Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Iran deal could undercut US pivot to Asia


While American and European supporters of the July 14 Iran nuclear deal claim it will bring peace in our time, Asian allies concerned about China's regional ambitions are worrying about the precedent it sets for U.S. leadership in their region.

     Energy-starved countries such as Japan and India may welcome the opening of Iran's oil and gas markets.  But America's U-turn in the Middle East, from a policy of working with allies to contain Iran to one that facilitates Iranian leadership at their expense, should make its Asian friends anxious.

     The deal lifts tough international sanctions immediately in return for long-term pledges of Iranian nuclear restraint -- the sincerity and verifiability of which are both in doubt. The effect will be to unshackle constraints on Iran's military power and regional influence, enabling it to pursue its designs for primacy in the Middle East more aggressively.

     Meanwhile, U.S. President Barack Obama is pledging to employ stronger military alliances and new economic coalitions like the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal to constrain China's ability to pursue parallel designs for primacy in Asia.

     In Asia, Obama pledges that America will stand by its friends and cede leadership to no other power. In the Middle East, he has broken with America's friends, doing a deal that will facilitate Tehran's accumulation of military and economic strength in ways that will undercut the security of allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia and of pivotal states like Iraq. The president's judgment of American interests is less than fully convincing, but he is already threatening to veto an emerging Congressional majority for the rejection of the agreement.

     Obama's approach would be less problematic if Iran were not so aggressively pursuing policies that have wildly destabilized the Middle East. It is the chief sponsor of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, whose war against his country's population has caused the collapse of that state and the biggest refugee crisis since World War II. Authorities such as America's former top military commander in the Middle East, General Jim Mattis, assess that Assad's regime would have fallen several years ago had Tehran not deployed forces to fight on his behalf. 

     The Syrian fire fanned by Iran has produced the rise of the Islamic State terrorist group (an enemy of Iran) and the spread of its villainy across the region, among other instabilities. Iran is the chief sponsor of the Houthi rebels who have brought about the collapse of Yemen. It is the dominant external power in Iraq, where Iranian forces filled the vacuum created by Obama's withdrawal of all military forces in 2011 -- securing for Iran the gains that had previously accrued to the U.S. and Iraq from the end of Saddam Hussein's regime.

     Iran is also the sponsor of the potent terrorist group Hezbollah, which has helped to construct a violent "Shia crescent" across the heart of the Arab Middle East, making much of it an Iranian sphere of influence and igniting proxy wars between Iran and U.S. allies there.

     This week's agreement in Vienna between Iran and the U.S.-led negotiating coalition, which also includes the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, will nullify previous Security Council sanctions against Iran, including some that are unrelated to the nuclear issue  such as those concerning support for terrorism and Tehran's proliferation of ballistic missile technologies. The deal will also lift an international arms embargo on Iran, including on its ballistic missile program.

"Snapback" mechanism

The deal calls for a complex regime of inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities. But Iran has the right to object, with conflicts between Tehran and international inspectors ultimately refereed by the Security Council, where they will be subject to Russia's veto. The agreement also includes a "snapback" mechanism to reimpose sanctions should Iran violate its terms -- but the reimposition would need to be negotiated between many countries whose corporations are preparing to invest in Iran, creating domestic lobbies that will oppose any renewal of sanctions in the face of Iranian noncompliance. 

     Most importantly, in return for the partial (not total) and time-limited (not permanent) suspension of Iran's production of nuclear fuel, the agreement will open Iran's economy after biting sanctions had largely closed it off to the world and undercut the standing of its leaders among a young population hungry for change. The removal of economic sanctions will produce rapid economic growth and waves of foreign investment. This influx of capital and technology could give a new lease of life to the regime in Tehran, providing substantial new resources for it to use on behalf of its aggressive and destabilizing foreign policies. 

     In Asia, U.S. nuclear deals with North Korea in the 1990s and 2000s, under both Democratic and Republican presidents, offered sanctions relief that enabled the Pyongyang regime to consolidate power and resources -- only to reject elaborate international inspection mechanisms and push on to test and deploy a growing number of nuclear weapons. In Iraq, it was Saddam's expulsion of nuclear inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency that precipitated repeated Security Council condemnation followed by the invasion of that country by the U.S. and allies in 2003, with all that followed.

     This points to the danger that America and its friends are setting themselves up not for a new era of peace and harmony with the regime in Tehran, but for a potentially escalating series of confrontations over nuclear inspections by international monitors -- leading to conflicts that will be products of the current agreement.

     In Asia,  American allies such as Japan worry that a U.S.-China agreement could produce a separate peace that would undercut the interests of other regional powers -- just as the Iran nuclear deal has been met by opposition in Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States threated by Washington's "Persian pivot." They see a U.S. government that has tired of maintaining a regional military posture to balance Iranian power, and has instead determined to do a deal with its primary strategic competitor to ease the burden on America -- allied concerns notwithstanding.

     Asian friends worry that Washington may ultimately make the same calculation in their region, striking a bargain with China that leaves U.S. allies exposed to that country's unchecked power without an American counterweight.

     Obama and his team believe that a nuclear settlement with Iran will allow the U.S. to focus its diplomatic and strategic energies on Asia, a region that will do more to determine the history of this century than the morass in the Middle East. But if the deal liberates Iran to cause more regional mayhem, the U.S. will have less time and energy, not more, to manage its intensifying strategic competition with China in Asia. 

     Japan, India, and other regional states will take note, and will make their own arrangements -- just as America's allies in the Middle East are now doing. The results may produce exactly the proliferation, proxy wars and great power conflicts that the Iran deal is designed to prevent.

Daniel Twining is senior fellow for Asia at the German Marshall Fund. He previously served on the U.S. Secretary of State's policy planning staff (2007-9) and as foreign policy advisor to Senator John McCain (2001-4).


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