In fact, the Iran debate isn’t about centrifuges at all.
by Jeremy Shapiro
While many of us were whiling away the dog days on an idyllic beach, some hard-working members of Congress opted to ruin their summers with an in-depth “study” of the 109-page Iran nuclear deal. Among many others, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who said he was “studying it extremely carefully,” found bipartisan agreement with Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), who vowed to “put this deal under the microscope.” Alas, although it is fun to imagine the senators slaving away in the hot sun over the arcana of centrifuge design, it was unlikely from the start that any such study would change their minds. That Schumer and Cornyn emerged from their period of deep introspection as opponents of the deal should have surprised no one.
It is not only that precious few in Congress grasp the finer points of nuclear physics (though there is that). Nor is it that legislators rarely read legislation (though this has been frequently noted). No, the real reason was that practically every member of Congress had decided his or her position long before the deal was published. And, contrary to appearances, there is nothing wrong with this, because the details of the Iranian nuclear deal have never been very important.
Sure, the destructive power of nuclear weapons focuses the mind and engages the public. But supporters and opponents of the agreement are actually arguing not about Iranian nuclear weapons but about the nature of U.S. involvement in the Middle East.
We have lived in a nuclear world for 70 years now, and at this point, we know (or should know) a couple of basic facts. First, we cannot stop a reasonably advanced country from developing a nuclear weapon. If North Korea, the most isolated country on Earth, can do it, then pretty much any country can if it is willing to devote the resources and pay the political price.
Second, nuclear weapons are not very useful in international politics, which is why so few countries have chosen to develop them despite being able to do so. They are helpful for preventing full-scale invasions of your country (which is nice), but absent that threat, they don’t really change the power balance. Nuclear arsenals facing off against each other effectively neutralize each other, and competition continues beneath the threshold of nuclear war.
This lack of utility, more than the threat of force or sanctions, is probably why Iran, while seeking to keep the option of a nuclear weapon open, has never actually developed one. As various U.S. and Israeli leaders have avowed over the years, the Iranians have been “months away” from a nuclear weapon for well over a decade. But they have never made the choice to acquire one. It is not the provisions of the deal, no matter how creative and intrusive, that will prevent them from doing so in future, but their own decision.
To say the details of the deal don’t matter is not to say that the deal isn’t important. The long confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program—and the political clarity of that face-off in U.S. domestic debates—has locked the United States into a particular set of alliances in the Middle East that limit U.S. flexibility.
The need to maintain a united front against an Iranian bomb has effectively forced the United States into cementing its relationships with various Sunni Arab states that are just as loathsome to American values and just as threatening to U.S. interests as Iran is. All manner of Gulf Arab sins, from domestic repression to beheadings to support of Islamist extremism throughout the world, are forgiven in the name of containing Iran.
By putting the Iranian nuclear issue to rest, the Obama administration seeks to increase its leverage with the Gulf Arab states and adopt the role of mediator and balancer in the Middle East. The U.S. goal is not to get into bed with Iran; it is to use the Iranian nuclear deal to get out of bed with Saudi Arabia.
And the deeper argument over the Iran nuclear deal is whether such a shift is a good idea or whether the United States needs instead to maintain its traditional posture of playing the lead role in containing Iran, with all of the military deployments and support to Gulf allies that that implies.
One fierce adherent of the second path—maintaining the status quo—is, of course, the government of Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has identified Iran as the country’s preeminent threat, much as he once saw Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as an existential threat to Israel. In his view, a U.S. shift toward balancing between Iran and the Sunnis would simply free up Iran to run roughshod over the entire Middle East.
Netanyahu should have learned from the experience with Iraq. Getting rid of Saddam did not improve Israel’s security. Iran simply stepped into Iraq’s power vacuum and became Israel’s main threat. Similarly, even a successful U.S. effort to impoverish Iran or overthrow its regime will only empower Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states, which are likewise hostile to Israel, spend more than five times what Iran does on the military and have also threatened to develop nuclear weapons.
The key to Israeli security is to maintain a balance among the Muslim states of the region. The Iran nuclear deal helps the United States do that by allowing it to play Saudi Arabia and Iran off against each other. In other words, members of Congress don’t need to study nuclear physics or centrifuges or breakout times; they just need to understand the balance of power. After all, it’s not rocket science.
Jeremy Shapiro is a fellow in the Project on International Order and Strategy and the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution.