“Time changes everything.”
Boiled down to its essence, the Obama administration is betting it all that the great late Victorian novelist and poet is right. The whole of the immense and desperate gamble the White House just made in signing its historically-important nuclear deal with Iran amounts to a cosmic bet that time will sweep away the objectionable portions of the regime, allowing space for dramatic change over the next decade.
When I think of the specifics of the Iran deal, I can visualise a clock ticking over the whole scene. Generally, in the short run, the deal favours the P5 plus one (U.S., China, Russia, UK, France, Germany) in that there are real and tough strictures on the Iranian regime’s ability to pursue its nuclear programme. Two-third’s of Tehran’s enrichment capacity will be done away with. Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) will be reduced to 300kg, a whopping 96% drop.
Further, the deal decreases the number of installed centrifuges the Iranians possess by two-third’s as well. Tehran will allow U.N. inspectors to enter its sites, including military areas, when they have grounds to believe undeclared nuclear activity is being carried out there. Only once the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has verified Iran has taken steps to meet these terms in reducing its programme will U.N., EU, and U.S. sanctions begin to be lifted. These are not trifling concessions.
For if the deal favors the U.S. and the rest of the world in the short run, it certainly tilts toward Iran as the years march onDr. John C. Hulsman
Critics of the deal—if they are to be taken seriously as they should be--must accept the reality that in the short run these measures will increase the time it takes Iran to acquire enough material for one nuclear weapon from 2-3 months to a year. This amounts to a huge tactical victory for the U.S., which would over this longer period of time be able to stop through air strikes any break-out effort Iran undertook to race to a nuclear capability. In fact, to go further, there are simply too many constraints on an Iran that will just be enjoying the economic fruits of sanctions being lifted for it to be credible to allege—as Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel is strongly hinting—that Iran will cheat on the deal. A far better question that the sceptics of the accord ought to be asking is this: why would they want to?
For if the deal favours the U.S. and the rest of the world in the short run, it certainly tilts toward Iran as the years march on. Restrictions on trade with Tehran in conventional weapons lasts only another five years; in eight years Iran can resume trading in components relating to ballistic missile technology. Most of the limits on Iran’s nuclear programme come to an end in a decade; all of them do in 15 years. In the meanwhile Iran will economically be brought in from the cold, with surprisingly effective global sanctions being removed. Why wouldn’t a Persian civilisation thousands of years old merely abide by the terms of the deal, wait the out the rest of the world, and then go on its merry way to acquiring a nuclear capability in what amounts to an historical blink of the eye?
When pressed the Obama team spin this high-risk narrative. All the myriad problems between the U.S. and Iran will surely not go away with the nuclear settlement. It may take the coming of a new—and less hysterically anti-American—Supreme Leader for the U.S. to really take advantage of the present opening. And that’s making the very large assumption that the next Supreme Leader will be more tolerant of the ‘Great Satan,’ which surely hasn’t been the case under either Ayatollahs Khomeini or Khamenei.
Going on, the White House desperately hopes that Iran will grow used the being part of the international community, with all the economic benefits that provides. Over time, increased prosperity ought to lead to the rise of the Iranian middle class, which will demand a more pluralistic society, fundamentally altering its current political dynamic. So the bet is that over 10-15 years, Iran becomes far more pro-American, pro-western, and far less of a revolutionary power, determined to upend the present order in the Middle East. By the time Iran is free of the present restraints and can build a nuclear weapon again, the wager is the country will be a very different place, either through a mellowing of its present elite, or through revolution.
All that is certainly possible, but is it probable? Is this a sensible strategic bet? At a minimum, one must accept that it amounts to a desperate wager by the White House. For in the short run, the deal above all mightily helps President Rouhani and the moderates grouped around him. The certainly do not desire the overthrow of the present order, but merely its reform, and strengthening. At least $150 billion in unlocked assets will flow to Tehran in the near term following the accord, which can be used to bolster the regime’s stagnant economy as well as funding its adventurism elsewhere. These indicators militate against the administration’s rosy scenario.
In the end, the best arguments for and against the deal have been largely unstated: For the President is entirely right that the sanctions regime would not hold in the present conditions, and his critics have yet to put forward much of an alternative. While that is true, the sting in the tail of the present accord is that it amounts to a desperate gamble about hoped-for change over time, and is far from a sure thing.
Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a successful global political risk consulting firm. An eminent foreign policy expert, John is the senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The author of all or part of 11 books, Hulsman has also given 1490 interviews, written over 410 articles, prepared over 1270 briefings, and delivered more than 460 speeches on foreign policy around the world.