GUEST CONTRIBUTOR AT SAIS WASHINGTON
The Geneva nuclear agreement between Western countries and Iran is unprecedented and deserves all the praise it has received. But observers who think Iran has given up its desire for a nuclear weapon underestimate the precariousness of the current deal and the reasons Iran started a nuclear program in the first place.
Iran wants a nuclear weapon because the current government fears a foreign military intervention that removes it from power. The US’ imminent withdrawal from Afghanistan and war fatigue has diminished the threat of US armed action against Iran, but the ease with which the US replaced two governments right next to Iran is a lesson not easily forgotten.
The US is not the only threat the regime faces, because it antagonizes Israel through proxy forces like Hezbollah, and remains fearful of armed retaliation if it were to push too far. Indeed, Israel publicly talks about striking Iran in order to disrupt its nuclear enrichment. An Iranian nuclear weapon nullifies Israel and any Western power’s military advantage, leaving it practically invulnerable to regime change.
Iran sees itself as the regional hegemon and gains legitimacy in the “Arab street” for its fervent opposition to Israel and the West. It also sees itself as the leader of the Shiite factions in the region and is in a struggle for power and influence with the regional Sunni leader, Saudi Arabia. A nuclear weapon would solidify its place at the top of the regional power structure, and any deal in which it was even perceived to have kowtowed too low to the West would erode its constructed image. This could generate domestic criticism for a government that is losing popularity and threaten the regime’s authority. If a nuclear weapon can prevent these problems for Iran, it will take delicate negotiations and tangible rewards to induce it to abandon its program.
Such assessments fail to distinguish between factional interests on both sides. In Iran, newly elected President Rouhani has been the face of Iran’s negotiations, but Ayatollah Khameini and the Republican Guard control the nuclear program. The Guard has used its position as “defenders of the revolution” to gain enormous power, and any agreement that reduces its influence threatens its hold on Iran’s economic-military structure and provides an incentive to undermine negotiations. In the US, 59 bipartisan senators have introduced a bill authorizing further sanctions on Iran, which could permanently suspend talks. Also, a French delegation of 100 CEOs recently visited Iran to discuss business opportunities in anticipation of less sanctions. The White House criticized this, showing cracks among US and European attitudes, which could debilitate the West’s negotiating position and strengthen Iran’s.
Let’s not forget — Iran has not given up the right to enrich, and can reinvent its program when international pressure dissipates. The interim agreement holds promise, but decades of mistrust and unresolved grievances between both sides have yet to play out. Less US troops in the region only impacts one aspect of its security, and the world should be wary of the true motivations behind Iran’s nuclear program.