Now that the Iran nuclear deal is a done deal, what next?
More quickly than expected, Tehran has dismantled large portions of its nuclear program, leading to the lifting of the sanctions imposed on its nuclear activities. Contrary to the critics, this deal does make the Mideast safer — for now.
But it also raises the controversial question of whether the deal will trigger a broader shift in U.S.-Iranian relations. The quick release of 10 U.S. sailors who strayed into Iranian waters and a prisoner swap last week have been hailed by administration officials as the beginning of a new era in the relationship.
Would that this were true. But it’s not.
“To me, this is a transactional relationship, not transformational, just like the United States and the Soviet Union negotiated pretty good arms agreements,” says Ryan Crocker, a former ambassador to Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan who has experience negotiating with the Iranians.
The point is well taken: The nuclear accord is unlikely to improve the broader U.S.-Iranian relationship. On the contrary, it could get much worse.
“It’s great that we have a phone number to call,” Crocker told me in a phone interview. His reference was to the close relationship that has developed between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, which some have taken to calling 1-800-Zarif. That relationship helped to quickly resolve the incident with the sailors and to finally obtain the release of Iranian-Americans, including Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian.
“But I don’t see any sign that Iran is going to change its policies in the region,” Crocker added. “We need to make it clear that this is not a bold new dawn.”
Things might have been different if the foreign policy file were truly in the hands of Zarif, a sophisticated diplomat who did graduate studies in the United States. Or if his government boss, President Hassan Rouhani, had final say on foreign policy issues. Both men are patriots, eager to see their country prosper and resume its rightful place in the international order; they might have been more open to real negotiations, say, on resolving the Syrian conflict and stabilizing Iraq.
But the real power in Iran lies in the hands of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who made clear his continuing and intense distrust of Washington. Khamenei has emphasized that negotiations over the nuclear talks were unrelated to any other issues.
Moreover, the Iraq-Syria file is in the hands of Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, whose world view was shaped by Shiite Iran’s decade-long war with Sunni Iraq, in which he served on the front lines. Saddam Hussein started that war, and was backed by Saudi Arabia and the United States.
That experience leaves Soleimani with little interest in the kind of political compromise between Shiites and Sunnis in Syria that would be necessary to end the fighting. Iran will not stop supporting Syrian dictator Bashar Assad (nor will it stop sending anti-Israel arms to its ally, Hizbullah, in Lebanon, via Damascus).
Thus, any administration hopes that a new relationship with Iran will translate into progress on shaky Syria peace talks are badly misplaced.
The same caution holds true in Iraq, where a Shiite-led government needs to make a place for the Sunni minority in the system if it wants to stabilize the country. Soleimani, and Iran’s local Iraqi Shiite proxies, have blocked that approach.
None of this means the arms accord was a mistake (whether the terms or the enforcement mechanisms could have been tighter is another question). Iran was getting very close to breakout capacity — the point where it would have had enough fissile material for a bomb — which was a recipe for a war that very likely would have involved America. Iran’s program has now been sharply curtailed for at least a decade.
But it does mean that the administration must stop giving the impression it will no longer stand up to malign Iranian behavior in the region because it fears jeopardizing the nuclear accord (most Arab Sunnis believe Washington has entered into an alliance with Tehran). It means the White House should back much tougher sanctions in response to recent — or any future — Iranian missile tests in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
It means that the United States should push back much harder against Iranian behavior that fuels sectarian war in the Mideast (the Saudis are guilty of this, too, but that doesn’t excuse egregious behavior by Tehran).
“We should do what Iran does,” says Crocker. “Iran is pushing in the region as if there were no nuclear agreement, and they don’t seem worried that they will jeopardize it. We should do the same.”
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.