Advocates of the effort to reach a negotiated settlement with Iran over its illicit nuclear activities have emphasized the benefits an agreement could bring by peacefully and verifiably barring Tehran from developing nuclear weapons. Skeptics, meanwhile, have warned of the risks of a “bad deal,” under which Iran’s capabilities are not sufficiently rolled back.
Largely absent from the debate, however, has been a fuller consideration of the strategic implications a nuclear agreement could have on the U.S. position in the Middle East.
Such an assessment must begin by considering the consequences of lifting the majority of sanctions on Iran — and of Iran resuming normal trade with the world’s major economies. This prospect is what provides our strongest leverage to persuade the Iranian government to abandon key elements of its nuclear program.
But lifting sanctions would also lead to the economic empowerment of a government that is the leading state sponsor of terrorism. Indeed, even under crippling sanctions, Iran has managed to provide robust support to extremist proxies as part of its broader geopolitical agenda across the Middle East and beyond — activities antithetical to U.S. interests and to those of our closest allies.
It is possible that a nuclear deal would pave the way to a broader detente in Iran’s relations with the United States and its neighbors. It is, however, more plausible that removing sanctions would strengthen Tehran’s ability to project malign influence in its near-abroad, including Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, the Arabian peninsula and the Palestinian territories.
Rather than marking the end of our long struggle with Iran, therefore, a successful nuclear deal could result in the United States and our partners in the Middle East facing a better-resourced and, in some respects, more dangerous adversary.
This does not mean we should abandon diplomacy with Tehran. Preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons ought to be our foremost priority, and a diplomatic agreement that truly bolts the door against that danger is worth potential downsides. Moreover, the alternative to successful diplomacy — military action — carries its own set of costs and risks to regional stability and the global economy. And military action holds less promise for decisively ending the nuclear threat than does a good negotiated accord.
But we need to recognize there are genuine trade-offs involved in even the best possible nuclear deal — and start laying the groundwork for mitigating them. To that end, five actions should be considered.
First, it is imperative to make clear there can be no true reconciliation between Iran and the United States, regardless of the outcome of the nuclear talks, without a comprehensive change in Iran’s destabilizing regional behavior. Such a message — delivered publicly, unambiguously and consistently — would help eliminate the corrosive, and inaccurate, perception that Washington is so eager to disengage from the Middle East that it would accept Iranian hegemony there.
Second, the United States should intensify dialogue with our Arab and Israeli allies to develop a common understanding about how to contend with an economically strengthened Iran in the wake of a nuclear deal. Because sanctions relief would bolster Tehran’s capability to train, finance and equip its terrorist proxies, we and our partners in the region must start preparing to intensify our efforts to identify, disrupt and dismantle these networks.
Third, the United States needs to look hard at its position on Syria, arguably now the central front in a broader struggle for primacy in the Middle East. Recent reports that the Obama administration has been considering various forms of increased support to the Syrian opposition — including providing a limited number of strategically significant weapons systems — are encouraging. These reports, if true, would reflect recognition that a much more robust, focused and well-resourced effort is required to reverse the Assad regime’s current battlefield momentum, which it has achieved in large part due to Iranian help.
This points to a fourth conclusion: ●Rather than freeing Washington to reduce the U.S. footprint in the Middle East and focus elsewhere, a nuclear agreement with Tehran is likely to compel us to deepen our military, diplomatic and intelligence presence in the region in order to help partners there balance against increasing Iranian power. A variety of steps should be pursued to this end: approval of additional military capabilities sought by Arab partners and Israel; a renewed initiative to integrate Gulf Cooperation Council countries’ air and ballistic missile defenses; maritime and air exercises to demonstrate U.S. and partner capabilities in the region; and sustaining, if not augmenting, existing infrastructure and force posture there.
Fifth, we need to start planning for what a new sanctions regime would look like in the wake of a deal. While a surge of money to Tehran is inevitable as nuclear-linked sanctions are lifted, sanctions related to terrorism should remain in place and new ones considered to keep Iranian companies, banks and individuals tied to destabilizing regional activities from reaping a windfall. Planning for such sanctions must be undertaken in advance of a nuclear agreement.
There should also be a clear plan for immediate reimposition of crippling sanctions in the event of inadequate Iranian implementation of an agreement.
All too often in U.S. foreign policy, we set a strategic objective and pursue it doggedly — only to be insufficiently prepared for the consequences when we achieve our goal. While it remains uncertain whether a worthwhile nuclear agreement with Iran is attainable, the time for thinking through and preparing for its implications is now.
David H. Petraeus is a former director of the CIA and a former commander of U.S. Central Command. Vance Serchuk is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.