even beginning this necessary process will be impossible so long as the Iranian nuclear question hangs over everything.
All these possibilities can challenge the status quo — as destabilizing as it has long since proved — and threaten the advantages that some regional countries have enjoyed as a result of destructive Iranian behavior.
It is thus no wonder that so many are putting so much effort in trying to derail the nuclear talks, beginning with the domestic enemies of Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani. Opposition has also been coming from the other side: the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs have stepped up their pressure on the US to contain Iran. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been intensifying his efforts in the US and other P5+1 states to prevent what he recently called a “surrender agreement” with Iran.
The run-up to July 20 also comes at a time of more-than-usual tension, violence, and uncertainty across the region, ranging from the rise of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to renewed violence between Israel and Hamas. While these developments are not connected to the nuclear talks in Vienna, over the decades we have seen a sorry record of hope in one part of the region being undercut by conflict and tragedy in another. This is all the more reason for persuading at least one area of confrontation and challenge to move toward stability.
The next two weeks will thus be a time requiring focus and steady nerves by both the Iranian and US teams.
Obama has already achieved what his recent predecessors were thwarted in doing, either by circumstances (especially Iranian politics) or by unwillingness to take on domestic political opposition. He has done so despite substantial pressure from resurgent neoconservatives and congressional opponents of an agreement with Iran who are unwilling to accept that Obama is pursuing what is best for the United States. Indeed, no matter how good of an agreement is reached in terms of Western interests, Obama can depend on ample criticism from both partisan opponents at home and by some Middle Eastern allies.
Let us hope the US president will hold firm to his course and, if Iran permits, is able to achieve this foreign policy goal. Too much is at stake for these talks to fail.