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A new age of Middle East insecurity

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as he arrives at a hotel in Vienna, Austria, on July 14, 2014, for a day of meetings about Iran's nuclear program. Credit: U.S. State Department.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as he arrives at a hotel in Vienna, Austria, on July 14, 2014, for a day of meetings about Iran's nuclear program. Credit: U.S. State Department.

Back in 2010, I interviewed Gerard Araud, who is now the French ambassador in Washington, DC, while he was still serving as France’s envoy to the United Nations in New York. We talked at length about Iran, and this was the first thing he told me: “The Iranian nuclear program has no civilian explanation whatsoever. You don’t start a civilian nuclear program by enriching uranium. It’s like if you buy the gas before the car.”

On April 2, Iran and the P5+1 (U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China and Germany) world powers, announced that a framework deal on Iran’s nuclear program has been reached. In the days prior, as I watched the Iran nuclear negotiations in the Swiss city of Lausanne slide past an agreed deadline of midnight on March 31 into, appropriately, April Fools’ Day, it struck me that nothing had changed since Araud—who remains a trenchant critic of American concessions to Iran—uttered those words five years ago. The Iranian nuclear program was never about the civilian use of nuclear energy. It was, and remains, geared towards the production of a nuclear weapon—hence all the lies and deceit practiced by the Iranian regime over more than a decade, and hence the succession of U.N. Security Council resolutions and anxious International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports underlining how Iran’s nuclear activities do not comport with those associated with a civilian program.

In fact, the glaring unresolved issues that held up the negotiations in Lausanne reflect this fundamental state of affairs, reinforcing the perception that the Obama administration will concede on almost anything in order to secure a deal. Iran hasn’t disclosed the possible military dimensions (PMDs) of its program, and will have even less incentive to do so if sanctions relief is offered regardless. At the same time, Iran has been told that it can continue operating centrifuges at its underground Fordow facility—a secret installation that was outed with great fanfare in 2009 by the Americans, the British, and the French—thus enabling it to further master the enrichment process. And as for their stockpile of enriched uranium, which the Iranians were supposed to be shipping to their Russian allies for safeguarding, well, apparently they won’t be doing that either.

At best, then, what we have here is a weak deal. The main goal is to carry on talking, as it has been since the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) was agreed between Iran and the five members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany—the P5+1—in Geneva in November 2013. As the former George W. Bush administration official Michael Doran, arguably the most insightful Iran analyst in the United States, told me last year, “The interim deal is for six months and can be rolled over by mutual consent for another six months and another six months, interminably. The Iranians are very good negotiators, so they will work to string this along for as long as possible.”

Because it’s a weak deal, there will inevitably be contradictory interpretations of what has been agreed. The overriding point, though, is that the Iranian regime will enjoy a great deal of leeway, thereby gravely hampering any attempts at verification by outside agencies like the IAEA.

Speaking on a conference call organized this week by The Israel Project, Olli Heinonen, a former IAEA deputy director-general, observed, “You need to know how far [the Iranians] got, which are the important institutions and capabilities so that you pick the right things for the monitoring… By far the best starting point is to have a complete disclosure.”

If the pressure of biting sanctions and the threat of military action didn’t persuade the Iranians of the need for transparency, then a deal that allows them to maintain their nuclear infrastructure with little international oversight will be regarded in Tehran as a strategic victory. Heinonen is far from alone when he expresses extreme skepticism that the current framework will leave Iran at least one year away—one of the key American goals in the negotiations—from being able to weaponize its program. So, as the implications of this lousy arrangement manifest themselves as we approach the November 2016 presidential election in the U.S., one has to seriously ask whether the Iran deal will survive the Obama administration.

Will Hillary Clinton, assuming she wins her party’s nomination, feel bound by a deal pushed by her predecessor? If yes, can she withstand the volley of criticism that will come her way from her GOP rivals, who will gleefully and correctly argue that the Iran deal has not brought a single tangible benefit to the U.S. or its local allies? And if not, what then? On the domestic front, all that is clear for now is that Obama’s successor will need to contend with the outcome of years of futile and fruitless negotiations, the net result of which has been to leave us with less leverage over the Iranians than ever before.

In the Middle East, however, none of the states that are now confronting Iran is going to wait for a change of administration in Washington. While Israel is generally regarded as the key obstacle to a deal, the Jewish state’s objections thus far have only been expressed rhetorically. It is the Sunni Arab states that are now engaged in a hot war with Iran, over its designs on Yemen and its support for the Houthi rebels in that beleaguered country. Those same states, moreover, are engaging in nuclear proliferation of their own; it is distinctly possible that within a few years, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt will have obtained nuclear weapons capability, thus ensuring an Asian arc of danger stretching from the Mediterranean coast all the way to North Korea.

The argument is often made, not without merit, that Israel is in a de facto alliance with the Sunni states, with their anxieties over Iran’s nuclear program trumping other considerations. But de facto is not de jure, and Israel has no reason to support nuclear programs in these countries, given their past enmity towards Jerusalem and the markedly unstable situation that prevails in all of them.

The problem is diplomatic as well as security-related; with France now emerging as the primary backer of the Sunni bloc, a new lever of pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinian Authority could well emerge. In fact, France is already mooting the prospect of a new U.N. Security Council resolution that would define the parameters of an Israeli-Palestinian deal, among them locating the capital of a Palestinian state in eastern Jerusalem.

With all this fluidity, only one definitive prediction is possible: Obama and his cohorts will have left the Middle East far more insecure than when they found it. Iran, Hezbollah, and Syria are surging in power, the Islamic State terror group remains embedded in Iraq and Syria, and Hamas still controls Gaza. And all this administration complains about is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

What a legacy that is.

Ben Cohen, senior editor of The Tower, writes a weekly column for His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).

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