As nuclear negotiators in Geneva renew their attempts to strike a deal with Iran, predictions of a diplomatic breakthrough are rife. Yet rather than reassure the countries most directly threatened by an Iranian nuclear weapon, the prospect of an agreement with Tehran is provoking unprecedented anxiety among America’s Arab and Israeli allies. Why?
Part of the reason is that these countries worry the White House will accept a flawed agreement that ultimately will not prevent Iran’s nuclear breakout. While the Obama administration has emphasized in recent weeks that a “bad deal” with Tehran would be worse than no deal, it has failed to build a consensus — in Washington or internationally — about what a “good-enough” agreement must entail: which Iranian nuclear capabilities need to be verifiably abandoned and which safeguards put in place to instill sufficient confidence that Tehran can’t continue creeping toward the nuclear finish line.
But the uneasiness of our Middle Eastern allies is also rooted in the recognition that the danger posed by the Iranian regime is about more than its illicit nuclear activities. Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is the most alarming manifestation of a much more profound strategic problem: a perceived long-standing hegemonic ambition by Iran’s rulers to dominate the Middle East.
This ambition has driven the Iranian government to build up a range of unconventional capabilities alongside its nuclear program over many years. These include Tehran’s elite paramilitary force, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force; its extremist proxies and partners, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shiite militias in Iraq and the Assad regime in Syria; and a growing arsenal of cruise and ballistic missiles.
President Obama has often, and rightly, framed Iran’s nuclear activities as a threat to the global nonproliferation regime. But the White House has not yet reassured our friends that it is equally convinced of the need to combat Iran’s revisionist, destabilizing regional agenda, regardless of the status of the nuclear dispute. On the contrary, U.S. actions in recent years have inadvertently fostered the impression that this is a fight we increasingly do not consider our own.
To his credit, the president pledged in September at the United Nations that we would “confront aggression against our allies and partners” in the Middle East as a core national interest. But in practice, our regional allies see the United States as having withdrawn from Iraq to the all-too-predictable benefit of Tehran; sought to avoid intervention in Syria, which has become the central front of the regional struggle against Iran; and at risk of cutting military capabilities — a result of sequestration — that provide a deterrent against Iranian aggression.
Could a deal on Iran’s nuclear program pave the way to a broader strategic reorientation by Tehran, including an abandonment of its long-cultivated proxies and hegemonic ambitions? Perhaps — though everything we know about the Iranian regime should make us skeptical.
Far more plausible is the possibility that, while Iran’s leaders may be prepared to make some tactical concessions on their nuclear activities, they would do so hoping that this would buy them the time and space needed to rebuild strength at home — freed from crippling sanctions — while consolidating and expanding the gains they are positioned to make in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Afghanistan.
None of this is to say that the United States shouldn’t pursue a nuclear deal with Iran — provided the deal verifiably closes and locks the door against Tehran achieving a breakout capability. As with arms-control agreements with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Washington should proceed with the explicit understanding that it faces a determined, resourceful adversary with which we are engaged in a long-term geopolitical struggle — and that it is an authoritarian regime whose repression and mistreatment of its citizens we must continue to condemn.
In short, even if we reach an acceptable nuclear agreement with this Iranian government, it is not our budding strategic partner.
For this reason, we must think carefully — and coordinate with allies — about how we can continue to contain and combat Iran’s malignant regional influence, should a nuclear agreement be reached. While sanctions relief would be at the core of such an agreement, how do we ensure that this doesn’t empower or embolden Tehran’s efforts to destabilize its neighbors?
Part of the answer must involve much more credible and robust U.S. policies to confront Iran in two places the Obama administration has kept at arm’s length: Iraq and Syria.
This, then, may be the ultimate irony of a prospective Iranian nuclear agreement: Rather than allowing Washington to pivot away from the Middle East, a diplomatic breakthrough with Tehran would increase the need for strong, principled U.S. leadership across the region. Now is the time for the Obama administration to provide it.
Joseph I. Lieberman, a former senator from Connecticut, is senior counsel at Kasowitz, Benson, Torres and Friedman. Vance Serchuk is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.