How moving the goal posts for Iran highlights a broader agenda

Hawks on Iran from the US to Israel aren't happy about a possible nuclear deal. In part, that's because it might actually work as advertised.

Kobi Gideon/AP
In this photo released by the Government Press Office, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the press in Jerusalem, Friday, April 3, 2015. Netanyahu said that he and his Cabinet are united in 'strongly opposing' a framework deal on curbing Iran's nuclear program.

For years now, Iran's nuclear program has been presented as one of the greatest threats to world peace and prosperity. If this argument is to be believed, then the course is clear: finding a way to prevent the creation of an Iranian bomb should trump almost all other considerations.

And that's pretty much what's happened.

But since a tentative deal was struck between Iran and the so-called P5+1 – the US, Britain, France, China, Russia, and Germany – many in Washington and Israel have been throwing up new demands to be imposed on Iran before any final accord is signed. For example, that Iran must first be deemed to no longer sponsor terrorism, as many Senate Republicans insist, or that the country recognize Israel's right to exist, demanded by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

To be sure, Iran supports armed groups like Hamas or Hezbollah, has a terrible human rights record at home, and is keen on expanding its regional influence. But those are separate issues from its nuclear program. And they make an agreement on curbing that program much harder, it not impossible.

That's a problem for those who want to keep the bomb out of Iranian hands. If a deal fails, many worry that an Iranian bomb would become inevitable (Iran insists that it has never sought to build a nuclear weapon). With crushing sanctions and no prospect of a negotiated settlement, Iran may reckon that racing for a bomb is worth the risk. Or they kick out nuclear inspectors, leaving the international community blind to what it's doing and thus intensifying the alarm whether it was pursuing a bomb or not.

Nonetheless, Mr. Netanyahu and hawkish US lawmakers appear ready to torpedo any deal.

Howard LaFranchi wrote for the Monitor yesterday about the Senate's effort to pass a law bundling in "terrorism" with the nuclear deal (though there are indications today that effort may have been abandoned):

Administration officials are particularly worried about the inclusion of what they consider to be “tangential” issues – like Iran’s support for terrorism – that they suspect have more to do with killing a nuclear deal than strengthening it. Specifically, Tuesday's bill would require the administration to periodically certify that Iran had not engaged in terrorism against the US – or if it had, US sanctions would snap back into place.

Backers of the framework deal have taken to calling such provisions “poison pills” aimed at ensuring that Iran rejects reaching a final accord.

The legislation’s terrorism provision “introduces an issue utterly unrelated to a nuclear agreement,” says Edward Levine, a member of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation’s advisory board. “It sends the message that even if Iran complies fully with a nuclear agreement,” he adds, “the United States may decide not to meet its own obligations under the agreement.”

So why, with the prospect of a final deal (which still may not be reached) on the horizon, are so many inclined to shift the goal posts on Iran? It may be because, while fear of Iran's nuclear program is real, it's not the only agenda. Just as important for many players is to contain and weaken the Islamic Republic that has held power since 1979. And if sanctions are lifted, Iran has vast oil reserves, a large population, and a history of cross-border commerce that make it likely to become a stronger regional power. 

Shifting goal posts on this matter are nothing new, nor is the conflation with a desire for regime change with sanctions over the nuclear program. In March 2012 Netanyahu said sanctions weren't having an effect on Iran's nuclear program and complained "the regime strengthened its grip in recent elections, despite the sanctions." Now he says the sanctions have "proven effective" and should remain in place.

And while US hawks have long labeled Iran's nuclear program as an overwhelming, A-1 priority threat, their opposition to lifting sanctions can be perplexing. For example, critics raise the rights of gays and women in Iran as reasons not to do business there. The same surely applies to Saudi Arabia, which buys billions of dollars worth of weaponry from the US each year. 

Thus, it gets harder and harder to escape the impression that for some of the opponents of Obama's diplomatic efforts, it isn't the nuclear program that they cared about curtailing so much as the Iranian regime itself.

Netanyahu's recent comments to his security cabinet, after the outlines of a deal were agreed at the start of the month, bring this into focus. Haaretz reports that Netanyahu said after the framework deal was announced his "biggest fear" was that Iran would comply fully with its terms.

According to the two senior officials, Netanyahu said during the meeting that he feared that the “Iranians will keep to every letter in the agreement if indeed one is signed at the end of June.” One official said: “Netanyahu said at the meeting that it would be impossible to catch the Iranians cheating simply because they will not break the agreement.”

Netanyahu also told the ministers that in 10 to 15 years, when the main clauses of the agreement expire, most of the sanctions will be lifted and the Iranians will show that they met all their obligations. They will then receive a “kashrut certificate” (a kosher certification) from the international community, which will see Iran as a “normal” country from which there is nothing to fear.

To be sure, part of Netanyahu's fear is that Iran will seek a nuclear weapon when the current plan sunsets. But in that case a 10-year delay seems a less scary prospect then no delay at all. And Iran could try to cheat – but that's true today, too. Either way, Iran's commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty don't allow it to seek nuclear weapons under any circumstances, while also promising it a right to a peaceful nuclear program.

It's certainly true that Iran will have more latitude for action if it satisfies foreign powers that  a nuclear weapon is off the table for now. Russia yesterday promised it would deliver an advanced missile defense system it sold to Iran in 2007 but has delayed sending until now.

For Russia, the interim agreement reached earlier this month in Lausanne, Switzerland between Iran and the so-called P5+1 world powers was all it needed to abolish a ban on supplying Tehran with the sophisticated S-300 missile system, which is designed to intercept warplanes and ballistic missiles at a range of up to 150 kilometers (93 miles)...

“It was done in the spirit of good will in order to encourage progress in talks,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in a televised statement. “We are convinced that at this stage there is no longer need for such an embargo, specifically for a separate, voluntary Russian embargo.”

The S-300s matter to Iran's defense of its airspace – and its nuclear program. They make it even more unlikely that Israel would attack Iran, and even the US might reconsider any bombing campaign. Iran's position is that it has a right to defend its airspace and that sanctions have been as much about keeping them conventionally weak (relative to regional rivals) as they have been about nuclear weapons. 

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.