Two Different American Futures: With an Iran Deal & Without

By Charles Recknagel (RFE/ RL)

As the six world powers and Tehran try to reach a deal in Vienna, there is more at stake than simply ending the crisis over Iran's nuclear program.

Equally important is how the success or failure of the negotiations could set the stage for determining the West's relations with Iran for years to come.

A deal could establish enough trust to reintegrate Iran into the global economy and for possible political cooperation over some of the Middle East's many crises.

But no deal — either by November 24 or after an extended deadline — could bring renewed talk of bombing Iran's nuclear facilities and the risk of sparking a still greater crisis in the region than exists today.

Here is how the world could look depending on the success or failure of the talks.

If There Is A Deal

Reaching a deal would be a big boost for moderates in Tehran who would like to see Iran return to the world community.

"The biggest promise that Hassan Rohani made in 2013 to get elected was the idea that Iran needs to overhaul its foreign policy," notes Alex Vatanka of the Washington-based Middle East Institute. "If there is a deal, then Rohani can turn around and say that when you do talk, even if you don't succeed in overturning the bad blood overnight, at least you are able make incremental steps toward something that might look like normalization."

Similarly, a deal would provide a vote of confidence for U.S. President Barack Obama's policy of seeking to engage Iran despite 35 years of hostility sparked by the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979.

For both Iran and the West, the potential benefits of ending the nuclear crisis and lifting international sanctions on Tehran could be enormous.

Iran, which has seen sanctions dramatically reduce world demand for its oil, not only wants to increase its exports again, it also needs Western investment and technology to revitalize its oil and natural-gas industry, kick-start its economy, and lift its standard of living.

At the same time, many Western energy companies want to return to work in Iran, which holds the world's fourth-largest proven crude-oil reserves and the world's second-largest gas reserves. Many other Western, nonoil, businesses regard Iran — with 80 million people — as a rich potential consumer market.

But nobody expects a nuclear deal to lead to instantaneous changes.

Even with an end to the nuclear crisis, the lifting of Western sanctions will likely be a gradual process, particularly in the United States, where Obama can suspend sanctions imposed by the U.S. Congress but cannot permanently lift them without a vote by lawmakers, many of whom oppose him.

In Iran, too, the progress could be gradual as hard-liners continue to resist dramatic changes in Iran's relations with the West.

Beyond economics, a nuclear deal also could help speed the day when Tehran and Washington openly cooperate over at least some of the Middle East's pressing problems, particularly how to roll back the Islamic State organization in Iraq and Syria.

So far, the nuclear negotiations have proved groundbreaking by providing top U.S. and Iranian diplomats a way to meet regularly, despite the two countries having no diplomatic relations. A nuclear deal could be momentous in helping turn those links into something more routine.

If There Is No Deal

Any final failure to reach a deal would not only leave the nuclear crisis unsolved, it would almost certainly strengthen opinion in both Tehran and Washington that each must take a still-tougher approach toward the other.

"One can imagine a scenario in which the United States would impose very, very harsh sanctions on Iran, something that would amount to a total oil embargo," says Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group. "The consequences of that would probably be an Iranian measure of escalation, something in the range of either withdrawing from the [Nuclear] Nonproliferation Treaty or increasing enrichment levels to beyond 20 percent or kicking out IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] inspectors or something that would really trigger some kind of military confrontation."

But predicting what would happen is complicated by uncertainty over where both sides would set the limits on the escalation of tensions. To date, Iran has been careful to stay under an Israeli-declared red line for military action by keeping its stock of 20 percent-enriched uranium below the level needed to produce a single nuclear weapon if it were enriched further.

Uncertain, too, is whether Israel, a close ally of the United States, would be prepared to attack Iran despite the almost certainty that militant groups allied to Iran would strike Israel in response.

"If Iran were attacked by Israel, you would look for a whole series of asymmetric warfare, not necessarily because Iran directs it but groups will just rise up," says Scott Lucas, an Iran specialist at Birmingham University in Britain and editor of the EA World View website. "Hizballah will come out against Israel, Hamas will come out, as well as Islamic Jihad; you will have a whole series of proxy conflicts that will take place."

Lucas predicts that Israel would not launch a military strike for these reasons and also because Washington would argue that the best way to change Iran's course would be ever-tighter sanctions instead.

Where an ever-tighter sanctions regime might eventually lead is an open question. Proponents would argue it might eventually force regime change while skeptics would argue that Iran's theocracy would be able to benefit from nationalist feeling in the population and survive the pressure.

However, one certainty is that the situation would only add more volatility to a region of the world that is already engulfed in crisis. 

Mirrored from RFE/RL

Copyright (c) 2014. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.


Related Video added by Juan Cole:

Euronews: “Iran’s nuclear talks with West may go into March as deadline approaches”

11 Responses

  1. One slight “flaw” in Mr. Recknagel’s article – The US has zero ability to keep the current third-party sanctions in place, let alone put any more in place.

    Right now the US is trying to pull three levers of power:

    – Direct US sanctions on Iran/US trade. These have been in place since 1979 and as the recent helicopter situation shows, are dubious at best.

    – Third-party sanctions where the US tries to keep other countries from trading with Iran. These are mostly gone by now and no more will be imposed because other nations gain more from trade with Iran than doing what the US wants. No matter how much the congress critters yell, they will simply be ignored.and if they try to punish other countries, the other countries will savagely punish US businesses like Google, HP, IBM, GE and the list goes on. The congress critters can NOT win this game.

    – Manipulation of the global finance system (SWIFT). This is being defeated by simple greed around the world since there is a very nice profit in laundering money for Iran. Also if the US goes any further, the US will just be helping China convince other countries to dump SWIFT and create a new banking system that the US can not control and abuse, while also conveniently for China, delegitimizing the US dollar.

    So the bottom line is if there is no agreement, there is nothing further the US can do besides lose another war in the middle east with massive loss of American lives and American wealth.

    • “massive loss of American lives and American wealth.” Occurs to me, as usual, that there is no such thing as a unitary personification called the US. Offer that along with the notion that the wealth is not “lost,” just transferred from ordinary people (who also do the dying, of course) to one or more of of our larger “war is a racquet” parasites…

    • “Manipulation of the global finance system……”

      This has been done with Syria – U.S.-imposed sanctions have resulted in money laundering attempts by the Syrian government and its central bank and other evasive maneuvering with Russian and Qatari financial institutions, not to mention petroleum purchases from ISIS on the black market.

  2. Let’s remember that Iran’s nuclear program is not the source of its tension with the US and Israel. Rather, the critical issue is Middle East influence. Consider:
    -According to David Crist a historian for the U.S. federal government and an advisor on Middle East issues, “Iran’s quest for nuclear technology has heightened the stakes and the tension [with the US] but it has not been a catalyst for the conflict.”
    -Even if Iran had nuclear weapons, it would never consider a first-strike on Israel since Israel would always be able to retaliate with its submarine-based “nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.”
    -It’s plainly rational for Israel to try and maintain its monopoly of nuclear weapons in the Middle East as such allows it to act practically without any restraint against its neighbors.
    link to

  3. Articles such as this always seem to assume that the history of US-Iran relations begins in 1979. If it were more widely known what happened before then, even if you only went back to 1953, the picture would look quite different.

    • If we had the conscience to accept that we took over the role of the British Empire as the sword and shield of capitalism in 1945, and thus put on ourselves all Britain’s past crimes from drug running in China to mass murder in countless places, we would go catatonic.

  4. It must be terribly frustrating to the USA that Iran made itself sanction-proof.

    Because the purpose of US-led sanctions has never been about imposing an economic hardship that leads to a change in behaviour.

    No, that’s just the excuse.

    All previous sanctions has been about crippling the military of whatever tin-pot country the USA wants to bomb, because those countries have all been utterly reliant upon foreign sources of weapons.

    Impose sanctions, starve them of ability to upgrade their military, and then wait, wait, wait until what weapons they do have rust up from lack of spare parts and maintenance.

    Then attack, because then it’ll be a cake-walk.

    None of that works against Iran, because the Iranians woke up to the game in the 1980s, and now won’t field ANY weapon that they
    (a) don’t make themselves, and/or
    (b) can’t maintain themselves.

    There is nothing that can rust away, no matter how long the sanctions are in place.

    And so it doesn’t matter if the USA attacks *today* or waits for *years* the Iranian military will be just as ready – and just as willing – either way.

    That’s a daunting prospect, even for the USA.

    • Iran has been able to pull it off for several reasons:

      – Iran has a natural resource that earns them a nice profit to fund weapons development.

      – Iran has a highly educated population so they have the engineering talent to create new weapons and/or improve existing weapons. They have done such a good job of improving weapons that China has paid them for many of the improvements that Iranians have made to already good Chinese weapons.

      – Iran has completely re-though the concept of defensive weapons and developed a new tactical strategy that overwhelms the attacker with inexpensive but very reliable, deadly and accurate weapons. Wars simply cost Iran much less than the US. Iran gets much more “bang for the buck” than the US.

      – While the US spends trillions of dollars trying to create super weapons (and failing) Iran invests (a lot less) in improving what already works well.

      Now, no US blue water ship can get withing 500 miles of Iran without being in danger of being sunk. Nor can US aircraft fly over Iran without being in extreme danger of falling from the sky.

      The Iranian defensive weapons are formidable and deadly, which is why the US military has zero desire to attack Iran.

        • Someone who actually reads non-US media extensively and has a deep understanding of technology and weapons technology. In the internet age, ALL the information crumbs are out there, for anyone to gather and understand – there are NO SECRETS.

          It also helps to understand that the AK-47 changed personal weapons forever – everyone now uses automatic personal weapons.

          All the other weapons humans use (aircraft, missiles, etc), are nothing more than a variation on the “throwing big rocks” concept. How big the “rock” is and how far it gets thrown, is simply a matter of applied physics and chemistry (that is, technology). Because of micro-chip technology, and open source software, it is now possible to build very complex weapons for almost zero cost, completely negating the US (and Israeli) advantage.

          All of the US and Iranian weapons systems are publicly well documented and If I can read the documentation, I have to assume military organizations can also.

          Follow the bread crumbs.

          BTW – A Raspberry-Pi computer containing a multi-core 32-bit ARM processor, many gigs of memory and running Android Linux costs less than US$100. This is more than powerful enough to build a missile guidance system around and several US$ 300 PCs running Linux cluster are more than powerful enough to guide an anti-aircraft missile to the doomed aircraft.

          Massive amounts of technology now cost almost zero.

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