What ‘no deal’ would have meant — and 5 other things to consider about the Iran nuclear accord

Secretary of State John Kerry, right, and other negotiators of the Iran nuclear deal in Vienna after agreement was announced, July 14, 2015. (Thomas Imo/Photothek/Getty Images)

By Uriel Heilman

(JTA) – The nuclear agreement signed this week between the U.S.-led group of six world powers and Iran raises as many questions as it answers. As critics and proponents dissect the details, here are six issues to consider.

It’s not only about nuclear weapons.

In all probability, Iran will acquire nuclear weapons. This deal may delay that day, but it probably won’t prevent it from happening. Without a deal, Iran likely would proceed even faster. Just look at all the progress it has made over the past 15 years. Analysts estimate that Iran’s current breakout time to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb is just three months (though Iran needs more than fissile material to produce a nuclear weapon; it would also need to build the bomb and test it).

The debate about this deal really is about Iranian power. The agreement not only legitimizes certain aspects of Iran’s nuclear program, but will give the Iranian economy a massive infusion of cash that skeptics believe Iran will use to fuel its terrorist activities and strengthen its regional proxies: Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Assad regime in Syria and the Houthi rebels in Yemen, to name just a few. This deal will also remove myriad restrictions on the Iranian regime, paving the way for Tehran to increase its sphere of influence and power in the region.

There’s plenty of wishful thinking to go around.

President Barack Obama is hoping this deal will help restrain Iran’s behavior in spheres other than just the nuclear program, perhaps delivering sufficient benefit to Iran’s economy that it pushes the country from the path of extremism to a path of moderation. Perhaps Obama hopes that the convergence of American and Iranian interests in other areas, such as the fight against Islamic State militants, will do the same. In short, Obama believes, as with Cuba, that the carrot will yield more benefits than the stick as far as Iran is concerned.

But given Tehran’s track record instigating trouble abroad (most recently in backing Yemen’s Shiite Houthi rebels) and suppressing domestic dissent and freedoms, that sounds like wishful thinking. For those reasons and others, the agreement’s five- and eight-year expirations on arms trade with Iran are cause for grave concern in Israel and elsewhere. Furthermore, America has a poor track record of keeping nuclear weapons from adversarial regimes intent on obtaining them (see North Korea, Pakistan).

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies in Congress have been engaging in plenty of wishful thinking of their own. They wanted a good deal with Iran, one that would have rolled back Iran’s nuclear program by several years or ended it entirely. That was a no-go for the Iranians. While the United States may have been able to hold out for a better deal than the one obtained, achieving a deal that would satisfy skeptics like Netanyahu almost certainly was impossible.

What ‘no deal’ would bring

All along, skeptics have repeated the mantra that no deal is better than a bad deal, and the Obama administration long ago conceded that point. U.S. administration officials say this is a good deal; the Israelis say it’s a bad deal.

But what would the alternative — no deal — look like? So far, it has meant Iran pursues its nuclear ambitions while Israel withholds from a frontal attack against Iran. There had been some U.S.-Israeli clandestine efforts to hamper Iran’s nuclear program, such as the Stuxnet computer virus that disrupted its centrifuge program between 2007 and 2010, but those cooperative efforts appear to have fizzled over the past couple of years. Sanctions may have brought Iran to the negotiating table, but they failed to halt its nuclear program. Without a deal, Iran still would be moving forward on the path to nuclear weapons, without the restraints — however flawed — this deal puts in place.

As for the military alternative, no nation has shown the willingness to use force except in very targeted, secret ways (such as assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists, which Israel is believed to have carried out but which has ceased over the last year). It’s fine to say that Iran must not obtain nuclear weapons, but what is Israel willing to do to stop it? Moreover, even Israeli strategic analysts estimate that a military strike would not deal a death blow to Iran’s nuclear program and likely would prompt reprisals against Israel from Iran and its proxies.

It will be up to the next U.S. president to enforce this deal.

Obama has put the pieces of the deal in place, but it will be up to his successor to ensure that Iran follows through on its commitments — and decide what to do if it doesn’t. And while a newbie takes over the White House in 2017, the Iranian ayatollah likely will still be firmly in place in Tehran.

Even if an opponent of the deal wins the American presidential election in 2016, it won’t be so easy to tear it up, as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker already has pledged to do on his first day as president should he be elected. The deal involves five other world powers aside from the United States. Even if the United States were to snap sanctions back into place – itself a difficult task – their effect would be limited if the rest of the world isn’t applying similar pressure on Iran.

Obama could not be in a worse position to get the Israelis on board with this deal.

The U.S. president has very little political capital to spend with the Israelis. He hasn’t shied away from engaging in public fights with their prime minister, especially after Netanyahu’s speech before Congress, arranged without the consent of the White House, and his Election Day comments on Arab-Israelis and on the unfeasibility of a two-state solution with the Palestinians. Obama waited until his second term to visit Israel, notably skipping the nation on his June 2009 trip to Cairo and Riyadh. He has abysmal approval ratings in the Jewish state. And in recent months, he has kept Israel out of the loop when it came to the negotiations with Iran.

As much as some Israelis on the left and center revile Netanyahu, many trust him a lot more than they do Obama and believe the American leader has given short shrift to the existential threat that Iran poses to Israel. They’re also convinced that the U.S. negotiating team was outmaneuvered by Iran. While only Congress, not Israel, can block this deal, it doesn’t help Obama that Israel will be actively lobbying against it.

What goodies will America’s Middle East allies get to balance out this deal?

It’s not just the Israelis who are worried about a nuclear Iran. So are the Saudis, the Egyptians and the Sunni powers in the Persian Gulf. After the interim agreement was reached in April, America offered its allies in the region some goodies, including advanced weapons not previously on offer. What will Washington offer Egypt and Saudi Arabia now to assuage their concerns about Iran’s growing power — and disincentivize them from pursuing their own nuclear weapons programs? And, of course, what will Obama offer Israel to maintain its qualitative military edge in the region?

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