Last Thursday, the United States, its Western partners, and Iran announced a framework deal on the latter’s nuclear program. The conventional wisdom quickly ended up being that Iran blinked.
Indeed, on paper, the deal looks pretty good. Iran agreed to virtually all of the United States’ demands, in exchange for seemingly cosmetic concessions (the agreement runs for 10 years instead of indefinitely, as the U.S. requested — with further negotiations guaranteed no matter what). Crucially, the sanctions on Iran are to be suspended, not lifted, meaning they could be snapped back if Iran is caught cheating. Plus, the inspections regime (at least in the framework) looks as tough as could be hoped for.
And yet, there are still good reasons to be skeptical. Here are five:
1. The talks might still break down.
It’s a framework agreement. It’s a piece of paper, with not much written on it. None of the details are worked out. And, apparently, some of the things which did get worked out did not get worked out — right after the deal was announced, Iran’s foreign minister and chief negotiator Javad Zarif denounced some of the items on the U.S./EU “fact sheet” on the deal. This is not an auspicious start.
More broadly, as The Washington Post‘s Dan Drezner points out, there are countless issues that could sink the deal yet. Basically, domestic politics (whether in Iran or the U.S.), or broader Middle East politics, where everything is unpredictable and volatile, could seriously imperil the agreement.
Don’t break out the champagne.
2. Iran’s leadership lies.
It might be impolitic to state things so bluntly, but Iran’s leadership lies. Every government lies, of course, but Iran’s leadership’s record in the area bears the stamp of a totalitarian regime’s brazen and constant distortion of reality. There is a difference between occasionally lying to protect one’s interests, and lying as a matter of routine.
Iran lies about its ties to Hezbollah. It lies about its ties to Iraq. It lies about its genocidal aims towards Israel. Iran’s leadership lies constantly.
It also lies, more specifically, about its nuclear program. The deal is premised on the idea that the true extent of Iran’s nuclear program is known. But, of course, we don’t know that. For example, the deal specifies that the nuclear facility at Fordow be repurposed for civilian use. But the nuclear facility at Fordow was built secretly by Iran’s government and we only know about it because the West eventually found out about it. Similarly, the deal envisions Iran reducing its stockpiles of uranium — that is to say, reducing the stockpiles we know about.
The touted “win” of the deal, which would put Iran’s nuclear capabilities at a “one-year breakout” (meaning it would take them a full year to build a bomb given the materials and facilities they would be left with), is premised on the idea that we know the true extent of their nuclear program, and we don’t.
3. There probably won’t be a second chance.
Another aspect of the deal is the idea that sanctions will not be lifted, only suspended, so that they can be implemented again immediately if Iran cheats or stalls on its end of the deal. In theory, this is attractive. But then, there is the political reality.
Iran has major oil reserves and is a large country in the Middle East. It’s one thing for there to be the legal tools to reapply sanctions. It’s quite another for there to be the political capital to do so. Iran is too smart to be caught red-handed in some blatant violation. If there is talk of putting sanctions back on, the situation will be murky. Political will for sanctions in the EU has always been low, and business interests, once they have begun reinvesting in Iran, will push hard against reestablishing sanctions. Russia was never truly on board with the sanctions regime, and wants to sell lots of arms and oil equipment to Iran. China is no fan of proliferation, but it also wants partners in the Middle East that can quench its ravenous thirst for oil (and if they make trouble for the United States, that’s icing on the cake).
The deal’s advocates say that if the agreement doesn’t work, we can just go back to square one, put the pressure back on the Iranians, and start waiting them out again. The reality probably won’t work out like that.
4. We don’t know enough about Iran’s internal politics.
What can sink this deal isn’t just regional and international politics, but also the domestic politics of the biggest stakeholders. The conventional wisdom is that the danger is American domestic politics — those dastardly Republicans in Congress. But Iran’s domestic politics are also famously byzantine and complicated.
Iran’s Supreme Leader wields, well, supreme power, but he also has many constituencies to please (and we don’t know what goes on in his head anyway). Iran’s Revolutionary Guard — one of the most important parts of the regime, since they not only provide security but have also grown into a giant corporation of sorts, investing in manifold business interests — is split between factions that simply want to accumulate money and power and factions that really believe that “Death to America! Death to Israel!” stuff. Similarly, while a good number of Iran’s mullahs are really savvy, hard-nosed political players, a good number are also bona fide fanatics.
It might be hard for us in the West to imagine the near-hypnotic appeal that the prospect of owning nuclear weapons has on a proud nation with an acute inferiority complex and a deep urge to be recognized as a real power. When Pakistan’s leader said that Pakistan would get the nuke, even if it meant his people had to eat grass, he was reflecting popular opinion, not ignoring it. (As a Gaullist Frenchman, I can relate.)
5. We simply can’t know whether the Iranians are rational.
This one goes deep. The fear of Iranian nukes is not simply that Iran will precipitate an arms race in the Middle East if it gets nukes (although it would, and that would be a catastrophe). The fear is also that Iran really wants to kill as many Jews as possible and would nuke Israel if it gets the bomb. To do so would be insane — it would be national suicide. But, well, insane people exist.
In the modern, secular West, it is extremely hard for us to believe that people, including political leaders, might truly and deeply hold to an insane apocalyptic worldview. Instead we marinate every day in the Enlightenment myth of pure reason, and the economic myth of rational action, and the reductionist myth that we are, at bottom, simply animals with no profounder wishes than to survive and reproduce. But these are just the myths we tell ourselves, even if they profoundly shape how we understand others’ motivations. Other cultures have other myths, which have just as deep a hold on foreign worldviews.
It sometimes has to be said: Hitler was thought rational; he was not. It was thought he was not suicidal; he was. It was thought his and his regime’s anti-semitism was simply a political sop, that they couldn’t truly believe it; they did. It was thought no one could do what they clearly said and showed they were doing; they did. It is hard for us in the modern West to wrap our minds around the truly demonic power of anti-Semitism, but it is real, as the preponderance of history shows.
Ayatollah Khomenei’s brand of Shia Islam, into which Iran has been indoctrinated for decades, includes as one of its strongest aspects a fascination and love for death and martyrdom. During the Iran-Iraq War, ordinary Iranians showed up at military recruiting stations carrying their funeral shrouds. Facing superior arms, the Iranians held the Iraqis back with suicide waves of infantry. Many went smiling, and their memory is now treasured in the collective mind. Iran’s chief spy and mischief-maker Qassem Suleimani writes poetry about his love of death in his spare time.
Just because it is very hard for us to wrap our heads around this kind of a worldview does not mean it cannot exist. The belief that Iran’s leadership is rational is just that — a belief, and one based on ethnocentric presumptions and metaphysical a prioris that cannot be justified apart from their own system.
Whether Iran’s leadership are just apparatchiks, or whether they truly believe what they say they believe, no one can say. But this risk is severely underestimated in the West relative to the evidence. And that should scare us all.
Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.