Since the P5+1 signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (often referred to in the United States as the Iran Nuclear Deal,) an intense debate has been taking place in the United States Congress and the American public sphere.
Those in favor of the deal have consistently argued that it was the best one possible, while critics have claimed that it will not prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon in the future, an outcome which they contend threatens not only the security of the United States but also the existence of the state of Israel. Additionally, advocates of the deal have asserted that the sanctions regime succeeded in bringing about an agreement, whereas critics have asserted that the sanctions regime should both continue and be strengthened in order to improve the deal.
Interestingly this debate has largely centered on the deal itself and ignored the possible outcome of its implementation. But I would like to highlight some potential pitfalls for United States foreign relations if the deal is approved, or at least not rejected by a veto-proof majority, in both houses of Congress, or even if it is rejected by a veto-proof majority in both houses.
There are several main threats that the United States faces if the deal is approved by its legislature, all of which stem from a scenario in which Iran finds ways to successfully violate the deal in order to successfully build nuclear weapons. If Iran were to succeed in doing so it could possibly use these weapons to threaten the existence of Israel or U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf, raising the possibility of nuclear war or at least a regional nuclear arms buildup.
Furthermore, a nuclear Iran could potentially increase Iran’s sphere of influence in the Persian Gulf giving it the ability to threaten global oil supplies, especially if the United States responds to a nuclear Iran by withdrawing its navy from this area. A successful Iranian violation of the deal would also destroy the American government’s ability to credibly sell similar future deals involving other hostile states to a skeptical American public.
While the negative consequences of a United States approval could be severe, those of a rejection could, and would likely, be even worse.
If the United States House and Senate reject the deal the United States government will find itself in the position of trying to uphold a sanctions regime that its allies no longer wish to continue. Perhaps a few allies would support the United States in this scenario but without the EU, China, and Russia the sanctions will lack the same bite as those Iran has endured over the past half-decade.
It is true that the United States, which owns the world’s chief reserve currency, could attempt to continue to freeze Iran out of global markets by threatening to sanction any company or bank that facilitates business with Iranian entities. However, by doing so the United States might provide an incentive for other countries and for international companies to begin to shift away from using dollars to settle foreign transactions, thus weakening America’s long term ability to use international banking sanctions as a diplomatic tool.
More importantly, a rejection of the deal would signal to both allies and foes that United States presidents cannot be trusted to fulfill promises they make when entering into international agreements. Such a belief would undermine American soft power, reduce American global political influence, and threaten to hasten a return to a chaotic multi-polar global political system similar to the one that existed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Although current United States allied governments like those of Israel and Saudi Arabia may be hoping for the deal to be rejected, neither would benefit from a loss of American global prestige. That is especially true for Israel as it routinely depends on American diplomatic cover in various international forums.
So why are these scenarios not often discussed in the United States public sphere? The answer perhaps is the adage that politics are local and most Americans, like most people in the world, are not well informed when it comes to global political and economic issues.
Most Americans, for example, see their country as a leader in free trade. In reality, however, the United States is less integrated into the global economy, both because of its distance from the more densely populated continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa, and its gigantic domestic market, than many of its smaller European and Asian allies.
When relative American economic isolation is coupled with the fact that American companies have done little business with Iran since the late 1970s it is understandable why many Americans have no fears about continued Iranian sanctions. They simply are not impacted by such sanctions. That is less true with regard to America’s foreign allies, many of which have forced their citizens to make economic sacrifices in order to maintain sanctions and are unwilling to face the backlash from forcing them to continue accepting the economic pain of sanctions now that a deal has been signed.
The most vocal American critics of the deal have been self-proclaimed supporters of Israel, a group that includes many Jews, Christians, and non-religious Americans, as well as politicians from both major American political parties. While these groups claim to be acting in Israel’s best interest their actions and statements, like those of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, threaten to alienate many Democrats, Jewish and non-Jewish, from supporting Israel.
Now that may not sound catastrophic to many on the American political right who believe, (erroneously if one looks at the history of U.S.-Israeli relations) that Republicans are the natural pro-Israel party in the United States. However, Israel’s regional hegemony and its own diplomatic strategies have been predicated upon near unconditional bi-partisan support in the United States.
If enough Democrats come to view Israel as an irritant, or at least as something less than an ally, Israel will eventually lose its historic bi-partisan support in the United States.
Such an outcome will not only make relations between the two countries a highly politicized issue in the American public sphere . It also ensure that Israel has less freedom of action both in the West Bank and Gaza and in the broader Middle East. While many of Israel’s critics might be pleased to see a less active Israeli military, the Israeli government and its hawkish American supporters would view this outcome as a catastrophe.
One issue this post has not yet touched upon is terrorism. Many critics claim that even if it solves the nuclear issue, the deal fails to address Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism in the Middle East and in the world and, thus, should be rejected.
It is certainly true that Iran sponsors terrorism and that its proxies have killed and injured many innocent civilians. A notable example of such terrorism is the 1994 Hezbollah attack on a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentina that killed over 80 civilians.
Unfortunately Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism has never been part of these negotiations, and if it had been it is likely that the coalition that imposed and upheld the sanctions regime would never have come together in the first place.
That is because the countries involved were not looking to impose an open-ended sanctions regime similar to the one the United States imposed on Cuba. Rather they were hoping to use sanctions to force Iran to the negotiating table on the nuclear issue.
By conflating Iran’s nuclear program with its sponsorship of terrorism the international community would have likely have had to subject Iran to decades of sanctions in order to bring its government to the table. As I noted before, the American public may have been willing to do this but its allies were not.
While Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism should be addressed in the future, it is a separate issue from the nuclear program and should be addressed via separate diplomatic initiatives. At this point rejecting the deal because it does not deal with terrorism would be a slap in the face to international negotiators who have spent the past half-decade trying to find common cause with their Iranian counterparts on the nuclear issue alone.
The debate is certain only to increase in intensity in the United States over the next month. Hopefully both sides will begin considering the consequences of accepting or rejecting the deal rather than focusing solely on whether the deal is objectively good or bad.
Jonathan Sciarcon is Assistant Professor of History and Judaic Studies at the University of Denver. His research focuses on Ottoman Jews in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He teaches courses on the rise of Islam in the Middle East, the modern Middle East, the Crusades, the Arab-Israeli conflict and other related topics.