If Iran’s nuclear program were the primary concern of those lamenting the deal that John Kerry and representatives of five major countries concluded with Iran last Tuesday, they would be relatively pleased. Under the agreement, Iran will be stripped of 98 percent of its enriched uranium, all of its plutonium producing capacity, and 2/3 of its centrifuges, and will be placed under the most rigorous inspection regime in the history of nuclear proliferation negotiations. The cartoon image of Iran racing toward the bomb—presented last year by Prime Minister Netanyahu at the United Nations—may not have been reality-based, but if that’s what Israel is worried about, it can relax. Iran will not be racing toward the bomb.
But of course Israel is not pleased at all, and many of its volunteer spokesmen and politicians in the United States are railing against the deal as virtually the worst thing to happen in history. Netanyahu has let no one outdo him in hysteria. Iran is seeking to “take over the world,” he told an Israeli audience last week. (As the leaders of Russia, China, France, Germany, and Britain signed onto the agreement, one wonders how they all managed to miss the world takeover threat Netanyahu sees so clearly.)
Netanyahu’s followers in the United States, AIPAC, the Republicans in Congress, and the Iraq War neocons will dutifully suit up and mount a serious effort to scuttle the deal. (AIPAC has ordered staffers to cancel their summer vacations.) But something far different from Iranian centrifuges is at stake. It has never been clear to the U.S. intelligence community (or for that matter to the Israeli one) that Iran wanted a nuclear weapon to begin with, and it is far from obvious what advantages, if any, Iran would accrue if it managed to cobble together one or two nuclear weapons. There really isn’t any evidence that Iran’s leaders want the destruction of their 5,000 year-old Persian civilization, which would be the inevitable consequence of using the supposed bombs that Iran’s leaders have always denied any interest in seeking.
But the deal means something far more than outside supervision of Iran’s reactors. President Obama and his foreign-policy establishment want, I believe, at least to explore the possibility that Iran can fit into the roster of American diplomatic options in the region, where reliance on our traditional allies has run into a dead end. The obvious comparison is to Nixon’s trip to China, which turned out to be an effective way of mitigating the disaster of the Vietnam War and actually ensured that the aftermath of that war was far from unfortunate for the United States. The chaos which has been ignited in the Sunni world in great part by George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and the aftereffects of a losing war in Afghanistan might be partially offset in Iran.
The turn to Iran was foreshadowed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11—when Tehran was the only city in the Muslim world in which there were public and spontaneous displays of sympathy for the United States, and shortly thereafter there was some considerable on-the-ground cooperation in Afghanistan with Iranian intelligence on the overthrow of the Taliban. Of course this cooperation was short-circuited by the neoconservatives in the Bush administration, who persuaded the President to include Iran in the “axis of evil.”
One doesn’t want to overestimate the possibilities for such cooperation, which may turn up empty. But it is obvious that Iran is much more than the “world’s number one sponsor of terrorism,” the agitprop phrase which Israel has sought to wrap it in. Iran is—in distinct contrast to every other Muslim country in the region—a large state with a partially democratic political system (no one at this point would deny that Iranian popular elections really matter), a very young and well-educated population, a middle class, a film industry, a fashion industry, a real cuisine, and a large number of young people who want to at least partially identify with the West. To compare and contrast the cultural compatibility of Iran and Saudi Arabia with the United States is a kind of joke.
Saudi Arabia has never been more an ally than an oil spigot: most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, and the U.S. government is still coy about the extent of Saudi government financing of the 9/11 attacks. Most recently, Saudi Arabia has been cooperating with al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula, which would seem to make it a “state sponsor of terror” if one is counting. It is sufficient, one would think, to take with a grain of salt the argument that the Iran negotiation is a betrayal of our “traditional allies” in the region.
Of course, the other main opponent of the Iran deal is Israel, and Israel’s American spokespeople make frequent references to Saudi Arabia’s hurt feelings only as a way to portray their opposition as being grounded in something broader than Israel’s wishes alone. And it may turn out that a United States with more normal relations with Iran would be slightly less deferential to our “only democratic ally” in the Mideast. Sophisticated observers figured this out early on, long before before there were any details about centrifuges and inspections to speak about. Daniel Levy, the Israeli analyst and former peace negotiator, wrote this back in September 2013, when John Kerry and Javad Zarif had done little more than pass notes in the UN corridor:
If Iran is willing to cut a deal that effectively provides a guarantee against a weaponization of its nuclear program, and that deal is acceptable to the president of the United States of America, why would Netanyahu not take yes for an answer?
The reason lies in Netanyahu’s broader view of Israel’s place in the region: the Israeli premier simply does not want an Islamic Republic of Iran that is a relatively independent and powerful actor. Israel has gotten used to a degree of regional hegemony and freedom of action—notably military action—that is almost unparalleled globally, especially for what is, after all, a rather small power. Israelis are understandably reluctant to give up any of that.
Israel’s leadership seeks to maintain the convenient reality of a neighboring region populated by only two types of regimes. The first type is regimes with a degree of dependence on the United States, which necessitates severe limitations on challenging Israel (including diplomatically). The second type is regimes that are considered beyond the pale by the United States and as many other global actors as possible, and therefore unable to do serious damage to Israeli interests.
Israel’s leadership would consider the emergence of a third type of regional actor—one that is not overly deferential to Washington but also is not boycotted, and that even boasts a degree of economic, political, and military weight—a deeply undesirable development.
The fact is that Israel has used this regional military hegemony, and the political inability of any American president to oppose it, in ways that cannot help but generate hostility to the United States on the part of virtually all Muslims in the region, no matter where they fall on the Sunni-Shi’ite divide. When Israel assaults a more-or-less defenseless Gazan population and kills 500 Palestinian children, using a high-tech military provided entirely by the United States, Americans pay a price, though those ignorant of the region do not recognize this.
The United States of course will always be allied with Israel, and this alliance would go more easily if Israel made peace with the Palestinians. But it’s hard to imagine that any American president would not welcome more diplomatic options in the region than those provided by Israel and Saudi Arabia. Perhaps this explains why Jeb Bush seemed over the weekend to cast a glance towards the exit door of the Republican crazy train, proclaiming that he would not necessarily abrogate an Iran agreement on “Day One” of his presidency.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.