Let’s do a little role-playing.
Imagine for a moment that you’re Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran. You’ve signed off on an agreement with your archenemy, the United States, and other world powers to limit your nuclear program. Now you’re watching to see if the ‘Great Satan’ follows through.
You know there is vehement opposition among the Republicans running to replace President Obama in a year and a half. Many members of Obama’s own party have serious doubts, as well, but the Democrats’ frontrunner, Hillary Rodham Clinton, is strongly in favor. Congress has a Sept. 17 deadline to act. While Obama may well be able to prevent it from killing the deal, at least through a veto, a vast lobbying and advertising campaign is under way. Implementation is no sure thing.
So what are you thinking? Let’s try to puzzle it out.
Obama regards you as a deeply anti-Semitic, someone who would harm Israel if you could. But he also thinks you’re able to rationally calculate what you can and cannot do to advance Iran’s interests.
Despite your bombastic rhetoric and your lofty title, in some ways you’re quite cautious. You’ve never had the prestige or authority of your predecessor, Ayatollah Khomeini, and you’ve stayed on top for quarter of a century by expertly balancing reformers and hardliners within Iran. Throughout the long negotiations over the nuclear deal, you kept the other side guessing whether you could actually swallow it. And even now, you’re being circumspect.
It’s clear that many Iranians welcome the deal if it might mean the end of economic sanctions and isolation. And there are signs that public criticism of the agreement is being muted. If someone formally kills the deal, it’s probably not going to be you.
If it does go through, there still will be plenty of finger-pointing and angry disagreements. No one is pretending that Iran and the U.S. still will be anything other than adversaries.
But you’ll be on the hook to give up most of your stockpile of enriched uranium and submit to intrusive inspections for a number of years. You’ll get relief from sanctions, a chance to rebuild the economy, and after a few years, you’ll be able to buy conventional weapons on the world market.
If you want it, you can use billions in oil revenue, your newfound freedom and prestige to pursue your biggest strategic objective — challenging the Saudis and other Sunni Arabs for a dominant role in the Middle East.
But you’ll also want to give the hardliners in the clergy and military, the ‘Death to America’ crowd, something. Will you cheat on the deal? Maybe, but just around the edges, enough to see how thorough the inspectors are – but not enough to blow up the agreement if you get caught.
You’ll also be tempted for the time being to give them a freer hand in the regional conflicts against the Sunnis and perhaps encourage Hezbollah in Lebanon to keep Israel on edge. But here, too, it pays to be cautious.
After more than four years of fighting in neighboring Syria, things are not going well for your ally, President Bashar Assad. If he finally fell, it would weaken your position throughout the region. You especially don’t want to see the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State get any stronger in Syria and Iraq, and you’ve started exploring the possibility of a diplomatic solution for Syria. So are the Americans, the Saudis and the Russians.
Now, what if the Americans back out of the deal?
First of all, the leaders of the reform movement, including President Hassan Rouhani, are politically dead. Hardliners will demand that society unify behind them. You’ll let them crack down on deviations from social or moral orthodoxy, and you’ll probably let them be somewhat more aggressive in the region.
It was your country’s behavior on non-nuclear issues cited Saturday by Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, one of the few Republicans Obama hoped might support the deal, in announcing his opposition.
Obama warned earlier this month that the alternative to this agreement – sooner or later – would be war. Republicans presidential candidates generally line up with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who insists this is a bad deal, and that you would be more accommodating after even harsher penalties are imposed.
But why would you rush to finish making a bomb now? Best U.S. intelligence estimates are that you’re only a few months away, if you so choose. You’re still close, and you haven’t had to give up anything. Whether you ultimately take the final steps probably depends on an array of external factors, including whether you’re feeling threatened.
In the meantime, you don’t get sanctions relief, but you can blame that on the Americans. The Russians and Chinese will be interested in doing business, as will plenty of European corporations – even if their governments aren’t crazy about it. So you get a bit of cake, and can eat it, too.
Unless you really mess up, it will be very hard for the Americans to get international backing for tougher sanctions. And you’re certainly not going back to the bargaining table to offer the Americans a better deal than the one they just rejected.