The regional implications of a nuclear deal with Iran

Editor’s Note: On June 3, Brookings’ Executive Vice President Martin Indyk testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the regional implications of a nuclear deal with Iran. The full text of his testimony is available here. A summary is below.

In the coming months, Congress is likely to have to make a choice: either endorse an agreement that removes sanctions but should ensure a nuclear weapons-free Iran for at least ten-to-fifteen years; or reject the agreement, which would leave Iran three months from a nuclear weapon under eroding sanctions. In making that choice, Congress will need to take into account that the Iranian nuclear deal will have profound ripple effects across the troubled Middle East region. The nuclear agreement was never intended to deal with the likely consequences of the sanctions relief—namely a monetary windfall for the government in Tehran. There is every reason to believe that at least some of this windfall will enhance the capacity of problematic Iranian forces such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and problematic proxies like Hezbollah, the Assad regime and Shia militias in Iraq.

But the possible regional implications of the deal are not sufficiently negative to justify opposing it. Indeed, given the turmoil now engulfing the Middle East, ensuring a nuclear weapons-free Iran for at least a decade—and tight monitoring of its nuclear program for much longer than that—will help remove a primary source of tension and may foster greater cohesion in dealing with the other sources of conflict and instability there. In the end, the agreement buys a breathing space of at least ten years. That’s worth having as long as the inspection, monitoring and snap-back provisions are credible and the time is used effectively to contain and roll-back Iran’s nefarious hegemonic ambitions.

Moreover, whatever its other negative implications, the deal is not likely to trigger a nuclear arms race. It is unlikely that Saudi Arabia will actually embark on building an enrichment capability with its requirements for a significant scientific establishment. For thirty years, while Iran developed its ambitious nuclear program unconstrained, its Saudi arch-rival did not feel any need to do the same. Why would it do so now when serious constraints will be placed on Iran’s nuclear program? Egypt and Jordan are certainly talking about starting nuclear programs, but they are both signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. All three Arab states would have to submit to the same intrusive inspections that Iran has accepted if they are to get the nuclear cooperation they will need. The UAE has signed a 123 agreement, in which it commits never to acquire enrichment capacity. And Turkey, as a NATO ally, already enjoys the cover of an American nuclear umbrella under Article 5 of the Treaty.

But even if nuclear proliferation is not among the negative consequences, the President and Congress will need to take account of the regional implications of the deal. The United States should develop a parallel regional security strategy to complement the nuclear deal, one that is designed to counter and neutralize Iran’s regional mischief. President Obama has already taken the first step in this effort through the Camp David summit he hosted with America’s Gulf Arab allies last month. The two sides agreed on a new strategic partnership that would “fast-track” arms transfers and enhance security cooperation, but those words will need to be translated into concrete actions, culminating in a new regional security framework.

Israeli concerns should also be addressed as part of the effort to provide strategic reassurance. Certainly, Israel has good reason to be concerned about the intentions of the Iranian regime. But since this agreement will turn back the clock on Iran’s nuclear program, placing it at least one year away from a breakout capability for the next ten-to-fifteen years, Israel has no reason to preempt for the time being. Nevertheless, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is determined to scuttle the deal because he believes that it paves the way for Iran to get the bomb in fifteen years’ time. In this context, it will be important for the United States to take steps to provide strategic reassurance to Israel by strengthening its ability to defend itself from, and therefore deter, any potential Iranian nuclear threat. Such measures could include completing the negotiations on a new 10-year agreement to provide military assistance to Israel at an increased level to provide greater defensive anti-missile capabilities as well as enhanced deterrence.

Finally, to take care of the likely increasing nervousness among our regional allies as some of the more severe constraints on Iran’s nuclear agreement approach their expiration date ten-to-fifteen years from now, the United States needs to begin to lay the groundwork for establishing a nuclear umbrella over all of them. This form of extended deterrence will be an important element in an American-sponsored regional security framework. Neither Israel nor America’s GCC allies are prepared to consider that at the moment, nor is it likely that Congress would approve a new nuclear commitment for any regional ally in the Middle East except Israel. But if the policy of strategic reassurance is pursued consistently by this president and his successors, it is possible that all sides may come to see the virtue of a nuclear security guarantee that will effectively deter Iran, render an Israeli preemptive strike unnecessary, and remove any incentive for the Arab states to pursue their own nuclear weapons programs.

A credible nuclear agreement will nevertheless raise many concerns in the Middle East about Iran’s destabilizing behavior that the United States cannot address in the agreement itself but will have to address outside the agreement. That is not a justification for opposing the agreement, which will provide an all-important ten-to-fifteen year breathing space. It is rather a reason for complementing the agreement with a robust effort to promote a regional security strategy that takes advantage of the respite to begin to rebuild a more stable order in this chaotic but still vital region.