Iran, the U.S., and the Middle East Balance of Power | Stephen M. Walt | Stephen M. Walt

The interim nuclear deal with Iranis an important step forward, and the various negotiating teams can be justlyproud of their achievement. Far be it from me to be a killjoy at this raremoment of progress, but let's not lose our heads amid all the high-fiving andback-patting. Why? Because Iran's nuclear program is not in fact the realissue. The more important issues are Iran's future relations with the outsideworld and whether the deal paves the way for reintegrating that country intothe world economy and the broader international community.

There is something of a paradox inthe ways that opponents and supporters of a deal approach the whole subject ofIran's nuclear program and the country's broader relations with the UnitedStates and other major powers. Opponents of a deal tend to believe that 1) Iranis governed by irrational and highly aggressive Shiite fanatics; 2) it is hellbenton getting a nuclear weapons capability; and 3) if Iran does get the bomb, itwill have dramatic and overwhelmingly negative consequences for regionalstability and world politics more generally. Given those (unwarranted) beliefs,you'd think hawks would be thrilled with this deal, insofar as it freezesIran's current capabilities, will reduce the stockpile of 20 percent enricheduranium (i.e., the stuff that could be enriched to weapons grade fairlyquickly), and leaves all the truly significant sanctions in place. If thenuclear program is your big concern, then this is a great first step and a morefar-reaching comprehensive deal would be even better. (The alternatives -- anunconstrained Iranian program or another Middle East war -- are clearlyinferior.)

By contrast, many who support thecurrent deal believe that 1) Iran's leaders are rational individuals seeking toadvance Iran's national interests; 2) Iran has not yet decided to seek anuclear weapon and probably prefers a condition of nuclear latency to afully developed nuclear arsenal; and 3) getting the bomb wouldn't transformIran into a major world power overnight and certainly wouldn't enable it tothreaten Israel or blackmail its neighbors. If this view is accurate, then afinal deal on Iran's nuclear program -- i.e., one that scales back thoseelements that shorten the breakout period but leaves Iran with some enrichmentcapacity -- isn't that significant by itself, because Iran wasn't really seeking a weapon anyway and its gettinga few bombs wouldn't have that big an impact on world politics.

Thus, the paradox: Many supportersof a diplomatic deal don't believe the danger of a "nuclear Iran" isall that momentous, while opponents of the current deal think Iran's nuclearprogram poses a grave and imminent threat. One would think the former would bemore relaxed about recent progress, while the latter would be moreenthusiastic. But that isn't the case: Those with a moderate view of thenuclear danger are much happier with the deal than those who (logically) oughtto be more interested in anything that constrains what Iran is able to do.

In fact, the real issue isn'twhether Iran gets close to a bomb; the real issue is the long-term balance ofpower in the Persian Gulf and Middle East. Iran has far more power potentialthan any of the other states in the region: a larger population, a fairly sophisticatedand well-educated middle class, some good universities, and abundant oil andgas to boost economic growth (if used wisely). If Iran ever escapes theshackles of international sanctions and puts some competent people in charge ofits economy, it's going to loom much larger in regional affairs over time. Thatprospect is what really lies behind the Israeli and Saudi concerns about thenuclear deal. Israel and Saudi Arabia don't think Iran is going to get up oneday and start lobbing warheads at its neighbors, and they probably don't evenbelieve that Iran would ever try the pointless act of nuclear blackmail. No, they'rejust worried that a powerful Iran would over time exert greater influence inthe region, in all the ways that major powers do. From the perspective of TelAviv and Riyadh, the goal is to try to keep Iran in a box for as long aspossible -- isolated, friendless, and artificially weakened.

But from the U.S. perspective,that's neither a realistic nor a desirable long-term goal. As I laid out last week, America's main strategic interest inthe Greater Middle East is a balance of power in which no single statedominates. In such a situation, U.S. interests and leverage are best served byhaving good relations with as many states as possible and at least decentworking relations with all of them. America's long-term interests are bestserved by helping reintegrate Iran into the global community, which is likelyto strengthen the hand of moderate forces there and make Iran less disruptivein other contexts (e.g., Lebanon). Managing this process will requirereassuring existing allies, but this development would also force currentallies to listen to Washington a bit more attentively, which wouldn't be a badthing.

Over the next six months, the finedetails of a long-term nuclear deal will receive enormous attention and debate.Given the attention that Iran's nuclear program has received over the pastdecade or more, that level of scrutiny is unavoidable. But in the end thenuclear issue doesn't matter that much; what matters is whether an agreement onthat issue will allow relations between Iran and the United States and the restof the P5+1 to normalize in the months and years ahead. And it is thatdevelopment that opponents of an agreement will be desperate to prevent.