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In The Arena
Why I Like The Iran Deal (Sort Of)
The former joint chiefs chairman thinks it’s the only way to change the regime.
By ADM. MIKE MULLEN (RET.)
April 16, 2015
The nuclear agreement between the international community and Iran already stands as a remarkable if incomplete achievement. As in all such deals, the devil surely lies in its details and in implementation. I like the phrase “Distrust but Verify.” And yet the real significance of this agreement is broader. If successful, it portends historic opportunities for change, not only in Iran but in the Middle East as a whole.
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Let’s talk about Iran first. In the West, we tend to see that country as monolithic. It is not. An epic struggle is underway for Iran’s soul. While there is consensus among the leadership of that country and some of its population about the importance of an Islamic republic, visions about what exactly that implies or how best to ensure its success differ. Hardliners or so-called “Principalists” see such a theocracy as an exemplar and catalyst for regional hegemony–for a return to empire of sorts, or at least increasing Shi’a dominance. Reformists, on the other hand, see it leading Iran back into the community of nations, still a strong nation, but more responsible regionally and more responsive to the needs of its people.
And then there are the Iranian people themselves—the median age is only 28—many largely open to the West and hungry to be reconnected to the world. Theirs is a generation not driven solely by religion, but rather by soaring unemployment, unfulfilled economic opportunities and mounting frustration with the social and moral shackles placed on them by Tehran. They are proud to be sure, and will not blithely sacrifice what they rightly believe are attributes of Iranian sovereignty, such as a peaceful nuclear capability. But so too are they pragmatists, eager for reform and reengagement. As one young woman put it, “I pray that my children will be able to live in an Iran that can play nice with the international community.”
“Playing nice” with the international community will require further change in the mindset at the top. And that sort of change will not come easily or swiftly. Powerful factions in the leadership remain deeply suspicious of the West and even of this agreement, believing that the international community is only interested in regime change, and that only through geopolitical adventurism and the projection of power can the regime be sustained. Failure of the negotiating process will only reinforce their hand.
Iranian reformists, on the other hand, support a nuclear deal because it would be a first step in the evolution they would like to see. But its successful enactment would just be the opening salvo in a struggle between these two visions of Iran. Much will depend on President Rouhani’s ability to continue satisfying the electorate’s demand for change. The next showdown will come when a group of elders charged with selecting the next Supreme Leader get elected next winter. The third showdown comes with Parliamentary balloting in the spring of 2016, with the final showdown being the Presidential election in 2017.
Which of these two visions wins out will become clear over the next several years and will have tremendous repercussions for the future of the Middle East. It might also have tremendous repercussions for American foreign policy, pushing open a door which has remained closed for more than 35 years. Exposure to the Iranian people, and their exposure to us, may yield new opportunities to discourage Iranian support for terrorist groups and other abusive regimes where they exercise influence. It would also more fairly rebalance American influence. We need to re-examine all of the relationships we enjoy in the region, relationships primarily with Sunni-dominated nations. Detente with Iran might better balance our efforts across the sectarian divide.
I am “eyes-wide-open” on this agreement. I know well the ruthlessness of the hardline elements in the regime with which we have negotiated. Iranian security forces are responsible for killing American troops in Iraq. Neither time nor treaty can ever heal those wounds. I am likewise deeply aware of Iran’s sponsorship of the despicable regime in Syria and the terror-based leadership of Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well as its sponsorship of global terrorist activities.
How we got here is almost academic at this point. As of today, there is no more credible path of reducing the likelihood of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon than this potential deal. Those who say the risks are too high with the current deal offer no constructive path forward save the high potential for war. There is a view that all we need to do is intensify sanctions. A great irony is that it is now the Revolutionary Guard and other hardliners who are getting rich on the sanctions, for they control the black market. It may be that sanctions have reached the point of diminishing returns.
If the hardliners prevail in the long run, the likelihood of both Iran achieving nuclear capability, the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, and the outbreak of conflict rises sharply. It would be foolish to remove from play the military deterrence options available to us. But it is worth remembering that any strike, even if successful, would by all accounts only delay a nuclear breakout capability by one to three years at most while fully galvanizing the Iranian people against the U.S. and in favor of developing nuclear weapons. Any negotiated outcome, however, must guarantee that Iran never gets a nuclear weapon. I also believe that it is unwise to be guided in our diplomacy solely by the brutality of the battlefield. Defense and diplomacy are not mutually exclusive. If the latter can prevent the use of the former to achieve the same end, we as a nation–and the world as a community–are better served.
So, let us fairly debate the merits of this deal. Let us focus on the details of implementation and verification. But let us not in the process forget the larger, longer good it may yield.
Adm. Mike Mullen served as the 17th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.