President Obama has just reached an historic agreement with Iran. The question is whether it’s historic like the deal Chamberlain got at Munich or the one Nixon got in China.
I was in the White House when Nixon reached the historic agreement with China, and in the Pentagon when Reagan reached the historic agreement with the Soviet Union. What those two breakthroughs had in common was the men at the top in China and Russia, Chairman Mao and President Gorbachev, were both willing to change course to reach agreements with the United States.
It’s not clear that the man at the top in Iran is willing to change course. Obama is negotiating with President Rouhani, but the man in charge in Iran is Rouhani’s boss, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He continues to say Israel is a rabid dog and should be wiped from the map, and call America the "Great Satan."
Maybe this is just posturing and reflexive rhetoric, but maybe not. Maybe Iran’s goal is to get sanctions dropped, but never to abandon their nuclear program. Maybe they see negotiations as a path to improving their economy, keeping their weapons program intact, and dominating the region?
There is an expression in the Pentagon, “let’s run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes" That’s what President Obama has just done with the Iran interim nuclear agreement. It’s not clear year whether the president’s confidence in the Iranian leadership is justified.
Most Senate and House Democrats, and the liberal media, can be counted on to salute the president’s agreement. Other legislators, including some of the president’s own party, are much more skeptical, and are unlikely to salute, ever. It will be yet another issue about which Washington is hopelessly divided.
But what matters isn’t who in Washington salutes. It’s whether the leaders in Riyadh, Jerusalem, Cairo, Istanbul, Dubai and Kuwait City do. They have been dealing with the Persians for thousands of years. They know better than we do whether they can trust them, and they know what Iran will do if President Obama’s trust proves wrong. They will have to live with the consequences of a nuclear Iran, or a de facto nuclear Iran, and see it as something that threatens their very survival.
So how are they likely to view the new Iranian-American relationship? With distrust, suspicion and a sense of betrayal. For the last generation, America has been broadly aligned with Israel and the Sunni Arab states.
President Obama has had a different approach. Even before this agreement, he has seen those relationships fray, badly, especially with Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. They see this agreement as further evidence President Obama has now switched sides.
They fear the interim agreement will become the permanent agreement, because once the economic pressure is relieved, Iran will have little incentive to dismantle their nuclear program. So the first goal of the U.S.-Iranian agreement, to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, will fail.
Then Iran, with a resurgent economy, and a de facto nuclear power, will become the dominant hegemonic nation in the Persian Gulf and the entire Middle East. The U.S. will be unable or unwilling to stop it.
While the Israelis and Sunni Arabs won’t like the agreement, what are they likely to do about it? Only time will tell. The interim agreement doesn’t require Iran to dismantle any of its nuclear weapons making programs. If there is a permanent agreement, Iran has made clear it will not give up all of these programs, although it might stop just short of having completed nuclear weapons.
For Iran’s neighbors that is one and the same: a de facto nuclear Iran is just as dangerous to them as a nuclear Iran, and they will take steps to acquire nuclear arsenals of their own. So the second goal of a U.S.-Iran agreement, to prevent a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, will fail.
One of the questions the president and Secretary Kerry will ask critics of the agreement is, what alternatives do we have? Probably not many.
Despite what the president says, everyone knows the military option never was on the table. The American people don’t want and can’t win another Middle East war. Despite what the president says, the economic option is now off the table, too. It took many years and much arm-twisting to get the world to sign on to sanctions. Once sanctions are lifted, even partially, there will be a stampede of countries and companies wanting to do business with Iran. The toothpaste isn’t going back into the tube.
It would seem inevitable then, that in the years ahead Iran will become a de facto nuclear state, and a nuclear arms race in the Middle East will ensue. The prudent thing now is for the United States to make plans accordingly, and do three things.
First, repair our relationships with Israel and the Sunni Arab states. Work with them to contain a de facto nuclear Iran. Whatever happens in the Middle East, we need as many friends as we can muster. Misunderstanding only fosters mistakes.
Second, resume America’s missile defense programs. Iran and others may not pose a nuclear threat to the United States now, but they would five or ten years’ time. Defensive systems threaten no one, and take years to deploy. Begin those programs now to deter others from threatening us, and defend ourselves should deterrence fail.
Finally, develop the abundant oil and natural gas resources we have literally right under our feet. In the last few years we have become a natural gas superpower, within a few years we could become an oil superpower.
If we were independent of Middle East energy we would not be drawn into the internecine wars that have plagued the region for millennia. And, if the region is headed for a nuclear arms race, the last place we want to be is in the middle of it, still dependent on Arab oil.