What Israel, Saudi Arabia really mean when they criticize Iran deal
As a pure arms control agreement, the framework nuclear accord Secretary of State John Kerry brought back from Lausanne may be the best deal achievable — provided that the final version, due by the end of June, constrains Iran’s research and development of advanced centrifuges, and ensures unrestricted monitoring and verification of all suspect Iranian facilities. But the deal struck between Iran and the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany carries implications that go well beyond the technical nuances of a pure arms control accord. That is why complaints about the Lausanne framework from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or from senior Saudi officials are best understood as reflections of a shared anxiety about anticipated geopolitical consequences of the deal.
Iran’s regional rivals have no trouble understanding why Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, now accepts restrictions on Iran’s nuclear “rights’’ which he had previously vowed never to countenance. Iran’s strategically sophisticated leaders were procuring the highest possible price for an asset that has limited value for them.
After he came to power, the founder of Iran’s Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini, shut down the nuclear program started in the 1970s by the Shah of Iran. But when his top generals told him that only a nuclear weapon could keep Saddam Hussein’s military at bay during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), Khomeini approved resumption of a nuclear weapons program he had originally declared un-Islamic. In the judgment of the CIA, Iran’s nuclear weapons program was halted in 2003, though efforts to enrich uranium were continued.
The Iranian regime had two obvious reasons for suspending its pursuit of actual nuclear warheads. When US policy makers, oblivious to the strategic consequences of their actions, overthrew Saddam’s regime in 2003, they removed an existential threat to the Islamic Republic. Suddenly, the original rationale for Iran to develop nuclear weapons was effaced.
A second, related reason for suspending Iran’s pursuit of nuclear warheads was the mendacious rationale that George Bush’s administration gave for invading Iraq — namely the fiction that Saddam still had his own nuclear weapons program. (The Iraqi tyrant unwittingly collaborated with the Bush team by thwarting IAEA inspectors — on the premise that he needed to convince the Iranians that he had nuclear weapons or the capability to make them.)
Iranian leaders were fearful that their regime was next on Bush’s hit list. And they did not want to give the Americans the same rationale for an invasion that Saddam had given them. So they suspended the military dimension of their nuclear program. Twice in the ensuing years they made offers to Washington to negotiate agreements that might have curtailed their use of centrifuges to enrich uranium, first when they had a mere 365 centrifuges, and then when they had about 3,000. Now they have close to 20,000.
Their apparent aim was to develop the capability of making nuclear weapons without actually bringing on the blowback Iran was sure to encounter were it actually to become a nuclear power. But recently they were hit with a double whammy — severe international sanctions, particularly on oil exports and Iran’s financial sector, combined with a steep decline in the price of oil. Abruptly, their nuclear program became more of a burden than an asset.
So the Supreme Leader swallowed his belligerence along with his pride and allowed his pragmatic president and foreign minister to sell Iran’s nuclear program for the best price they could obtain in Lausanne. In more ways than one, they were at the mercy of a down market.
They changed course strategically. Henceforth they would follow the Chinese model: get rich first and then, at a later date, use that wealth to make Iran a dominant regional power.
Policy makers in Israel and the Arab capitols of the Gulf are unhappy about the nuclear deal not simply because it fails to stop all Iran’s centrifuges from enriching uranium, but even more because it promises to remove the crushing sanctions. Feeling threatened by Iran’s swelling influence over Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, and Aden, they don’t want Iran to get rich. They fear the power that may one day emanate from a wealthy, unshackled Iran. That’s what they really mean when they talk about a bad deal.
Alan Berger is a retired Globe editorial writer.