The final nuclear deal is a “proxy for a more fundamental debate” in both Iran and the United States, according to Robert Litwak in the latest edition of the Wilson Center’s Viewpoints series. For Tehran, it is about identity and relations with the international community. For Washington, it raises questions about American strategy towards “rogue states.” The following are excerpts from Litwak’s article.
The nuclear agreement between the P5+1 and Iran, concluded in Vienna on July 14, has been called a milestone and a historic chance by some, an act of appeasement and a historic mistake by others. On the surface, the deal is a straightforward tradeoff between technology and transparency: Iran is permitted to retain a bounded nuclear program in return for assurances that it is not masquerading as a weapons program. That getting to yes required protracted negotiations and has generated such sharply divergent reactions reflects the persisting nature of the debate over this proliferation challenge.
In both Iran and America, the nuclear issue remains a proxy for a more fundamental debate. In Iran, it is a surrogate for the defining debate over the Islamic Republic’s relationship with the outside world, in general, and America—the “Great Satan”—in particular. In the United States, the nuclear challenge is embedded in the broader issue of American strategy toward so-called “rogue states,” such as Iran. After 9/11, the Bush administration argued that the threat posed by the rogues derived from the very character of their regimes, which was central to its case for a preventive war of regime change in Iraq.
President Barack Obama campaigned in 2008 on the controversial platform of engaging adversarial states. Upon assuming office, he reframed the debate on Iran, dropping the unilateral American “rogue” rubric, and instead characterizing the Islamic Republic as an “outlier”—a state violating established international norms. The Tehran regime was given a structured choice: come into compliance with Iran’s obligations under the Nuclear NonProliferation Treaty or face punitive measures and deeper isolation. This recasting of the Iranian nuclear challenge helped forge broad multilateral support for the tough financial and oil sanctions that brought Iran back to the negotiating table under the reformist President Hassan Rouhani.
The 109-page nuclear accord (including 5 annexes) fulfills the parameters of the interim framework reached in Lausanne on April 2. The deal offers both sides a winning political narrative. The Obama administration can highlight the meaningful constraints the agreement places on Iran’s nuclear program—cutting off the plutonium route to a bomb and sharply reducing the number of centrifuges to the sole uranium enrichment site at Natanz—and the extension to one year of the “breakout” time Iran would need to acquire a nuclear weapon if the Tehran regime made that strategic decision. President Rouhani and his chief negotiator, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, can argue that they codified Iran’s sovereign “right” to enrich uranium and stood up to American bullying.
President Obama, challenging his critics to offer a better alternative to the deal, has argued that the only alternative to diplomacy is force. That option—what, by now, would be the most telegraphed punch in history—has major liabilities. A military strike on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure would only delay not end the program, could well escalate into a war with Iran, carries the risk of spewing radioactive toxins into the environment, and could have the perverse effect of domestically bolstering the theocratic regime in the wake of a foreign attack.
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