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The big question underlying any nuclear deal with Iran

It’s not about the centrifuges or sanctions. It’s about how you judge an adversary’s psychology — and intentions.

Secretary of State John Kerry waits for a meeting with officials from P5+1, the European Union and Iran at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel in Lausanne on Tuesday.
REUTERS/Brendan Smialowski

There is one big question underlying years of torturous negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, which have dragged on this week past a March 31 deadline to settle on the framework of an agreement.

It’s not about the centrifuges used for refining nuclear material. Nor is it about the sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy, or the inspections aimed at ensuring Iran doesn’t build a nuclear weapon. 

Instead, it’s about a calculation that kings, presidents and diplomats have confronted for centuries. It comes down to how you judge an adversary’s psychology and intentions: Would an agreement encourage good behavior by Iran? Or would it reward bad behavior and encourage more of the same?

How you look at this question in large measure is a reflection of what you think the Islamic Republic is — and perhaps more important, where it’s headed — more than 35 years after its revolution.  That will be true regardless of how the current talks end.

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Is Iran still motivated by an extreme religious zealotry? How many people really mean it when they shout, “Death to America?” and “Death to Israel”? Or is it a country of sophisticated young people and savvy business types eager to at last become fully functioning citizens of the world? 

The obvious answer is that it’s a little of both. It would be just as foolish to assume that Iran is totally one way or the other as it would to conclude that the U.S. is 100 percent red or completely blue. But which tendency is likely to dominate?

Iran has cast the its approach at the negotiations as a matter of restoring its dignity, a formula that has helped sell the process both at home and with its negotiating partners.

But Iran has given the rest of the world plenty to worry about. And there are plenty of people worrying about it.

First of all, it concealed much of its nuclear program, and has had to be pressured virtually every step of the way. Even then, it’s not clear that the Iranians haven’t managed to hide something.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s concerns are very clear. To him, Iran is a threat to the very existent of his country and its people. He made that point amply in his speech to Congress a month ago.

Outside of Israel, though, much of the Middle East is almost equally suspicious

In Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab countries, it appears that the great rival Iran — Persian and Shiite — is already feeling emboldened and exhibiting plenty of bad behavior. Iran’s influence is strong in Iraq and growing. Through Shiite militias, it has taken an important role in the effort to recapture Saddam Hussein’s hometown, Tikrit. Shiite tribesmen are advancing in Yemen on Saudi Arabia’s southern fringe (There is some question about how deeply Iran is involved).

Backed by Iran, Syrian President Bashar Assad has managed to withstand a revolt by primarily Sunni rebels in a brutal civil war. And Iran is a strong backer of Hezbollah, which is a dominant force in Lebanon.

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Still smarting from its bitter experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. appears less likely to enforce order in the Middle East. Traditional allies are worried that, at minimum Washington won’t stand in Iran’s way – and in the worst of circumstances, over time it will reorient itself toward Iran, essentially recreating the alliance that existed before the shah was overthrown. 

So the Saudis are taking matters into their hands, launching a bombing campaign in Yemen. Egypt this past week led a push this past week for a joint Arab military force.

But there is another side to the argument.

First, the U.S. has big problems in the Sunni Arab world, too. They include the Saudis’ frequent willingness to ignore the excesses of Sunni extremist groups, if not actually encourage them, and the brutality of the Egyptian government.

Then, there is the question of what kind of country Iran might be in 10 years. The population is young; the leadership is aging. This is illustrated well in the third of five points included in this item from Time magazine.

Or, in the words of the New York Times’ Roger Cohen, arguing that a carefully crafted deal is in the United States’ best interest: “Iran is a hopeful and youthful society. Nurture the hope. Don’t imprison it.”

Even if there is a deal, no one expects we’ll all commence to live happily ever after.   Iran and the U.S. would be saddled over the next decade with a contentious relationship of finger-wagging, accusations, threats and posturing.

“It would not be pretty,” says Cohen. “In fact it would be ugly. There would be plenty of disagreements.”

But when you’re talking, you’re usually not fighting. The big bet is whether, at the end of a decade, it would be clear what kind of country Iran is – and whether it would be a substantially different place.