The realist’s argument for the Iran nuclear agreement is that it is the least bad deal that a conflict-weary America could secure. Now, with the nuclear issue parked (at least for a decade), we can get down to the business of strengthening friends in the Middle East and pushing back against Iran’s regional ambitions.
A variant of this position claims that the nuclear deal would actually weaken Iran’s strategic position. In this view, the regime, faced with sanction-caused economic ruin, was forced to give up the nuclear umbrella that would have acted as cover for its export of subversion. An Iran thus defanged is a fundamentally weak country, with little conventional military capacity. The $60 billion windfall Iran would net from the lifting of sanctions is paltry (the argument goes) compared with the strategic blow of giving up its nuclear ambitions. A “yes” vote on the agreement is therefore a contribution to containment.
In the administration’s attempt to secure support from a third of the Congress, the truth is likely to get its hair mussed. But it is rare for an argument to be this comprehensively wrong.
Over the past few decades — without a nuclear umbrella and without a world-class military — Iran has pursued a highly effective, asymmetrical campaign to spread its influence and destabilize its enemies. Early on, the Iranians noted that many Middle Eastern militaries are relatively weak. In some conflicts, the addition of several thousand well-trained, well-led militia members could have a disproportionate, even decisive, influence. So Iranian operatives — often through the Quds Force, created for this purpose — have set out to exploit local grievances, encourage sectarian solidarity and export their version of anti-American, anti-Semitic, revolutionary Islamism.
The idea that this is a spent strategy would come as a surprise to people in Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad. Iran’s first and best success was the organization of Lebanese Hezbollah into an effective instrument. Through it, Iran changed the regional balance of power by positioning perhaps 100,000 rockets and missiles in southern Lebanon aimed at Israel. Tehran is responsible for the survival of Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime, propped up at key moments by Iranian money and Hezbollah ground forces. Iran has gained effective control of Iraq’s public institutions, since Shiite militias (many allied with Iran) seem to be the only effective fighting forces in the country other than the Islamic State and the Kurds.
Not everything has gone the Iranian way. Assad really may be on his last leg, and there has been some blowback against Hezbollah’s involvement in foreign ventures. But on the whole — while lacking the military power to challenge the U.S. and its allies directly — Iran has made an effective play for regional hegemony through arming, training, funding, inciting and leading Shiite proxies.
How would the nuclear deal affect this? The agreement legitimizes Iran’s nuclear program, pretty much guarantees its ability to produce nuclear weapons in 15 years, and will make it a far wealthier country than it has been in three decades. The regime will have more money to demonstrate immediate economic gains, and access to international markets to make those gains permanent. It will have more money — coupled with the lifting of the arms embargo — to purchase weapons from Russia to challenge American military access to the Persian Gulf. And it will have a lot more money to augment its asymmetrical capabilities.
Iran’s support for Hezbollah and the Assad regime, by some estimates, cost less than $10 billion last year. A $60 billion windfall — even after funding for bread and circuses (assuming the regime allows circuses) — would purchase a great deal of regional chaos.
When Obama administration officials talk of pushing back against Iranian influence, they are really proposing to augment the defenses of Israel and the Arab states against conventional attack. “They have no answer to the subversive activities of Iran in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen,” Michael Doran of the Hudson Institute told me. “The terms of the nuclear agreement itself make ‘push back’ very difficult, because the agreement says that any further sanctioning of Iran will blow up the agreement. So we have given Iran an instrument to blackmail us into not containing them.”
The Iran nuclear agreement may be defended as the best a tired nation can do. But members of Congress should vote with open eyes. This agreement will fund Iranian imperialism — while creating disincentives for America to confront it. The Iranians signed the agreement because it was a great deal — for them.
Michael Gerson, a columnist for The Washington Post, may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.