Everyone needs to take a deep breath before rushing to judgment on the agreement reached with Iran on Sunday. It sets nothing in stone. If at the end of six months neither side is satisfied, the worse that can happen is talks go back to zero. But the real reason we need to give it a try is because if there was ever a time to test Iran’s true intentions, it’s now. The stars might be aligned just right.
For a start, Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, is the man with whom to make a deal. Unlike his two predecessors, he’s an insider with close, long-standing ties to the hardliners in Iran’s national security establishment. In fact, from his time as national security adviser, he was one of them. He’s also genuinely close to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. In other words, if we’re able to reach a permanent deal with him, the chances are it will stick.
Secondly, Iran needs an agreement, and badly. Between 2011 and 2012, under sanctions, Iranian oil exports fell from 2.5 million barrels a day to 1.5 million. With the accord, Iran will boost its foreign exchange earnings between $6 billion and $7 billion. With inflation at a four-year high and double-digit unemployment, the extra money will take the bite off sanctions. Going back to the status quo ante would be a bad option for the regime.
And then there’s the question whether Iran is serious about building a bomb. Ever since the Shah, there have been regular intelligence estimates that Iran was five years away from a bomb. A bomb has been within its technical abilities for a long time, but it has always pulled back knowing that the punishment would be intolerable. To be sure, it would take an extraordinary set of circumstance for Iran to agree to give up its civilian nuclear program, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into a decision to build a bomb.
On the positive side of the ledger, we desperately need Iran’s help with the Middle East. First and foremost, Syria. Although Russia was the public face of persuading Damascus to give up its chemical weapons, in fact it was Iran that tipped the balance. Iran has had and continues to have leverage over the Syrian regime the Russians and we will never have. Weapons and money are part of it (and now oil), but more so is the fact that the Syrian regime and Iran are of closely related sects.
Whether we like it or not, Iran is also an unavoidable and indispensable player in Lebanon. It’s the key to keeping Hizballah in line. Hizballah’s military forces are more powerful than the government’s. Iran also has a say about the tens of thousands of missiles Hizballah has pointed at Israel. While the convergence isn’t complete, a deal with Iran is tantamount to a deal with Hizballah. When Secretary of State John Kerry defended the Geneva Accord on Sunday, saying “from this day, for the next six months, Israel is in fact safer than it was yesterday,” he was right. Hizballah’s not going to launch an attack while negotiations are still going on.
Which brings me to Iraq and Afghanistan, the two basket cases on Iran’s border. With Iraq slipping deeper and deeper into a sectarian civil war, Iran will be on the front containing the chaos from spreading. It alone has influence over Iraq’s Shia majority. If one day we were so lucky to come an agreement to cut off arms to the warring militias, Iran would be at the center of its implementation.
The same will go for Afghanistan when the NATO troops are drawn down and the Taliban shows up in Kabul. In as much as anything is predictable in that poor country, it’s that there will be some sort of civil war—a civil war in which Iran very well could be induced to play a positive role. Without Iran, the possibility of containing it would be greatly diminished.
None of this means, a grand bargain is around the corner. In Afghanistan, Iran will continue prosecute its national interests—stop Afghanistan from becoming an export route for Central Asian oil, keep the Afghan Shia community from being slaughtered at the hands of the Sunni Salafis, and keep the Taliban from infecting Iran’s Sunnis. Iran also will never give up the Alawite regime in Damascus or Hizballah in Lebanon. But as long as they’re not shooting at Israel or us, do we really care?
The question at the heart of this is whether we can trust Iran, whether they’ll really put their nuclear program under real inspections and stop producing bomb-grade nuclear material. I doubt we’ll find that out for sure in the next six months. But as a naval officer who just did a tour on an aircraft carrier in the Gulf told me, the only people they could be sure wouldn’t take a pot shot at them were the Iranians.