What to make of the deal on Iran’s nuclear programme? Some will judge this interim accord by the response it evokes from Iran’s neighbours, the Israelis and Saudis in particular. If the neighbours don’t feel safe, it must not be much of a deal – or so goes the reasoning.
That’s a mistake, because the Americans and Europeans designed this interim agreement with American and European – not Israeli or Saudi – goals in mind. None of these governments wants an Iran armed with nuclear weapons, but there has always been much more at stake in these talks than that. That’s why one government’s good deal can still become another government’s nightmare.
First, consider how limited this agreement really is. Iran has pledged to eliminate its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 per cent, to limit its enrichment capabilities, and to allow routine and intrusive inspections of nuclear facilities. In return, Iran will regain access to assets and have sanctions relief in areas of its economy with no potential relationship to its nuclear programme. Sanctions on Iran’s oil exports remain in place and will only be removed if a final deal is reached.
Yet, this is dramatic progress. The crippling impact of international sanctions helped elect a pragmatic new president. More importantly, Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has publicly endorsed Tehran’s more flexible negotiating position. In a short time, US, European, and Iranian negotiators have moved farther than they have in years towards a landmark accord.
The agreement is very good for Barack Obama’s administration. After the international confusion and anger over the US position on Syria and the Assad regime’s chemical weapons, the White House badly needed a win in the Middle East. More to the point, Washington doesn’t need another war in that troubled region. The president needs a way to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons programme without launching a conflict that will take on a life of its own. This is a big step in that direction.
Israel and Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, have worries that extend well beyond Iran’s nuclear programme. As in Syria, the US has pursued limited objectives. In Syria, Washington has limited its goals to the elimination of President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons; there is no active push for regime change. With Iran, Washington wants to stop the spinning centrifuges. There is nothing in this deal that calls on Iran to recognise Israel’s right to exist or to renounce state support for groups like Hamas and Hizbollah.
The Israelis must also worry that even if this interim deal leads to a final agreement that entirely eliminates the nuclear threat from Iran, still a tall order, Iran will still threaten Israel’s security, particularly as the easing and eventual elimination of sanctions provides Iran with more money to spend in the region. Frankly, Tehran’s conventional and covert threat has always been more immediately dangerous to Israel than a nuclear weapon that would draw immediate nuclear retaliation.
The Saudis may be even more anxious than the Israelis. After all, what sort of foundation are US-Saudi relations built upon? The two countries don’t share political values, as Americans and Israelis do. They share interests. There are two factors that bind the Saudis and Americans: the oil trade and the desire to contain Iran. This deal leaves the Saudis to wonder how Iran can be contained once sanctions are eventually lifted.
The US sells the Saudis weapons, but the Arab spring and subsequent events have shown them that partnership with the US is less durable than for Israel. If the Arab spring one day comes to Saudi Arabia, can the royals rely on Washington to back them? After they have defended the elections that produced a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and denounced moves by the Egyptian army, a longtime recipient of US financial support, to remove Mohammad Morsi?
Add to the Saudi agitation an awareness that the surge in US energy production of recent years leaves America less dependent on oil from the Middle East. In short, the US is becoming a less predictable partner in the region.
The Saudis don’t want a breakthrough on the nuclear programme because they don’t trust the Iranians to honour any deal. The Saudis, like the Israelis, want sanctions. That’s the best deterrent against all the various threats that the Saudis believe Iran poses across the Middle East.
That’s why where you stand on this deal will continue to depend on who you are and where you sit.
The writer is the president of Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, and author of ‘Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World’