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#4902, 27 July 2015

Voice from America

The Iran Deal: Is it Hard to Resist?
Amit Gupta
Associate Professor, Department of International Security, USAF Air War College, Alabama

After much pain and negotiation, the P5+1 and Iran have reached a nuclear deal. Inevitably, the Republicans, along with a set of strange bedfellows consisting of Israel, the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, and even some Democrats, are questioning the agreement because they are suspicious of Iranian intentions.

The deal’s opponents argue that it does not roll back the Iranian nuclear program and it endangers America’s allies—most notably Israel and Saudi Arabia—and it encourages Iranian expansionism and support for terrorism.  The debate, however, ignores the realities on the ground in the Middle East and in the broader international system.  

First, nowhere in the American debate is it acknowledged that Israel has nuclear weapons along with reliable delivery systems.  What we have, therefore, is not a weak, defenseless Israel but, instead, a situation where Jerusalem not only has a deterrent but also the ability to deliver a guaranteed second strike against Iran.  Moreover, unlike India, Israel can, and does, take steps to deter unconventional aggression (terrorism).  Thus the Israelis carry out targeted assassinations and retaliatory strikes against non-state actors to prevent future terrorist activity.

Second, the problem for the Israelis is that for some time they have been threatening to take unilateral action against Iran but lack the ability to do so. They lack the logistical and Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to undertake a strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.  Such support would have to come from the US and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has done a good job of alienating US President Barack Obama.  

Third, Saudi Arabia, which wants to fight a Sunni-Shia religious war against Iran, on its own, cannot sustain a conventional military battle against Tehran and needs foreign military labour—Pakistani and American—to do so. Hence both Saudi Arabia and Israel are desperately trying to egg on the US to go to war.  

Fourth, the American population has war fatigue and has no stomach for a military invasion and subsequently a potential occupation of Iran.  Fifteen years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan has taken away the appetite for such a conflict.

Republicans like John Sidney McCain and Lindsay Olin Graham blithely talk of placing troops all over the Middle East without asking the American people what they want.  The answer is that while the American people will support a short bombing campaign, they are far less enthusiastic about putting boots on the ground.  The latter point is important since Americans now realise that in the short to medium term they will not be exiting Iraq or Afghanistan.  Occupying and subsequently sitting in Iran for a decade has very little appeal to the American public.

Fifth, the US cannot afford another drawn out war and neither can its European allies.  The long-term bill for Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Nobel Prize winning economist Joe Stiglitz, is upwards of $3 trillion and another war would have severely adverse financial consequences.  Further, the debate in America is now about the growing economic inequality in the country and the fact that it will require a reallocation of funds, from defence to social and economic programs, to address this issue.  

Nor will the allies step up to the plate.  Iraq was a popular war for the allies since they had few causalities—Britain was a notable exception. But with high casualties, the allies’ commitment begins to weaken.  The Canadians, for example, lost 157 troops in Afghanistan and decided to withdraw because a higher level of casualties would have been unacceptable to Canadian public opinion.  In the Libya, campaign NATO ran out of precision-guided munitions and had to use F-16s because the US could provide the needed weaponry.  Add to this the fact that most of the NATO countries have aging populations that need expensive health care and wasting money of defence and external adventures does not remain as a viable option.

Sixth, at a cynical level, there is an economic window of opportunity that opens up with the Iran deal.  The Gulf states and Saudi Arabia, none of whom can independently or collectively take on Iran, will seek to buy more American weaponry so as to strengthen Washington’s security guarantees to these countries.  Further, as Iran begins to pump oil, analysts expect the price of petroleum to fall by as much as $10 a barrel thus giving major relief to the economies of the world.

Two alternatives, therefore, emerge for American foreign policy vis-à-vis Iran:

Ratify the agreement and work diplomatically to expand Iran’s engagement with the world. Or, reject the agreement, denounce Iran, and get it to move forward on the path to nuclear weapons.  If the latter happens, there is no guarantee that the other members of P5+1 will stand with Washington.  

Amit Gupta is an Associate Professor in the Department of International Security Studies at the USAF Air War College in Montgomery, Alabama.  The views in this article are his and do not necessarily reflect those of the USAF or the Department of Defense.

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