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Order from Chaos

Why the details of the Iran deal don’t matter

Jeremy Shapiro

Negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program has become something of a national pastime and a cottage industry in U.S. foreign policy circles. Since that fateful day in 2002 when it was revealed that Iran was secretly pursuing an enrichment program, we have all learned more than most of us would have cared to about advanced centrifuges, uranium enrichment, and pathways to nuclear weapons. And so naturally, with the semi-culmination of the negotiations last week, we are all picking over the minutiae, while declaring gravely that “the devil is in the details.” But while we have learned much in the last 13 years about nuclear weapons development, we have forgotten one essential fact—the details really don’t matter. 

In the first instance, they don’t matter because it is not the content of the deal that will ultimately stop the Iranian nuclear program. We should all be very impressed by the technical savvy, perseverance, and creativity brought to this issue by the negotiators on all sides. But at the end of the day, Iran is a scientifically-advanced country with good cash-flow and, if it is willing to pay the price, it can develop a nuclear weapon. Absent some program of national-scale lobotomization, there is nothing the international community can do about this. The negotiators have implicitly admitted this by focusing on limiting Iran’s breakout time to one year rather than on denying the capability altogether. But nobody can explain why one year is a magical period of time, versus, say, six months or five years. This is because there is no reason. 

But secondly, and more importantly, the details don’t matter because the Iranian nuclear program is not really what opponents and proponents of the recent deal are arguing about. Sure, the nuclear program focuses the mind and it engages the public with a clarity that only nuclear weapons possess. But it is more a symbol of the fight over Iran policy than the core of the issue. At heart, this is a fight over what to do about Iran’s challenge to U.S. leadership in the Middle East and the threat that Iranian geopolitical ambitions pose to U.S. allies, particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia. 

Proponents of the deal believe that the best way for the United States to deal with the Iranian regional challenge is to seek to integrate Iran into the regional order, even while remaining wary of its ambitions. A nuclear deal is an important first step in that regard, but its details matter little because the ultimate goal is to change Iranian intentions rather destroy Iranian capability.  

Opponents of the deal, both in the United States and abroad, believe that Iran needs to be contained and countered on every front with the all the power the West and its allies can muster. In this view, the struggle against Iranian nuclear weapons is mostly important for ensuring the engagement of the United States in the Iranian problem. A nuclear deal that reduced confrontation between the United States and Iran would carry with it the threat the United States would reduce its commitment to the broader Iran regional problem. This means that for those focused on the broader Iranian threat, like Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, there really is no nuclear deal, regardless of the details, that will satisfy. One could say something similar of domestic opponents in the United States, who have the additional incentive of a partisan abhorrence of any presidential policy success.

Of course, both sides will fasten onto the details of the deal to try to convince the broader public to take their point of view. But on a subject matter as complex as nuclear weapons development, the spin doctors on both sides will always have ample material with which to work. Their talents are such that it matters very little what details they start with when they begin to spin.

But if the details don’t matter, the deal certainly does. It is at the heart of a dispute over the nature of U.S. leadership in the Middle East. This is important because this broader implication often gets lost in the fight over centrifuge numbers and enrichment percentages.  

For President Obama, the Iranian deal is not just the centerpiece of his nuclear non-proliferation efforts, but also of his effort to pull the United States back from its involvement in the wasteful internecine struggles of the region. He seeks to re-establish the United States as a balancer in the region, rather than as a direct participant in its endless civil wars. A balancer has no friends or enemies—it is able and willing to, say, support Iranian goals in Iraq while it supports Iranian opponents in Yemen. An ongoing confrontation with Iran over nuclear weapons simply is too black and white for these purposes. Its apparent moral clarity is too easily used by U.S. allies to embroil the United States in their disputes with Iran and by domestic political opponents to attack a nuanced foreign policy.  

Opponents of the deal, in contrast, are seeking to establish unstinting U.S. support for its regional allies in a more-or-less permanent confrontation with Iran. This would have the benefit of lending greater consistency to U.S. policy in the region by focusing it firmly on one enemy. But it would have the disadvantage of locking the United States into a coalition with Arab states whose values and interests differ greatly from its own. An enduring U.S.-Iranian enmity would reduce these partners’ fears of abandonment, but it would similarly reduce their incentive to handle their problems on their own.

All of this is nearly as complicated as the details of nuclear weapons development, even if there isn’t as much math. But I don’t claim to know where the devil actually is. The view from my hotel room in Las Vegas suggests he probably lives in Nevada. But regardless, he is definitely not in the details of the Iran deal.