Tuesday, negotiators extended yet another deadline to sign a deal with Iran and its nuclear program.  The negotiations focus on the well known problematic issues such as sanctions relief, inspection of military facilities, nuclear history, number of allowable centrifuges, reduction of nuclear fuel and keeping nuclear facilities.

But, there is a core problem that many have ignored or downplayed: what are the long-term consequences of the great powers of the world treating the Islamic Republic of Iran as if it were a major world power -- which it manifestly is not?  

 

If we look at the history of serious and important international negotiations, they have been in recent times for the most part conducted among major world powers.

We think of the American SALT nuclear negotiations with the Soviet superpower in the 1970s. We remember the 1938 Munich conference with Great Britain, France, Italy and Germany present, Czechoslovakia absent and future great powers --  the United States and Soviet Union -- not even invited. We also remember the 1919 Congress of Versailles, dominated by the United States, France and Great Britain with Germany playing a minimal role.

Rarely have we seen serious negotiations with the great powers on one side (United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, Germany and France in this case) dealing as equals with a Third World power such as Iran on the other side.

Rarely have we seen serious negotiations with the great powers on one side (United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, Germany and France in this case) dealing as equals with a Third World power such as Iran on the other side.

The gap between the powerful P5+1 and Iran is huge. The GDP of the P5+1 exceeds $30 trillion; that of Iran is less than $400 billion, a greater than 70:1 gap. American GDP/capita is $56,000, Iranian GDP/capita less than $5,000. In high-tech the United States reigns supreme and Iran has little capacity. The United States is a great nuclear power with over 1,900 strategic nuclear weapons while Iran, even after working on the project for 30 years, has no known nuclear weapons. As many as four to five million Iranians have fled the country and few have arrived to take their place. By contrast, the United States receives over a million immigrants a year and loses few to emigration abroad.

In the anarchic jungle of international politics, this is dangerous. Looking weak is acceptable -- to a limit --  if we are dealing with fellow democratic states who play by the same rules that we do. But to show weakness in the face of a rising Third World highly authoritarian regime will only encourage it to strive to achieve its goals of regional dominance in the Middle East over many American allies.

 

The repeated extension of deadlines has strengthened the hand of the radical Islamists whom we evidently hope will lose power. No less than 80 percent of Iranians support obtaining a nuclear weapon. A deal giving Iran as much as $50 billion to $150 billion through sanctions relief would strongly reinforce the power of the fundamentalist regime and weaken the moderate opposition. The Iranian fundamentalist leadership can use this money to regenerate its sagging economy, build out nuclear infrastructure and support the pro-Iranian military elements in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Libya.  

All this will be happening against the international backdrop of the rising power of Putin’s aggressive nationalist Russia in Europe and more rapidly rising power of Xi Jinping’s Communist China in Asia. It encourages Iran to dream of the day when it can emulate the visions of “China dreaming” in Beijing and restoration of the old Soviet Union in Moscow.  Chief adviser to the Grand Ayatollah Khameini recently said that the ultimate Iranian goal should be to recreate the Persian Empire with its new capital in Baghdad.

Let us hope that the Grand Ayatollah will overplay his hand or accept a strict deal with the West so that we can move forward towards building a more peaceful Middle East. If not -- and this is more likely -- American and European dreams of peace and tranquility in the Middle East will be dashed partially by the very peace negotiations we are so busy pursuing.

Jonathan Adelman is a professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.  Adelman has written several books on Russia and was Condoleezza Rice's doctoral adviser.