[I]f the Iranians having a nuclear warhead is really this kind of singular threat, why would you put something which is clearly not at all comparable as an obstacle in the way of solving it? One might as well demand that the Iranians do something to make Farsi easier for westerners to learn as part of the deal.Yes, these are all things that would be very nice to have. But they each pale in comparison to something that the regional powers agree is a must-have — preventing the Iranian regime from building nuclear weapons, both because of the immediate threat of such weapons in the hands of a revisionist power but also because of the regional arms race it might trigger. Making such demands can only mean one of two things: either you don’t really believe an Iranian nuclear weapon is quite as dangerous as you claim or you really don’t want any agreement short of war.
I don’t think it’s quite that simple. But if you work out the Iranian hawk position, you wind up with a very uncomfortable preference ordering.
The principal concern that Iran hawks have at this point is the mischief that the mullahs can make in the Greater Middle East. And there’s some serious mischief. Since the start of the Arab Spring, the Iranians have undeniably increased their influence in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Those places might not be the most stable parts of the Middle East, but in some ways that’s the point: Iran has either sowed the seeds of chaos in the region or exploited the preexisting chaos to expand its influence. If you’re a Sunni Arab state, you’re feeling sufficiently fragile to be concerned.
The thing is, Tehran has done all of this under a crippling sanctions regime and without a nuclear deterrent. Which brings us to the framework announcement of an Iran deal and what that means for Iran’s capabilities.
You could argue, from the hawk perspective, that the worst-case outcome is that Iran complies fully with any deal. If Iran complies, sanctions are lifted, and Tehran gets lots more resources to pursue its foreign policy aims in the region, and doesn’t divert those resources toward an illicit nuclear program.
What happens if Iran tries to cheat on the framework deal? Based on the framework parameters, that would be a hugely expensive proposition for Tehran. It would have to erect a parallel weapons program that would avoid detection from the International Atomic Energy Agency, regional intelligence agencies and Western intelligence agencies. That would take some serious coin, coin that would be diverted from regional foreign policy initiatives.
So yes, from a hawkish perspective, you could argue that there are worse things than Iran trying to develop a nuclear deterrent under heavy sanctions. There’s an Iran flush with cash, abstaining from a nuclear weapon but aggressively trying to advance its aims in the Middle East. And if Vladimir Putin can have success doing this in eastern Europe, why can’t Iran in the Arab Middle East?
The best way that the Obama administration can blunt this logic is to marry any nuclear deal with Iran with a concerted strategy to contain Iranian influence across the region. But let’s face it, Middle East stability is not this administration’s strong suit. Statements like these to Tom Friedman are not going to placate either GOP hawks or Sunni allies anytime soon:
As for protecting our Sunni Arab allies, like Saudi Arabia, the president said, they have some very real external threats, but they also have some internal threats — “populations that, in some cases, are alienated, youth that are underemployed, an ideology that is destructive and nihilistic, and in some cases, just a belief that there are no legitimate political outlets for grievances. And so part of our job is to work with these states and say, ‘How can we build your defense capabilities against external threats, but also, how can we strengthen the body politic in these countries, so that Sunni youth feel that they’ve got something other than [the Islamic State, or ISIS] to choose from. … I think the biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries. … That’s a tough conversation to have, but it’s one that we have to have.”
It’s not that Obama is necessarily wrong in this statement — it’s just that this is the worst sales pitch ever, and reminds everyone of this president’s Middle East miscues.
So does it make sense that Iran hawks are throwing up all sorts of extraneous demands to try to impede an Iran deal? It kinda, sorta does.