There’s been a lot of talk lately about the possibility of a deal with Iran regarding nuclear weapons, and for once it might not just be talk. With all these rumors, there’s some important questions on many Americans’ minds: Where is Iran, again? And also, why do they want nukes? We know you're deep into preparations for the end of the quarter and the onset of Chicago winter (by crying in the library and prepping your playlist, respectively). You don't have time to read newspapers to find the hard-hitting answers you'll need to sound smart around the Thanksgiving table. North by Northwestern did that reading for you.
What’s there to discuss about Iran? They’re nuts.
There’s an unfortunately common perception that Iran’s government is totally irrational. In its most recent form, this idea owes its existence to the wild and outrageous rhetoric employed by former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which included refusals to acknowledge the Holocaust and the historical roots of the Jewish people in the Middle East and most famously his assertion that Israel should be “wiped off the map.” It would be more accurate to say that he asserted that the current “occupation regime” in Israel (a common way for opponents to the modern state of Israel to characterize the current government as an illegitimate post-war construction) will eventually collapse, but what people commonly believe Ahmadinejad said is more important now than what he said.
Ahmadinejad’s words have been used by other major players in the Middle East (most notably Israel and at times the USA) to justify opposition to Iran’s alleged nuclear program, based on the notion that if Iran were to obtain nuclear weapons, it would attempt to destroy Israel outright. This is the idea invoked whenever someone talks about an “existential threat” posed by Iran.
This doesn’t mean Iran is irrational. Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric was crazy, yes, but Iran is not, and if we want to understand what’s going on in the news at all we have to first accept that Iran’s government is not crazy. Iran knows that if it attacks Israel, not only will that almost certainly lead to U.S. involvement in the Middle East, but will turn global opinion strongly against Iran.
So what should I tell my racist grandfather when he proposes bombing Iran?
Consider things briefly, from the Iranian government’s point of view. In 1953, the United States backed a coup in Iran to both prevent Soviet access to Iranian oil and nabbed a substantial amount of that oil (and profits from it) for the West. Following a 1979 revolution meant to expel Western and Soviet influence, an ill-advised, dangerous and stupid hostage crisis precipitated the formal end of diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States.
After that, relations steadily worsened. The USA backed Iran’s enemies, directly attacked it and shot down a civilian flight, an action for which the U.S. has never apologized. Relations finally reached a steady state in 1995 when the United States simply embargoed Iran outright. Six years later, President George W. Bush declared Iran a member of the global “Axis of Evil.”
So here is Iran, a country which knows it is both a historic opponent of the United States in the region as well as a current one. It has seen nations to either side of it be invaded by U.S. forces, in one instance under false pretenses. The U.S.’s closest ally in the region, Israel, has threatened to attack Iran in the past, and it is an open secret that Israel possesses nuclear weapons.
Under these circumstances, the deterrence capability offered by a nuclear weapon, or even nuclear latency (the capability for nuclear weapons development sans the weapons themselves), is a tantalizing goal for Iran. This is critical to understanding negotiations: Iran wants, at minimum, nuclear latency, and any deal that keeps it from latency is likely to die on the table.
And what should I say when someone asks me what's actually going on?
Tell them negotiations are going surprisingly well for some of the players involved. To others (mostly Israel), the whole negotiation process seems bound for total disaster.
Recent negotiations have pivoted on a major issue: Does Iran have the right to enrich uranium itself? Iran is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which means Iran has agreed to give up the right to nuclear weapons in exchange for support from nuclear powers for its own efforts in nuclear energy. For Iran, this means the right to enrich uranium to usable levels. The USA and Israel are strongly opposed to Iran having the ability to enrich uranium, since Iran could use that capability to create nuclear weaponry (this is hypocritical of Washington, which has in the past acknowledged the right to enrich uranium as being protected by the NPT, but current policy goals outweigh ideological purity in this case).
Recently, however, the terms of the conversation changed. While Iran still maintains it has a right to enrich uranium, it says recognition of that right is no longer a requirement of any deal on nuclear issues. This has created a way forward for a preliminary arrangement, under which Iran agrees to stop any forward development on its nuclear program in exchange for the loosening of some sanctions. A more complete deal would presumably emerge in the days to come.
What's the catch in that summary?
Not everyone agrees that particular deal would be an unmitigated success. Israel especially sees it as a dangerous concession to Iran (Israel would prefer trade sanctions until the regime either collapses or gives up its program entirely) and refuses to assent to any deal like it. France has struck a similarly hardline stance.
The worry is that even if France can be made to come to the table, Israel might be sufficiently incensed at the deal and convinced that it can rely on no other country to combat Iran’s nuclear program. If that were the case, Israel might strike Iran’s nuclear facilities itself, as it once did to Iraq. This is a perennial fear of the Iranian nuclear talks, though the recent mention of Saudi Arabia as a rumored ally is a new complication. Saudi Arabia denied the allegations, but it’s not wholly implausible.
The U.S. Senate, it should be noted, also dislikes the idea of an interim deal, but has been persuaded to stand down for the time being. At this point, the White House’s policy is more important than what the Senate thinks.
What's the final takeaway on this? What grand prediction should I make to get my relatives to shut up and go back to eating Turkey?
For now, a deal seems more likely than not, but perhaps not by much. Israel’s government and Washington are in deep conflict on this issue, enough that it seems to really matter to the White House (otherwise, Obama would have backed down by this point). With both the United States and Russia on board in negotiations, a deal seems likely.
That same duo of Russia and the United States also mean that Israel’s aggressive rhetoric probably won’t amount to much. Even if Israel perceived Iran’s current level of nuclear development as an immediate, existential threat, it would go in to an attack knowing it lacked the backing of the United States and potentially facing Iran’s allies. This is not Iraq in the ‘80s; it’s too dangerous for Israel to be likely to attack.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the deal won’t break down in some other way. Maybe Iran or the United States will overreach at the negotiating table, or perhaps France really is sufficiently recalcitrant to prevent any accord from being reached. Still, we can safely say for the first time in the long time there may actually be a deal on the horizon with Iran. It remains to be seen if it’s one Israel can accept.
Alternately, you could just not talk about Iran at Thanksgiving. What sort of weirdo family do you have? Stick to normal topics, like Obama's Marxist tendencies and the value of brining a turkey.