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‘Foreign Policy’ Editor: Nuke Deal that Doesn’t Halt Iran’s Regional Threat is “Serious Error”

Unfreezing billions of dollars worth of Iranian assets, a likely consequence of the nuclear negotiations with the Islamic Republic, will have the effect of exacerbating Iran’s “systematic, 35-year campaign of regional meddling, destabilization, and extension of … influence” that threatens the Middle East, David Rothkopf, editor of Foreign Policy, argued Thursday.

How much Iran actually will make off sanctions relief is unclear. But based on the calculation that its overseas assets (which will likely be unfrozen) will total north of $120 billion, and the equally reasonable estimate that Iran may gain in excess of $20 billion a year in oil revenues, you end up with a 15-year deal that would result in a relative gain of $420 billion.

To put this in perspective, Iran’s GDP in 2013 was roughly $370 billion. Or, to put it another way — relevant in the context of the kind of influence the cash might buy Iran in the region — its Syrian client state had a GDP of about $65 billion in 2011 before the crisis there heated up and devastated the country. Its would-be client Yemen has a GDP of about $36 billion. So the amounts in question would give Iran the means to not only shore up its own weak economy, but also to extend its influence, buy weapons, and underwrite terrorist groups to an even greater extent than it has been doing throughout the period the country has felt the squeeze of sanctions. (Iran is estimated to have given tens of billions of dollars to Syria during the period in question, despite the financial pressures on its own people and economy.) …

The problem is compounded by the fact that Iran’s nuclear program is not viewed by its neighbors as the main threat the country poses. A systematic, 35-year campaign of regional meddling, destabilization, and extension of Iranian influence is seen as a much bigger issue. And restoring cash flows and assets to Iran, as well as giving the country greater international standing, clearly exacerbates that threat. It gives Tehran the wherewithal to continue to underwrite terrorists like Hezbollah and Hamas, prop up dictators like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and buy ever greater influence in places like Iraq and Yemen.

Rothkopf observed that this past week, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi “read from Iranian talking points when addressing the conflict in Yemen,” and that Arab leaders view al-Abadi as “an adversary” who is “closer to Iran than to the United States or any other state in the neighborhood.” This, Rothkopf wrote, illustrates “why focusing on the Iran nuclear deal without simultaneously addressing Iran’s regional threat is a serious error.”

Rothkopf’s essay also asks if Iran should be getting sanctions relief in the first place. Rothkopf said that he is in favor of a deal with Iran in principle, and agrees that sanctions relief is an appropriate response for ending Iran’s nuclear program, but not “for simply putting a program on hold.” In addition to the problem of giving Iran sanctions relief absent a change in its aggressive behavior, giving Iran sanctions relief for just freezing its nuclear program in place risks regional nuclear proliferation.

Further, the goal of the negotiations was originally to eliminate the threat of regional proliferation. Certainly sanctions relief would be warranted if the end result of the negotiations did that. But this deal does not. Leaving Iran one year away from a weapon sends a message to every potential adversary without such a weapon that this is precisely where they must be. In other words, this deal is not an antidote to proliferation; it is a road map and an impetus to the spread of near proliferation. Consequently, this deal could actually enhance the risk of proliferation.

Rothkopf’s arguments echo last week’s Wall Street Journal op-ed written by former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, who argued that a nuclear deal with Iran without a change in Iran’s behavior would destabilize the Middle East. Olli Heinonen, the former deputy director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, earlier this month warned that problems with the announced parameters for a nuclear deal with Iran would make enforcement difficult and risked Middle East nuclear proliferation.

[Photo: Bundesministerium für Europa, Integration und Äusseres / Flickr ]