Iran Deal: Avoiding the Fate of Sisyphus

by Charles Naas

The P5+1 negotiating team and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, much like Sisyphus in Greek mythology, have pushed the burden of mutual understanding on Iran’s nuclear program to the hilltop. Now they see if they can avoid Sisyphus’ fate and keep the agreement from slipping back into failure. Those of us who can only watch the process should realize that the various restraints on Iran are not the core of the issues that will now occupy the administration and Congress.

Let’s be realistic in our examination of the various texts that constitute the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. There is the proliferation side and, equally important, the impact on both domestic and regional politics. Although Israel and the Arab states may have deeply held fears about a nuclear Iran, their main concern is that from now on the United States and European countries will be able to freely exchange views with Iran, a Shia nation of 80 million people that

has been pretty much frozen out of the political dynamics in an area where it has vital national interests. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the leaders of the Arab monarchies—who have had little or no competition in past years in trumpeting their needs and views—will now have to compete as well with the views of Iran and non-Sunni organizations.

The political calculus has been potentially seriously altered. President Obama probably had this objective alongside the proliferation concerns when he sent Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns to Oman three years ago to probe with senior Iranian diplomats whether it would be in our interests to open a longer-term dialogue with a country with which we have not had diplomatic relations since 1979. That effort was the real beginning of the intrusive and widespread campaign in the US and particularly in Congress to cripple the talks with Iran.

Probably a majority of members of our two illustrious bodies has been opposed to the agreement and will continue to do so and vote against the nuclear agreement. But members should note that this is not a US-Iran bilateral understanding and that five other countries, as well the European Union, have signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. To vote against the plan and possibly to overcome the president’s veto would have very significant ramifications within those countries and in the Middle East.

Of course, many of the members have no great special interest in the issue and have admittedly not read the text of the agreement. Rather, their primary aim is to be the happy beneficiaries of large sums of money for the upcoming elections from casino and oil and gas magnates. You can safely wager that none of the 15-20 Republican presidential candidates will vote in favor of accepting the plan. It takes a strong man to vote the national interest over election money, and we have few of them.

This is not to say that there has been no legitimate long-term proliferation fear of Iran building a nuclear device that, if married to its missile delivery system, could reach much of the Middle East and parts of southern Europe. A few nuclear bombs exploded in Israel would likely end that state’s existence. Such an attack, Iran’s leaders know, would be national suicide and madness. Israel could launch at least 200 nuclear devices by sea, air, and land to obliterate every major city in Iran.

There have been warnings coming from Israel and US critics of the nuclear deal that Iran will eventually receive over $100 billion of its money frozen by sanctions that it will use to flood the region for various nefarious purposes. This manufactured warning is risible in light of Arab wealth and their expenditures of many billions on purchases of modern arms and in support of Sunni extremist organizations including al Qaida and, reportedly, the Islamic State. Iran will certainly use some of this money for foreign interests. But its domestic economic needs are huge.

The months of negotiations in Lausanne, Vienna, Almaty, Istanbul, and so on have resulted in an agreement that closes all paths to a nuclear weapon for an initial 10 years. Of course there be misunderstandings and renewed bargaining during the life of the Joint Plan. Whether it’s a question of achieving consensus on the meaning of different clauses in the different languages or honest differences in interpretation of the technical annexes, the agreement is a potential snake pit of friction.

But the Joint Plan is a remarkable success. Let’s take pride in that and use it to try to work with others to ease regional tensions and lessen the loss of life. We have a few common interests with Iran in the region as well as some divergent concerns. Will the NSC and the administration be wise enough to use the positive change in the political calculus? Can our elected bodies also be helpful? Stay tuned.

Photo by vintagedept via Flickr

Charles Naas

Charles Naas was Deputy Ambassador and Charge d'Affairs in Tehran during the initial stages of Iran's revolution. Preceding that he was Director of Iranian Affairs and served also in Pakistan, India, Turkey, Afghanistan, as the ME advisor at the US's UN delegation, and retired from The Policy Planning Staff.


One Comment

  1. A few well placed conventional bombs will deny Iran’s dream of annihilating Israel and flying the Islamic flag over the White House. Iran has to do is stop supporting terror and threats and act like a normal nation. Until it renouncing its stated aims unfortunately all possibilities remain on the table. Much of the world to day is against Israel, but that makes no difference. Israel will not just disappear. Today the Jews are not helpless as they were in Nazi Germany.

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