You Never Know: Approaching Iran

However, after that 10-to-15 year period, the terms of the agreement would reverse to favor Iran. At that point, Iran would be permitted to build an industrial-scale uranium enrichment industry, develop and operate thousands of highly advanced centrifuges, and possess unlimited amounts of enriched uranium. Although the inspections regime will remain in place, as a practical matter it will be far more difficult to monitor so large a program, and Iran could build up to the point where it would require very little to take the final step and field a weapon. This is why the most insightful critics of the deal argue that whatever its constraints on Iran in the short term, it furnishes a pathway to an Iranian nuclear weapon 10 to 15 years out.

So the most important question, the critical unknown, is what Iran will be like then. When posed this question, U.S. officials offer various answers -- all of them positive. Some contend that there is a high likelihood over that timespan of Ayatollah Khamenei dying and being replaced by a less-reactionary successor -- Rafsanjani, Rouhani, or another figure less determined or less able to thwart popular Iranian aspirations to greater integration with the rest of the world. Others argue that if the Iranian nuclear program is frozen for somewhere between a decade and a decade-and-a-half, bureaucratic inertia will kill any weaponization effort. When the more stringent terms of the agreement are finally lifted, the Iranian establishment won’t feel the need and won’t make the effort to resume its march toward an arsenal. Still others believe that once Iran’s government sees the benefits of expanded trade and is not attacked by Israel or America, it will recognize that the cost-benefit calculus overwhelmingly argues against resuming a nuclear weapons program.

These are all plausible beliefs. There are historical precedents to back them up. And so it is not foolish to believe that constraining Iran for 10 to 15 years could preclude an Iranian nuclear arsenal permanently.

But the arguments of the deal’s critics are just as plausible, just as historically grounded, and just as compelling. The Iranian regime has clung to a nasty, anti-American, anti-status quo, violent foreign policy since 1979. It has ignored many incentives to jettison this approach. In the 1990s, it was widely believed that Iran’s hardline leadership could not survive long because demographics and the actuarial table suggested the revolutionary cohort of leaders was on the way out and a new generation far better disposed to the West and far less committed to the hardline project was on the way in. But then Mahmoud Ahmedinejad was elected president, and we learned that there was a small but important segment of younger Iranians just as hardline as their elders -- arguably more so -- that could be counted on to keep pulling Iran down the path of militancy and world-rejection, despite all the factors pushing in the opposite direction.

Thus, it is equally plausible that at the end of the timespan laid out above, Iran will be just as paranoid, just as anti-American/anti-Arab/anti-Israeli, and just as committed to using violence to advance its goals. In those circumstances, Iran might very well decide to go ahead and acquire the nuclear weapons that it has long desired. And it will be much harder at that point for this agreement to stop them.

The Uncertainties of the Regional Response
The last set of uncertainties bound up with a new nuclear agreement is how it will affect the regional dynamics in the rapidly disintegrating Middle East. What we believe about how a deal might change Iranian, Israeli, or Sunni Arab behavior should also affect whether we think the deal worthwhile, but again there are more unknowns than knowns at play around this question.

Let’s start with the Iranians themselves. Based on his various statements over the years, it seems most likely that Khamenei’s perspective on a nuclear deal is purely transactional. If he agrees to one, it will be solely to get the sanctions removed. Nothing more and nothing less. It seems unlikely he will countenance a wider rapprochement with the United States -- whatever Foreign Minister Zarif and (possibly) President Rouhani may want.

It is also worth noting that, across the region, the Iranians seem comfortable with the course of events -- largely because it is favorable to them right now. Their Shia allies are dominant in Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. In Syria, the Assad regime remains in power. While its fortunes ebb and flow, there is no sign of its impending collapse. Tehran probably feels it could be doing better in Bahrain, but of the countries in play in the region, that’s the only one Iran cares about where Tehran may not believe it is "winning." So there is no compelling reason to believe that Iran is looking to increase its aggressive involvement in any of these states but has been somehow constrained from doing so by the nuclear negotiations.

Rhetoric aside, it seems equally unlikely that Israel would dramatically shift any of its regional policies in response to an Iranian nuclear deal. A military strike on Iran would be even less likely in these circumstances than if the negotiations break down. Iran will have just signed a deal with the United States and the other great powers agreeing to limits on its nuclear program, accepting more intrusive inspections, and reaffirming that it will not try to build a nuclear weapon. If the Israelis were to attack at that point, they would have to assume that an already anti-Israel international climate would turn wholeheartedly against them. Who would support Jerusalem? The Obama administration, which has made the deal the centerpiece of its Middle East policy? The Sunni Arab states? They will quietly applaud from the sidelines but won’t provide any meaningful assistance. So who? Probably no one. Whatever damage Israel might do, an attack would lead to further (and likely much worse) Israeli isolation, while Iran could play the victim and abrogate the deal secure in the knowledge that the sanctions would never be reapplied -- and probably resume its nuclear program unimpeded, as well. That would be the worst of all worlds for Israel.