The Iran agreement released Tuesday will be parsed and reparsed for months. Can the inspections mechanism really work? How will Iran reduce its enriched uranium stockpile? Is it really wise to legitimize Iran’s ballistic missile program? There are a thousand questions and each side will have different answers. But what are the other implications of what Barack Obama insists is a “historic” deal?
1. Doubling down on the Muslim sectarian divide
Right or wrong, the perception of many in the Middle East is that the region is in the midst of a battle between the Sunni neo-Ottoman Empire and the Shiite neo-Persian Empire. Sounds simplistic, and in many ways it is, but as Iran works to buttress an Alawite ally in Syria, the Zaydi Shiite Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon, it only reinforces the notion that the Islamic Republic is looking to upend the status quo and impose Shiite hegemony wherever possible. We should expect the region’s Sunni powers to do all that they can to push back. 2. More trouble for Shiite minorities
Despite protestations to the contrary from Sunni-led states like Bahrain, the reality of Shia life in much of the Middle East has long been oppression. In Shia-majority states dominated by Sunnis like Bahrain, or where there are substantial Shia minorities like in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Yemen, there has always been suspicions that Shiites are fifth columnists for Iran. And with those governments convinced that the nuclear deal empowers Iran to step up its meddling in their affairs, that’s going to only get worse.
3. Dramatic increases in the military capabilities of Iranian proxies
Consider Hezbollah the model. In the years since Iran founded the Lebanon-based terrorist group, its capabilities have grown dramatically. Notwithstanding United Nations Security Council resolutions barring the transfer of weapons, Iran has aggressively upgraded Hezbollah’s lethal power and transformed the group from a ragtag group of “resistance” fighters into one of the Middle East’s most capable paramilitary organizations. Only financial constraints have limited Iran’s support for Hezbollah and other proxies like Hamas. With cash washing in, these groups will receive the full benefit of Iranian military advances.
4. The beginning of the end of the NPT
Like any set of rules, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is only as good as its members make it. Once, a country that hid behind the NPT to violate safeguards agreements and work on nuclear weapons faced the certainty of international punishment. That is what happened to North Korea. With this deal, the exact reverse is happening with Iran. After using the treaty to advance its nuclear weapons program, Iran is now being pardoned, rehabilitated and allowed to keep its nuclear infrastructure. We can expect other countries — especially those most worried about Iran’s rising power in the Middle East — to emulate Iran in using the NPT as cover for advancing their own nuclear weapons programs.
5. More bloodshed in Syria
This outcome seems almost obvious, but the United States and others refused to bring the question of Syria’s future into talks with Iran. As a result, the flow of fighters, weapons and money fueling the devastating conflict in Syria will only worsen. Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has been faltering, reacted with elation to news of the deal, and with good reason. His patron will now have the resources to help him regain the strategic advantage.
6. Pushing Iraq further into Iran’s orbit, and more violence
After Obama withdrew all troops from Iraq in 2011 and ceased all security cooperation with the Baghdad government, the country slipped back into the sectarian fighting that so marred the post-Saddam years. Though due in no small part to bad governance, the absence of any counterweight to Iranian influence accelerated Iraq’s return to violence. Now that Iran and the United States appear aligned, there are fewer reasons than ever for the country’s Sunnis to believe that the government in Baghdad aims to do anything but subject them to the control of Tehran. Consequently, the Islamic State and its tribal supporters will push only harder to return to power.
7. Cementing the partisan divide over foreign policy
It has never been true that partisanship stopped at the water’s edge. But there has been bipartisan consensus on some of the most pressing challenges of our time. But much as the Affordable Care Act deepened the divide over domestic policy, this Iran deal will open up an enduring rift in foreign policy. Obama and his team have already made clear that they expect Democrats to side with the president, not because they agree with the deal, but because party loyalty should trump principle. Hillary Clinton has endorsed the deal, while the Republican presidential candidates have uniformly condemned it.
8. Further weakening of the U.N. Security Council
How many resolutions has the Security Council put in place making demands of Iran? How many have been observed? Did they matter at all to the Islamic Republic? Not only were the resolutions immaterial to Tehran, the deal just struck acquiesces in Iran’s defiance of Council resolutions. Many will cheer the further emasculation of the U.N. Security Council. But perhaps they will be less pleased with the indifference to the rule of law the Council’s humiliation implies.