May 7, 2015 | Foreign Policy

Will the Fallout from the Iran Deal Make the Middle East Less Stable?

Let’s stipulate that any effort to reach a nuclear accord with a rabidly anti-American theocracy like the Islamic Republic of Iran is by its nature a risky enterprise. That’s especially the case given the mullahs long track record of lying, cheating and deception when it comes to their nuclear ambitions.

But how much risk is too much? At what point do the likely downsides of a deal exceed the upsides? And are there mitigation measures available that might nevertheless make a high-risk agreement worth concluding?

Any definitive assessment won’t be possible until a final deal is actually inked. But based on the Lausanne framework served up last month, some preliminary concerns are certainly worth airing. And it ain’t pretty. There seems a high likelihood that we’re setting ourselves up for some extremely dangerous, even catastrophic, outcomes — ones that would make the deal being contemplated not just risky, but downright reckless.

Let’s highlight just three of them:

1. The emerging deal almost guarantees that the Islamic Republic will become a nuclear weapons-threshold state. Even if Iran complies with every provision, within 15 years it will be fully within its rights to build an industrial-size nuclear program, operating an unlimited number of advanced centrifuges, and stockpiling as much highly enriched uranium as its heart desires. At that point, Iran’s ability to produce enough fissile material covertly for a small arsenal of nuclear bombs would be measured in days. The odds of uncovering the breach in time would be close to nil. The odds that the U.S. could act in time to stop it? Even lower. The president, himself, in a moment of extraordinary candor, acknowledged that by “year 13, 14, 15” of the deal, there’s nothing in it to prevent Iran from building up an enrichment capability that shrinks its breakout time “almost down to zero.”

2. The emerging deal almost guarantees that the Islamic Republic will dangerously escalate its aggression throughout the Middle East. Just think about it. The whole reason that President Hassan Rouhani was elected was because Iran’s economy was in free fall and desperately in need of sanctions relief. His entire purpose over the past 18 months of negotiations has been to generate sufficient goodwill that the U.S. would be convinced to go along with the con. No easy feat for the world’s foremost sponsor of terror that’s been responsible for filling thousands of American graves since 1979. With so much at stake, you’d think the mullahs might have tried to tone down their drive for regional hegemony just a notch. But au contraire. Iran has instead used the talks as cover to go on an unprecedented rampage across the region. Escalate the bloodletting in Syria? Sure. Dispatch an IRGC team to the Golan Heights? Definitely. Have Qassem Soleimani and the Quds Force invade Iraq? You bet. Take down one of America’s most important counter-terrorism partners in Yemen? Sure. Challenge freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf? Why not? And that’s just the short list.

The point of course is that if this is the way Iran behaves when it really, really needs something from us, what do we expect to happen when those billions in frozen assets actually get handed over? It simply beggars belief to think that flush with cash and guns, Haji Qassem and his QF boys won’t take their dominate-the-region schtick to a whole new level. There will be blood.

3. The emerging deal almost guarantees the proliferation of dangerous nuclear technologies to other Middle Eastern states. Re-read one and two above. Now put yourself in the shoes of a Sunni Arab leader within missile range of Iran. You’re convinced that you’re engaged in an existential struggle with a revolutionary Shiite power that means to send you to history’s ash heap. Your traditional protector, the United States, has agreed to a deal that all-but blesses Iran’s emergence as a nuclear-weapons threshold state a mere decade or two from now. Even worse, as part of the deal, the U.S. agrees to large-scale sanctions relief that in short order is going to super-charge Iran’s campaign to threaten, encircle, weaken, undermine, destabilize, and attack you. What do you do? Well, you most likely do what the Saudis and other regional states have been privately warning visitors about for years: You start exploring your own nuclear options to try and match Iran’s capabilities. Say hello to a Middle East nuclear arms race. Say goodbye to the NPT. Just what the doctor ordered for the world’s most combustible region, right?

And to what end? What’s the likely payoff for running these extraordinary risks? If there were serious analytical grounds for believing that this kind of deal was likely to transform the Islamic Republic into something approaching a normal state, well, there’d be something to argue about. But not even the administration is willing to make that case, not publicly at least, or at least not as anything more than a vague aspiration rather than a realistic expectation.

But if not transformation, then what exactly are we buying with this deeply flawed deal? The answer seems to be time. Ten to 15 years to be exact — if (and this is a very big if) Iran does not lie, cheat, and steal its way to sneak out before then. So there’s a reasonable bet to be made that we might get a decent interval of sorts, a chance to kick the can down the road until … well, frankly, until it becomes a future president’s problem to deal with, at a time when the mullahs are likely to be infinitely richer and more powerful than they are today.

Now, time is not nothing. It can be a very valuable commodity in foreign affairs — especially when alternative courses of action are not obviously superior and entail their own set of serious downsides. But a Faustian bargain that maybe buys us 10-15 years of quiet before giving Iran virtually everything its ever wanted in terms of its nuclear program, sanctions relief, and international legitimacy is one thing. Doing all that while also throwing wide open the Gates of Hell in the Middle East is quite another. Problematic as it is, the administration’s deal with the devil begins to look a whole lot worse when you realize that the fine print includes provisions likely to unleash regional mayhem and a nuclear arms race.

It seems belatedly to have dawned on the administration that this all could pose a slight problem. Witness the forward-leaning posture in support of the recent Saudi-led intervention in the god-awful mess that is Yemen. Witness next week’s summit at Camp David with leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the flurry of poorly thought-out proposals to deluge them with military hardware and promises of U.S. support. Whether this signals a serious strategy to mitigate some of the worst regional consequences that the Iran deal is likely to trigger is far from clear. A cynical observer could be forgiven for wondering if it really isn’t just a short-term effort to anesthetize the Arab leaders against the world of pain that’s about to rain down on them, a means of keeping them supine until the dirty deed is done.

Of course, if the administration is serious — if it’s really determined to establish a post-deal order that swiftly and severely punishes violations, combats Iran’s regional aggression, pursues the Islamic Republic’s internal transformation, and reassures the Arabs to forego their own nuclear options — it’s got a very tough sales job ahead of it. These are the wages of six years of retreat and retrenchment; of pivots away from the Middle East; of leading from behind; of empty red lines; of blithe talk of helping turn Iran into a successful regional power and promoting some faux realist notion of Sunni-Shiite equilibrium; of nearly endless indulgence of enemies and public slights of friends.

It turns out that if you do that stuff long enough, almost no one ends up trusting you. Especially if what you’re proposing constitutes a near-180 degree reversal of the “time for nation-building at home” worldview that has animated the president’s foreign policy since before he took office. How different this all might have looked if the administration had whole heartedly supported Iran’s Green Revolution, secured a stay behind force in Iraq, and not abdicated U.S. leadership in addressing the Syrian catastrophe. But at this late date, deep into a two-term presidency that’s been all about relieving ourselves of the burdens of Pax Americana, it will be a very heavy lift indeed to convince our friends that, lo and behold, we’re really about to double-down on our historical responsibilities as guarantors of a secure and stable Middle Eastern order.

Taken on its own, the Iran deal looks like a highly risky proposition. Add in the most likely knock-on effects in the region and we’re potentially flirting with real disaster. So much has been given away already on the nuclear front that a deeply flawed agreement now looks all but inevitable. Damage limitation, risk mitigation and making the best of a truly awful situation may be all that we’re left with at this point — both inside the negotiating room and beyond it. Difficult and distasteful as that thought may be for the world’s sole remaining superpower, it’s likely the harsh reality that we now have to confront. We can only pray that the administration shows more resolve and strategic foresight in handling this phase of the Iranian nuclear challenge than it has heretofore. And by all means, let’s hope that the president is feeling very, very lucky. We’re going to need it.