When the Iran nuclear deal was reached last week, many around the world hailed it as a breakthrough in Iran's relations with the international community, a diplomatic achievement and a nonproliferation success. But now what?
Well, the IAEA has its work cut out: Inspectors have been tasked with verifying that Iran remains committed to its obligations and does not try to "sneak out" of the agreement. But we can rest assured here: The IAEA employs true professionals, armed with the latest in monitoring and detection capabilities. As James Acton at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace points out, the agreement "significantly enhance[s] the ability of the IAEA to guard against sneak-out."
The U.S. Congress also has a tough slog ahead: Legislators have 60 days to review the agreement, and by most accounts, it is expected that Congress will reject the deal. However, President Obama has already said he will veto that rejection. And overturning that veto requires a two-thirds Congressional majority -- which, although not a foregone conclusion, is highly unlikely. So on balance, it is probable that Congress will have to accept the deal.
But the true challenge facing the U.S. is convincing states in the Middle East to support the deal. In surveying the concerns of states in Iran's neighborhood, it becomes clear that America's friends don't always have perfectly overlapping interests. This difference is best exemplified in how regional states responded to news of the Iran deal: Whereas Gulf states publicly welcomed the deal with cautious optimism, Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu only became more vocal in his disapproval. (He even started a Farsi-language Twitter account to convince everyday Iranians not to support the deal.)
In private, however, Gulf states express concern over the deal, which may provide Iran about $100 billion in sanctions relief over the next year. The fear is that Iran, which for decades has been a state sponsor of regional armed movements and terrorist groups, will use this newfound money to support its proxies in the neighborhood. Even a small fraction of that money could go a long way towards arming Houthi rebels in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, or the Assad regime in Syria.
In surveying the concerns of states in Iran's neighborhood, it becomes clear that America's friends don't always have perfectly overlapping interests.
From the Gulf states' perspective, this is an understandable concern. Traditionally, they have feared Iran's presence as a regional hegemon, dating to the era of the Shah. They have been torn between the natural desire for good relations with Iran as a neighboring country and suspicion of Iranian intentions. To mitigate this suspicion, they rely on the protection of the United States, which since 1979 has served as the de facto military force maintaining Persian Gulf security.
But with this deal, Gulf states are losing confidence in their monopoly on U.S. strategic support within the region. As a result, led by Saudi Arabia, they are cementing partnerships with other world powers -- notably France over conventional arms sales and Russia over energy sector investment -- in a bid to diversify their security portfolios and win over one of Iran's traditional allies. In addition, Saudi Arabia is trying to rally the Arab world, including its traditional Islamist foes, against Iran -- as illustrated by a recent meeting with the Iranian client group Hamas.
And how does Israel stack up? In contrast to the Gulf states, which have publicly praised the deal and voiced private concerns, Netanyahu has unequivocally rejected the deal. Unlike the Gulf states, Israel has not had to concern itself with the ambiguity of living next door to and having significant trade ties with Iran. And Israel has always enjoyed a special relationship with the United States, one that has endured despite the strains of the Obama-Netanyahu dynamic. Consequently, Israel has not sought to diversify its security relationships in response to the deal, instead focusing its efforts on lobbying Congress to reject the agreement. Netanyahu has likewise rebuffed American offers of increased security assistance, and has frozen talks on future aid, perhaps believing that such acceptance would appear to give blessings to the nuclear deal.
However, there is some good news: The best estimates of the U.S. intelligence community and sanctions experts suggest Iran will not spend the majority of its sanctions relief money further arming rebels and terrorist groups. Rather, it will be funneled into investments overseas and the international currency market, leading to a stabilization of the Iranian economy and a decrease in the domestic inflation rate.
This may mean regional concerns about Iran increasing support to its proxies are overwrought, but the divergent security interests of America's partners in the Middle East will certainly make selling this deal a tough job. H.L. Mencken once wrote, "There is always a well-known solution to every human problem -- neat, plausible, and wrong." In order to be right, the American solution for convincing regional partners on the Iran deal will have to be complex, nuanced and carefully thought out.
Special thanks to Artin Afkhami, UCLA law student and former Iran researcher at the New York Times and Princeton University, for his insights.
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