A deal over Iran’s nuclear program has just moved from being a hypothetical to an established fact.
Does the world look like a different place today? And if so, how?
Reaching an agreement, as agonizing as the negotiations were, is not the same thing as implementing it, of course. Even with the best of intentions (not a given), that will take time. It will depend heavily on people who were not represented at the table. President Obama will be long out of office and Iran’s aging supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, may well be dead before all the restrictions are lifted on his country’s nuclear program.
But if you’re making policy in Jerusalem or Riyadh (or Moscow, Berlin or Pyongyang, for that matter) the fact that Americans and Iranians were able to sit across from each other for months and finally agree might well change your outlook and your calculations.
You’ll want to see exactly how rocky the rollout will be. There certainly will be hiccups. And you’ll be keeping a very close eye on the next U.S. presidential election. The Republican candidates are uniformly skeptical, and Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton has a reputation of being relatively tough on foreign policy. But a policy that’s in place — particularly if all parties are more or less doing what they said they’d do — creates its own momentum, and can be difficult to reverse.
Let’s briefly try to get inside the heads of some of world leaders who might be watching this most carefully to see how it looks to them.
Benjamin Netanyahu: The Israeli prime minister’s opposition to the deal has been consistent and vehement. That won’t change. Even before it was formally announced, Netanyahu denounced it as an “historic mistake.” For him and many in Israel, this is a matter of Israel’s security, and possibly of its very survival. Since the agreement is about Iran’s nuclear program, it does not prevent the Islamic Republic from continuing to support for organizations like Hezbollah, which the United States, Israel and a number of others regard as a terrorist organization. In the longer term, he fears, it will free a country whose leaders have called for the destruction of Israel to pursue nuclear capability.
There is a more subtle question for Israeli society as a whole. The agreement emphasizes Israel’s estrangement from the Obama administration and a growing international isolation largely due to Netanyahu’s security policies. Does it draw further inward to protect itself? Or does it rethink those policies, look to shore up traditional alliances and build new ones?
King Salman of Saudi Arabia: For the Saudis, the most important thing is the regional conflict between the two main branches of Islam. The Saudis and other Sunni-dominated Arab states compete with Shiite Iran for influence across a highly unstable arc of the Middle East that includes Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Iran ships arms to Syria President Bashar Assad; Saudi Arabia wants him gone. Iran is closely allied with Iraq’s Shiite-led government. Saudi Arabia is deeply concerned about the mistreatment of Iraq’s Sunni minority. The Saudis are uncomfortable with what appears to them to be, at minimum, a U.S. disengagement from the Middle East, and at the worst a potential realignment toward Iran. Under Salman, instead of counting on Washington, they have taken military action across their border in Yemen against the Houthis, a rebel group they believe to be influenced by Iran.
In their worries about U.S. disengagement or realignment, the Saudis actually might find some common ground with Netanyahu. The bigger question is whether the Saudis are so concerned about Iran that they pursue their own nuclear weapon. They certainly have the money and expertise.
Vladimir Putin: Unlike Netanyahu or Salman, the Russian president was represented at the negotiations with Iran. Moscow praised the agreement. The talks certainly reinforced one very important point. Under Obama, the United States is much more focused on diplomacy than military action. So if Putin needed any more reassurance the Obama would stay out of the Ukraine conflict, he got it.
The deal probably looks pretty good for other reasons, as well. Russia wants to be able to sell arms to Iran, and is well positioned to do so. The lifting of an embargo on conventional weapons was one of the final sticking points. Iran did not win an immediate end to it. Instead, it will be phased in, so both sides can foresee a point when arms sales can begin. Further, Russia has a large Muslim minority and its own concerns about violence spilling over from the Middle East. To the extent that it is worried that Al Qaeda or the Islamic State, both Sunni groups, are making inroads in its Caucasus region, strengthening Shiite Iran probably looks like a good idea.
Angela Merkel: The German chancellor and other European leaders are concerned about stability in the Middle East. But for a region that is struggling economically, the implications of this deal are very big. Bringing Iran back into the world market will tend to push down prices for petroleum imports. In addition, European businesses are much better situated than Americans to fill Iran’s pent-up demand for equipment to modernize its oil and gas industry. And if Iran fully rejoins the world economy, there will be big, new market for consumer goods. European businesses will be eager to get their share.
Kim Jong Un: This is a bit of a stretch, but it’s interesting to consider. Sitting in Pyongyang, you’ve probably noticed something interesting about the United States in recent months. First, there was the rapprochement with Cuba. Now there’s the agreement with Iran. If the U.S. can start to patch up those relationships, might there be a way to talk to North Korea, as well? You might well conclude that for your own political survival, you need to keep the U.S. as an enemy. But if not…?
Even if they’re not exactly miracles, some surprising things have been happening.