As fate would have it, Congress could vote on the Iranian nuclear deal two years to the day that it was supposed to vote to authorize military strikes against Assad’s Syria. A Russian-brokered dismantlement deal forestalled that vote, but, in the process, Assad’s chemical arsenal had achieved its original purpose: it secured his survival by transforming him into a partner in his own self-dispossession. The nuclear deal will do for Iran what the chemical weapons deal did for Syria. By making Iran indispensible to its own nuclear limitation, Iran has fulfilled its original nuclear objectives: the West’s acquiescence—and even facilitation—of its regional hegemonic ambitions. In return for temporary enrichment restraints, the deal fuels Iran’s conventional capabilities and greases Iran’s path to power.
What is the purpose of an Iranian nuclear weapon? Of course, Iran’s repeated threats to annihilate Israel and the millenarian strain within the regime should not be discounted. More concretely, much like the Soviet bomb ensured Moscow’s control over half of Europe, an Iranian bomb would remodel the Persian Gulf and its littoral sheikhdoms into Iranian tributaries, facilitating energy and transit shakedowns. Furthermore, just like the Soviets used Communist parties to subvert Western governments from within, an Iranian bomb would turbo-charge the Persian subversion of Gulf States through their Shiite populations, perhaps adding Manama or Kuwait to its current loot of four Arab capitals—Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and Sana’a. Finally, an Iranian bomb would embolden its existing proxies. Adversaries would hesitate to escalate conflicts, thus encouraging Hezbollah to rain missiles on Israel and providing succor to Assad’s survival. To borrow a term from another era, an Iranian bomb would “Finlandize” the Gulf and put the entire Middle East on edge.
The Vienna nuclear deal will allow Iran to accomplish much of the same. Iran will receive an immediate massive cash transfusion and its economy is projected to swing from sanctions-induced deep recession to deal-infused sustained growth. Moreover, by agreeing to fend off future sanctions of any sort, Washington will become the de facto guarantor of Iranian economic prosperity. With their patron soon to be flush with cash, no wonder Iranian proxies are exuberant. In a few short years, after an international arms embargo is dropped, Iran will also be allowed to purchase advanced weaponry from Russia and China. Shockingly, the accord even commits the U.S. to cease not only its own cyber and sabotage operations against Iran’s nuclear program, but to help Iran defend against Israeli ones as well. By temporarily restricting its nuclear enrichment, Iran will be permanently enriching its regional mastery.
To understand how, look no further than the Syrian chemical weapons deal. Two years later, the regime is not even close to having fully dismantled its program, having lied, cheated, and stonewalled the internationally backed effort. Moreover, it has flagrantly exploited a loophole and continued to gas its citizens with chlorine. Instead of working to overthrow Assad, the Obama Administration is trying to degrade its most formidable opposition (ISIS) and defers the proper training and arming of other Kurdish or Arab rebel groups. With the partial dismantlement of his chemical weapons program having guaranteed his survival thus far, Assad has even lasted long enough to reap the financial, military, and political boost from the Iran nuclear deal.
By empowering Iran as the key party to its own nuclear constraining, the United States is paving Iran’s path to regional hegemony. President Obama even repeatedly asserts, “Iran will be and should be a regional power.” The president has even supported advancing a Sunni-Shiite “equilibrium”, if Iran merely toned down its most egregious extracurricular activities. Like the Syria deal, the Administration will be powerless to punish Iranian aggression for it would doom Iranian nuclear compliance. Unlike the Syrian deal, no element of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure will be dismantled and all substantive restrictions are time-limited. In fact, Iran is getting a better deal than Syria, having traded enrichment limits not just for survival, but also for regional ascendance. At a fraction of the cost and with America’s blessing, this deal achieves nearly as much as its nuclear weapons ever would have.
Scheinmann is director of Policy at The Jewish Policy Center.