by Ali Gharib
What will Iran do with the money it gets as a result of an expected nuclear deal? That’s a big question swirling around Washington these days. There’s going to be a good of money involved, likely north of $100 billion in frozen funds that Iran will be entitled to repatriate. There will be even more in increased revenue, though this will trickle in more slowly than many think, owing to the required investments and time needed to get, for instance, the energy sector operating at anything near its capability. It’s so much that commentators across the political spectrum have taken to referring to it as a “windfall.” That’s not what the word really means, but okay.
The most reasonable take I’ve seen on the question comes from RAND’s Alireza Nader, who predicts that Iran will largely spend the money at home in an attempt to ease the woes created by the economic mismanagement of the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad era that sanctions only exacerbated. (Other have proffered a similar analysis.) That said, Nader notes, Iran will still probably inject some of the money into its military and foreign policy. That latter possibility is what has opponents of diplomacy going ballistic. Their argument goes something like this: We can’t make this deal with Iran because it’s going to allow Iran to run wild all over the Middle East and spread terror the world over. I exaggerate only slightly.
Versions of this meme have been circulating for months. “They’re not going to use it for schools or hospitals or roads,” the risibly propagandistic Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said a few months back of Iran’s windfall. “They’re going to use it to pump up their terror machine worldwide and their military machine that is busy conquering the Middle East now.”
This notion has been echoed again and again, especially by Netanyahu’s allies in the hawkish pro-Israel world, but also beyond. Even Tom Friedman got in on the action, addressing Iran’s economic gain in his Wednesday column with a typically overblown warning: “An Iran that is unshackled from sanctions and gets an injection of over $100 billion in cash will be even more superior in power than all of its Arab neighbors.” (Iran’s going to get a lot of dough, but comparatively it’s not that much, for Pete’s sake. Does Friedman understand how rich the Gulf Arabs are, and their political reach in the region, especially after the counter-revolutions of the Arab Spring?)
Nonetheless, the issue is worth addressing not only with dispassionate expert analysis of how Iran will spend its windfall. Many of those who have been flogging this talking point (or concern, if you prefer) have opposed talks with Iran from the start. What’s more, many of them opposed talks while at the same time issuing warnings that the Iranian nuclear program was the most dangerous threat in the history of the world (there I go, exaggerating only slightly again). “The greatest threat to our security and to our future was and remains Iran’s effort to arm itself with nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said this spring. “The biggest threat to our life at the moment is a nuclear-armed Iran,” he said last winter, in response to a report about housing prices in Israel. “The greatest threat facing our world is to have the forces of militant Islam get the bomb,” he said last fall. “I believe that this is the greatest challenge to the security of the world,” he said the winter before that. “The greatest danger facing the world is the prospect of a nuclear Iran,” he said in 2010. I could go on and on, but you get the idea.
Now, suddenly, on the cusp of a deal that would curb Iran’s nuclear program, we’re hearing we can’t do it because of this other threat. This isn’t so much to say that we can’t or mustn’t hold two ideas in our head at once—that a nuclear-armed Iran would be the greatest threat, but Iran’s general foreign policy ambitions are also a threat—but that there’s not even an attempt to subject these two notions to a cost-benefit analysis. Have any of the diplomacy nay-sayers considered that the benefit Iran’s windfall would give to its regional foreign policy might be marginal enough so as to justify dealing with the greatest threat it poses? In politics as in life, we call these sorts of calculations prioritizing. In order to tackle the issues we feel are of the greatest importance, sometimes we must give less attention to issues of lesser importance. The Iran accord will not offer perfect security in all realms of Iran’s malfeasance; it deals with the greatest potential threat.
Proponents of a “better deal” tend to advocate walking away from the current talks and imposing even harsher sanctions on Iran until it completely capitulates. They argue that Iran must dismantle its nuclear program entirely, end its support for terrorism completely, and recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state as part of any deal (as Netanyahu has said, for example). But this is simply unrealistic for two reasons. First, this is way too ambitious for any single accord. Second, there is the issue of the various clocks on these policies. If Iran broke free of the interim nuclear accord that currently restrains its nuclear program, it could quickly advance to being a screwdriver’s-turn away from a bomb. No credible sanctions could be imposed quickly enough and bite fast enough to forestall that possibility and cause Iran to cry uncle on every front.
And therein lies the problem: any nuclear deal with Iran would give it a windfall. The whole point of the dual tracks of pressure and diplomacy is to say to Iran, “We will allow you back into business if you allow us to know with great certainty that you won’t build a bomb.” Critics who argue about the dangers of Iran’s windfall are being disingenuous: the ends they say they want can come either from regime change or total capitulation, neither of which will come quickly enough as a result of sanctions to halt Iran’s nuclear progress before it is on the doorstep of a bomb. It’s difficult to see how, under any realistically plausible scenario, these critics of negotiations want a “better deal” rather than no deal at all.
A nuclear deal will not leave either the US or Israel impotent in the face of other Iranian threats or actions. And that’s the best approach to these issues: tackle now what the hawks have said is “greatest threat,” namely the nuclear program, and then deal with other issues. It may not work entirely. Iran could boost support for the Syrian government and for terrorist groups, but policies can be put in place to discourage this behavior and then punish it. The Middle East’s security woes, and Iran’s involvement in them, are not going to magically disappear. No deal can be done on the nuclear issue that won’t repatriate frozen funds and increase revenue for the Iranian government. Let’s not have any delusions about that. But let’s also not delude ourselves that a perfect deal in all respects can be attained at the present moment, or in any foreseeable one.
Photo: Abadan petrochemical complex