You can’t read or listen to the news without stumbling upon the story that the United States and a coalition of powers have just signed a comprehensive nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Pundits on all sides of the ideological spectrum are lining up to give their two cents’ worth on what the deal means for U.S. national security interests, the Middle East, U.S.-Iran relations, U.S.-Israeli interests and U.S. foreign policy in general. The discussions of the merits of the deal bring up historic analogies to make sense of this agreement: Is it historic in its transformation of the international system and twenty first century international relations? Or is it historic in that it represents a disastrous moment in which the United States has just taken a few steps toward armageddon?
I want to state up front that I am not an Iran expert, or an expert on the geo-politics of the Middle East. This is an important caveat which I will elaborate on later. I am however an interested observer of two of the countries (China and North Korea) which are frequently brought up as examples in order to tease out if the Iran nuclear deal is good or bad.
If you listen to the Obama Administration, the nuclear deal is the best approach to addressing the thorniest problem related to Iran–its nuclear weapons program. The President himself went before the Washington press corps and argued that the deal represents the single best opportunity to keep Iran’s nuclear program under wraps for a period of at least ten to fifteen years, that it embeds in the agreement a degree of monitoring and inspections that keeps the program at bay, that it reduces Iran’s current stockpile of uranium to miniscule amounts, and that, if Iran cheats, will allow sanctions to “snap back in place”. The President argued that it makes sense for the United States to pursue this deal. We are better off, or at least no worse off, than we are in ten to fifteen years; we learn a lot about Iran’s nuclear program; and if Iran cheats then we can go back to status quo ante.
The critics of the deal make a specific point of linking the deal to larger security and geo-political implications. At the end of the fifteen year time frame for the deal, the critics say, Iran is no longer a “poor country with a nuclear weapons potential” it will then be “a rich country with a nuclear weapons potential”. The agreement is also a poor one, the critics say, because the deal does not make a connection between Iran’s bad behavior in the region and throughout the globe, and the lifting of sanctions. In fact, the critics say, over five years, Iran starts getting access to arms technologies (advanced ballistic missile technology for instance) which certainly can’t help international security. Additionally, the critics point out that the countries of the region, particularly Israel but also the Gulf states, some of whom are major U.S. allies, are so worried about this deal that it will force them to pursue nuclear programs of their own (although not officially having a nuclear program, we all assume that Israel can roll out a nuclear weapons capability on short notice–it certainly has the technical capability to do so).
And so, how one looks at whether the Iran nuclear deal is good or bad depends on the framework that you apply for analyzing it. Do you de-link the geo-political elements of the problem and focus sharply on the agreement’s ability to limit Iran’s capability to pursue the bomb and all of the measures that can “snap into place” if Iran cheats? Or do you examine the geo-political implications of this deal and assess the deal within the broader context of what is going on in the Middle East?
If the framework strictly focuses on the agreement’s ability to limit Iran’s nuclear capability the appropriate analogy may be the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea to limit its nuclear weapons capability. The Agreed Framework does incorporate larger measures beyond simply restricting North Korea’s ability to develop a weapon. For example, there are provisions in that agreement which talk about normalization of relations on the Korean Peninsula, the de-nuclearization of the Peninsula, and progress towards a peace treaty between the two Koreas; but like the Iranian agreement, the Framework Agreement’s main focus was on developing measures to keep North Korea’s nuclear weapons program as restrained as possible. I was in Seoul with a delegation of senior retired government officials and military officers when the agreement was signed and announced. We received a full briefing at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul (it comes in handy when your delegation has several former ambassadors and a few three and four star admirals). The 1994 Agreed Framework is infamous among security analysts not because it was a great success, but quite the opposite, because it failed spectacularly in the long run. The North Koreans signed on the dotted line. They were supposed to halt their uranium enrichment program in exchange for receiving light water nuclear reactors and heating oil which could be used for civilian energy purposes. They agreed to a certain degree of IAEA inspections, and promised to shut down their plutonium processing plant at Yongbyon. In the end it is considered a failure because it was later discovered that the North Koreans cheated. They developed a secret uranium enrichment program undetected by inspectors. When it was suspected that they were cheating in 2002, the North Koreans declared that they were withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and then went on developing its nuclear weapons capability as well as its ballistics missile capabilities. The consequence of this diplomatic debacle is that a stalemate now ensues on the Korean Peninsula; but worse, North Korea has the capability to make nuclear weapons and the deal may have inadvertently propped up the regime in Pyongyang. The United States refuses to engage in any future political discussions with Pyongyang until it upholds its end of the bargain of the nuclear agreement.
If one uses the 1994 agreed framework as the prism through which we examine the Iranian deal, and if you assume that the United States has probably learned a lesson or two about where countries can cheat and where countries can get around signed agreements, then the deal is probably as good as we can get. How can we be certain that the United States has learned from the 1994 Agreed Framework debacle? One of the key players in the negotiations with Iran, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, was the key negotiator for the 1994 Framework Agreement. She therefore knows where the holes are in negotiations, what the soft spots are, and she therefore had first hand knowledge on where and how to plug in the holes for the Iranian negotiation. The President is therefore probably right. When you stick to examining the agreement for its narrowly defined purpose of restricting the Iranian capability to pursue a nuclear weapons capability, it is probably a good deal. It is hard to come up with an acceptable alternative.
Unfortunately, the Iranian nuclear agreement cannot be completely seen only in the context of Iran’s ability to pursue a nuclear weapon. It obviously has geo-political implications and it obviously is linked to how Tehran is interacting with its neighbors, and whether Iran is sowing trouble or not. The more appropriate framework then is to look at historic examples where an agreement was expected to have larger geo-political implications and what factors shaped the ultimate conclusion made by historians that entering into that agreement ended up being good or bad.
The better analogy then is the opening to China in 1972 by the Nixon Administration. When critics of the Iranian nuclear deal harshly critique the deal they make the following characterizations of the regime in Tehran: it is untrustworthy; it has engaged in state sponsored acts of terror; it is the sworn enemy of a few of America’s closest allies in the region, but has an especially poisonous relationship with Israel; the nature and character of the regime are such that its interests are to sow discord in the region and to spread chaos as a precursor to more nefarious foreign policy objectives. Interestingly, similar charges were levied against President Nixon’s initial opening up to the People’s Republic of China and to a somewhat lesser extent against President Jimmy Carter and his National Security Adviser, Zbigniev Brzezinski when the United States normalized relations in 1979. One needs to recall that in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, the PRC was a pariah state. It had been involved in one direct and one proxy military conflict with the United States (Korea and Vietnam); it was the sponsor and backer of communist revolutionary insurgencies in Southeast Asia; its domestic policies had been either disastrous or horrifically monstrous that several millions died during successive campaigns (the Great Leap Forward, the Hundred Flowers Campaign, the Anti-Rightist Campaign, and of course, the biggest monstrosity of them all, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution); and it was also the supporter of several horrific and monstrous regimes (Pol Pot’s Khmere Rouge; Kim Il-sung’s North Korea; and its propaganda against the United States was some of the most vitriolic around. The reputation of the Chinese Communists was so bad that the Russians had approached the United States and inquired if we would object to their use of nuclear weapons against China. Obviously we said that we would object.
It therefore took an enormous amount of political courage and a not so insignificant amount of chutzpah for Nixon and Kissinger to even conceive of an opening to the PRC. Both men knew that politically the opening would be harshly criticized and that such a move, if successful, would completely turn geo-politics on its head. They knew they would be subject to the same kind of criticism the Obama Administration is now being subjected to: that the move would make things much more volatile and unstable to tilt toward China over the more stable and predictable Russia; that the United States would be throwing a loyal ally (Taiwan) under the bus in exchange for an untrustworthy country which had been directly involved in conflict which cost thousands of American lives; and that at the end of the day the United States would be helping to build up a Communist regime which had ideologically sworn to disrupt and destroy the international system as conceived by the West.
The most obvious benefit to the opening, the two men conceptualized, would be to create a natural counter-weight to the Russians who were providing no end of problems to the American administration. But Kissinger knew then that there was a long term prospect that, by opening China up to the western world and to the late twentieth century international economy, China’s society, polity and foreign policy could be transformed into something, if not allied with the United States, at least aligned with it. Critics of this analogy point out that Nixon and Kissinger and the United States lost that bet. If their expectations were that China would become democratic and ultimately ally with the United States, that hasn’t happened. Despite China’s economic transformation it is still a one Party dictatorship with poor human rights record and in an even better position to thwart U.S. foreign policy objectives. These specific critics have it wrong however and are misdiagnosing what Kissinger and Nixon expected of the opening. Neither was so naive as to believe that China would become democratic; that would be reserved for later administrations and China hands. But both believed that China’s interests would be fundamentally changed so as to alter its behavior in international relations and its calculus of interests. That has indeed happened. Today’s China is nothing like the China of the pre-Cultural Revolution. It is no longer a sponsor of Communist insurgencies in Southeast Asia and the kinds of massive political campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s are long gone. In fact the Chinese political and economic system has been fundamentally altered that it would be unrecognizable to Mao, Zhou Enlai, and all of the Long March veterans. At the same time, China follows its own path and has not been an easy country to deal with. China has been a handful to manage for successive administrations and their China watchers, but managing a complex relationship is far preferable to having to outmaneuver and fight a sworn enemy.
The nuclear accord with Iran, if taken strictly as an instrument to tie Iran’s hands as a country seeking to become a nuclear weapons state, then the Administration probably has it right. No better alternative can probably be found. The critics of the accord are also right in that the agreement needs to be taken for the impact that it will have in a broader regional context. But so too if that is the framework for our assessing the deal, the current arguments that I hear being levied against the deal (i.e., the bad reputation of the regime in Tehran) should not by themselves be enough to consider scuttling the accord. As I have argued in this post, we have seen the same charges levied at China in the 1970s when Kissinger and Nixon sought an opening with the PRC. A keen observer of the Chinese polity back then would have noted that massive changes were on their way within China; that reformers were on the rise with Deng Xiaoping’s return from political exile; that the Chinese Communist Party was willing to radically experiment with agricultural and economic policy; and that the general policy direction of the country was going to move from one of Socialism to one of modernization. And so a big “if” to the conclusion that the nuclear accord should not be damned simply because Iran has less than a stellar reputation in the region depends on what we know about the nature of the regime in Tehran and the prospects for change.
It is here that I now invoke the point that I made earlier in this essay. I am not an expert on Iran, nor on the Middle East. The key question as to whether this accord is a good thing in a larger regional context comes down to whether Iran, after having the opportunity to open its economy up to the world again, after sanctions are lifted, and after Iranians get a taste of greater freedoms, is if the country will be fundamentally altered by the experience or not. Do the hardliners in Tehran start to lose ground as the country is exposed to more influences from the outside? Does a growing middle class eventually start to whittle away at the power of this theologically based authoritarian government? Depending on how one answers these questions will determine whether the administration is right or its critics are right. Let’s hope that ultimately the most appropriate analogy for the accord which has just been signed is not Munich.