Getting real about the Iran deal
© Getty Images

The agreement between major international powers and Iran on the latter's nuclear program may have been big news. But so was the immediate and often vociferous opposition to it. Abroad, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the deal in no uncertain terms. Leaders of Sunni states in the region, though more circumspect in public than the always outspoken Netanyahu, are clearly uneasy. Republican presidential candidates have lined up to denounce the agreement. So, by and large, have Republicans on Capitol Hill. We may expect many of the latter — joined by some Democrats — to attempt to scuttle the agreement during the 60-day congressional review period mandated by law. The attempt will probably fail. The Obama administration almost certainly has enough Democratic votes to sustain the president's promised veto of any repudiation of the agreement.

ADVERTISEMENT

But we are in for a couple months of fierce debate here in the United States. Whether it will be illuminating is another question altogether. We may expect the usual overheated rhetoric of "betrayal" and "appeasement" directed at President Obama, who, over the years, has been compared to Neville Chamberlain so often that he might as well go ahead and grow a droopy mustache and start carrying an umbrella.

Much of this criticism is utterly predictable. Many people, here and abroad, simply oppose the idea of any plausible deal with Iran on its nuclear program. Those same people were against the 2012 U.S. concession on limited Iranian enrichment capacity that made the current talks possible. They criticized the interim agreement — the Joint Plan of Action — that emerged from those talks in 2013. Unsurprisingly, they oppose the current deal. While these critics may declare that they would be satisfied with a "better" agreement, the hypothetical deal they presumably would endorse — one, say, in which Iran forwent all enrichment capacity — is the stuff of fantasy. No Iranian government would have signed such an agreement. But we should not underestimate the power of fantasy in the U.S. foreign policy debate. The 2003 invasion of Iraq is tragic case in point.

Daniel Larison at The American Conservative is eloquent on the shifting rationales used by those who oppose any realistic nuclear agreement with Iran. One such rationale has gained traction in recent weeks and months: the idea that sanctions relief under the deal will permit Iran to pursue a more expansionist policy in the Middle East. This argument holds a kernel of truth. When sanctions are lifted — late this year or in early 2016, if the agreement stays on track — Iran will in fact receive a windfall in terms of tens of billions of dollars in frozen assets. It will also be able to move tens of millions of barrels of currently stored oil and oil products into international markets. In the medium-to-longer term, Iran will be positioned to increase its petroleum exports. Sanctions relief, in other words, will mean cash — and plenty of it — for the Iranian government. This, of course, is why Iran agreed to the deal in the first place.

An unknown portion of this money will no doubt be used to advance Iranian foreign-policy initiatives, some of which — such as Tehran's backing of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon — are clearly inimical to U.S. interests. Iranian support for Bashar Assad's government in Syria is a more ambiguous case. While the United States may want to see Assad exit the scene, it is far from clear that a withdrawal of Iranian support and a sudden collapse of his regime would serve U.S. short-term interests. Such a scenario might simply create an even more chaotic situation in Syria — one, moreover, that played directly into the hands of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Another ambiguous case is Iranian support for the Iraqi government. While the United States is rightly concerned about Iranian influence in Baghdad and the role of Tehran-backed Shiite militia, the unvarnished truth is that Tehran is able and willing to assist in fighting ISIS in ways that we and our regional allies simply aren't. Absent a sharp increase in the effectiveness of the Iraqi army or a willingness on the part of the United States to deploy substantial ground forces, Iran will remain a key partner in the struggle against ISIS.

Moreover, the idea that Iran will use increased revenues to dominate the Persian Gulf is, to put it mildly, farfetched.

First, much of the money generated by sanctions relief will surely go for domestic purposes. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has staked his political reputation on economic growth. Unless sanctions relief brings real benefits to average Iranians, he may face a sharp political backlash. In addition, at least some of the additional revenue will be spent in placating those — like elements of the Revolutionary Guard — who are opposed to closer ties to the West.

Second, Iran's strategic situation is far less advantageous than many suggest. It is no Persian Empire reborn, poised to exert rule over the Persian Gulf and Levant. It is, rather, a relatively weak power that spends far less on its military than do its Sunni rivals (notably Saudi Arabia) to the south, possesses a modest capacity for force protection and faces, in the United States, a potential adversary that would crush it were Tehran foolhardy enough to offer a conventional challenge.

This is not to say we should be sanguine about Iranian foreign policy in the Middle East. As noted, Iranian interests run counter to U.S. ones in places like Lebanon and, to a lesser extent, Syria. Iran — the most populous country in the Persian Gulf, proudly nationalistic and keen to play a more salient international role — remains a potential source of instability in a region of long-term U.S. strategic interest. In terms of human rights, Tehran's policies are unsavory, even odious, though no worse, it should be noted, that any number of U.S. allies in the Middle East.

Nonetheless, we should not let exaggerated worries about Iran's regional ambitions or real (if often selective) revulsion at Tehran's domestic policies blind us to the advantages of the Iranian nuclear deal. For all is imperfections, the agreement makes it far more difficult for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. This aligns both with our specific concerns about a nuclear Iran and our broader nonproliferation policies in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The United States is not in a position to solve "the Iran problem." As our experience in Iraq reminds us, even invasion and occupation cannot do that. Washington can, however, manage our relations with Iran in ways that, on balance, advance our interests. The Iranian nuclear deal reflects this reality. It has the potential of diminishing one major area of dispute between Tehran and Washington. Perhaps the agreement will lead to a less contentious overall relationship. Let us hope so. But even if the nuclear deal doesn't lead to more normal bilateral relations, it still deserves support on its own narrow but important merits. The Iran nuclear agreement isn't perfect. But neither is the world.

Barnes is the Bonner Means Baker Research Fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy.