The most important foreign policy effort President Barack Obama will be making over the next year is negotiating with Iran. The terms of the U.S. offer are clear: if Iran agrees not to build nuclear weapons, it will be allowed to enrich a certain amount of uranium, supposedly for purposes of generating nuclear energy (which Iran doesn’t need) and other benefits, supposedly under strict safeguards.
Will Iran accept such a deal? The Obama administration and others argue as follows: Sanctions have taken a deep bite out of Iran’s economy and frightened the regime with the prospect of instability. Iranian leaders are concluding that nuclear weapons aren’t worth all of this trouble. They are interested in becoming wealthy not in spreading revolution, and this includes even the once-fanatical Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which is steadily gaining power in the country.
In a few months, June 2013, Iran will have elections to choose a new president to replace Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Perhaps, goes the argument, they will pick someone more flexible and less provocative, a signal that they want to stand down from the current confrontation. Thus, a deal is really possible and it could be implemented.
I won’t dismiss this altogether. The truth is that despite extremist statements and radical tactics, the Iranian regime is by no means ideologically or theologically mad. The rulers want to stay in power and they have been far more cautious in practice than they have been in rhetoric. Despite the claims that the Iranian regime just wants to get nuclear weapons to attack Israel as soon as possible, a serious analysis of this government’s history, leaders, and factions indicates otherwise.
A key factor here is that Iran wants nuclear weapons for “defensive” purposes. By this, I do not mean that a poor Tehran regime is afraid that it will be attacked for no reason at all, and thus needs to protect itself. Not at all. It is Iran’s aggressive, subversive, and terrorist-sponsoring positions that jeopardize the regime. Like it or not, if the Tehran government got on with the business of repressing its own people without threatening its neighbors, the world would be little concerned with its behavior. But it has refused to take that easy and profitable choice.
Rather, Iran wants nuclear weapons so it can continue both its regime and behavior without having to worry about paying any price for the things it does. The situation has, however, changed in two respects.
First, the “Arab Spring” has put an end to any serious hope by the regime of gaining leadership in the Middle East or in the Muslim world. Two years ago it was possible that Arabs would dance in the streets and cheer Iran’s having a nuclear weapon as the great hope of radical Islam. Today, though, the Sunni Islamists are on the march and have no use for rival Shias, much less ethnic Persians.
They want to make their own revolutions, destroy Israel, expel the West, and seize control of the Middle East for Sunni Arabs and not under the leadership of Persian Shias. Iran’s sphere of influence has been whittled down to merely Lebanon, Iraq, and a rapidly failing Syrian regime. Under these conditions, getting nuclear weapons will not bring Iran any great strategic gain.
Second, sanctions have indeed been costly for Iran, though one could exaggerate the extent of this suffering. Additional internal problems have been brought on by the rulers’ own mismanagement and awesome levels of corruption. In other words, to stay in power and get even richer, Iran’s leaders, along with disposing of Ahmadinejad, might seek a way out of their ten-year-long drive for nuclear weapons.
Thus, it is not impossible that Iran would agree to the Obama administration’s proposed deal either because the leaders now seek riches rather than revolution, or because they intend to cheat or move far more gradually toward getting nuclear weapons, or at least the capability to obtain them quickly, if and when they decide to do so.