We’ve all been so busy patting ourselves on the back and speculating about a new Middle East that we’d forgotten entirely that the Iran nuclear deal must still be approved by the American Senate, and that such a thing is not a foregone conclusion. In the past week, beyond the usual Republican suspects, President Obama’s own Democrats have begun questioning its merits.
And New York state’s Chuck Schumer, one of the Senate’s top Democrats, just came out against it.
Senator Schumer’s argument focuses on the usual talking points: Iran cannot be trusted, verification cannot happen fast enough, and that there is such a thing as a better deal that could be gained if the U.S. turned the screws even tighter on Iran.
Alas, he’s dead wrong, but not because of his objections about the deal itself. Senator Schumer, like many of those who oppose the Iran deal, is reading the political tea leaves and completely missing the “geo” part – and that’s where he errs.
And now, le cliff notes.
- The United States is still a superpower, but it has finite amounts of military (hard) and diplomatic (soft) power.
- The U.S. has used up a great deal of its hard power over the past 14 years fighting two long guerilla wars; what hard power is still effective must be focused on an expansionist Russia and a rising China while keeping its remaining forces in reserve for a potential crisis not of America’s making. In other words, America, today, really can’t afford yet another war of choice.
- That means, in order to solve problems and manage regions, America must first turn to soft power, which the Obama administration has been rebuilding and refocusing after years of cowboy diplomacy under the Bush administration.
- But soft power is fragile: if people don’t believe in it, it disappears.
- Should the American Senate reject the Iran nuclear deal as negotiated now, it would be a decisive blow to American soft power, proving that U.S. diplomacy cannot solve world problems and that regional actors are better sorting themselves on their own.
So let’s take a step back from the deal’s details and look at the much wider, geopolitical picture.
Schumer and those like him focus heavily on the deal’s wording, and to be fair they do have a point. Iran will probably use its unfrozen assets to support Syria’s murderous dictator, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and its proxies in Iraq. It will probably continue to arm groups that seek to attack Israel. And it’s possible it’s playing for time and might carry out secret work towards building a nuclear weapon. Moreover, the deal doesn’t address its missile program that may one day yield an ICBM.
That being said, who cares?
Iran’s not gotten far in its proxy wars, and that won’t change once its assets are unfrozen.
Thus far, Iran’s proxies have managed only stalemates: as soon as they leave Shi’a territory, they are ground down or halted. Only the Yemeni Houthis have enjoyed a measure of success, but even they will find governing Yemen extremely difficult with Saudi Arabia and its allies waging war on them.
All Iran has succeeded in doing in each of these countries is dividing them or causing them to fail. That’s not a great track record for a would-be imperial power. (Source: Businessinsder.com)
No anti-Israeli proxies, from Hamas to Islamic Jihad to Hezbollah, are capable of taking and holding Israeli territory. Israeli hysterics aside, Iran cannot fund any force that can actually conquer an Israeli city.
If anything, the more money and arms Iran throws at such intractable problems, the weaker Iran grows in the long run, and the worse off the hardliners are in Tehran. Iran lacks the power to remake the Middle East into its Shi’a Islamist image, and the more its hardliners try to do so, the worse Iran will look.
Case in point is the Syrian civil war. Despite generous Iranian aid, Assad is no closer to reconquering his country: recent reports actually estimate his army has lost 50% of its soldiers to battle and desertion. This empowers Iranian moderates who suggest negotiation while making the hardliners and their ideas look impotent.
As for the ICBM problem, should Iran develop such a program, it would fit into the same category as North Korea, Russia, and China, and would be subject to mutually assured destruction. Months ago I made the case Iran is not crazy: that article is worth a second gander as to why a nation-state of millions will not willfully commit suicide.
Alright, so the world won’t get much worse under this deal. But why can’t America just bomb the nuclear program and be done with it?
The United States is a superpower, but it is not all-powerful. That’s a huge misconception amongst both Americans and everyone else on the planet. I regularly see comments in President Obama’s Facebook page where people beg Obama to come do this or that on their behalf, as if he were a god-king riding around on a chariot of fire all day dispensing favor and justice to whoever bows appropriately.
The best way to think about the limits of American power are illustrated in the film Brokedown Palace. If you get caught smuggling drugs in Thailand, the president can do all of dick for you. That very simple situation extends further outwards throughout the international arena: there are countries the president can get you out of from prison, and there are countries he cannot (or will not).
While the U.S. still has the strongest military in human history, it is still finite. After 14 years of wars, there are up to 1 million wounded veterans who need resources and state power to support. Combined, the two wars cost something around $4 to $6 trillion, which on the estimate’s high end is a third of America’s annual GDP. That’s not to mention the new war on the Islamic State, whose price tag will not be fully known for years.
The Risk metaphor is appropriate here. In the classic version, North America enjoys 5 armies per turn, which, if such a player can prevent anyone else from getting Europe, is a very secure position to be in. But if other players hold South America, which is worth 2 per turn, and Africa, which is worth 3 per turn, the North American player must commit to balance over blitzkrieg. To move too aggressively against one player might open up a flank to the other, allowing a deft foe to sweep in, break the North American player’s continent bonus, and conceivably finish them off.
While real world geopolitics is far more complicated, the principle is sound. The U.S. is not 50% of the world’s military power: it therefore cannot overcome its enemies solely through its military.
Both Russia and China pose very real threats to the American-led international order. Both of them require expensive bases and vast amounts of power to manage. In 2001, when the War on Terror began, Russia was still a mess and China’s economic miracle had yet to grow teeth. An American president could afford war back then. Today, Russia, while still deeply flawed, has returned to its traditional role as an Eastern European conqueror, while China seeks a new world role that may or may not be wholly aligned with America’s vision.
Which brings us to the merits of having a nuclear deal today.
A deal is an expression of American soft power, which the Obama administration has spent years rebuilding. Such a successful expression will make it easier to make more deals in the future. What’s remarkable about the Iran deal is just how unified the international community is on it: even rivals in Moscow and Beijing have signed up to it. Remember that against Russia and China, the U.S. cannot use hard power to secure itself, since that would lead to nuclear war. Rather, the more secure American soft power is, the more secure overall the country is against nuclear-armed competitors.
Reneging at the last minute on this deal will show Russia and China that American soft power is unreliable, even weak. It will encourage them to use hard power to press for their interests elsewhere: negotiating the Chinese out of the South China Sea and Russia out of Ukraine will be all the more difficult if the two believe the American president can’t be trusted. Once more, it can’t be said enough that America cannot fight wars against Russia or China.
Much has been made of the deal buying time for Iran, but the same can said for the United States. The U.S. needs time to rebuild its hard power and reorganize its military to deal with new threats. In 10 years, if Iran breaks the deal, the U.S. will be in a much better position to attack. That will be 10 years where it will have had the chance to repair the damage from the Great Recession, absorb the masses of veterans from the Afghan and Iraq Wars, and secure further alliances for a better war with Iran. Such a “better war” would involve Russia and/or China, who will be much easier to get on board should Iran be clearly the one who breaks the deal.
There’s been plenty of hysterics over “betraying” allies like Israel with this deal, specifically from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But one should consider allies further afield when thinking about dumping the deal: such an act will convince Europeans, Latin Americans, and East Asians that America is unable to negotiate on their behalf. They’ll feel an ever greater need to express their power without the U.S., who, having been proven to negotiate in bad faith, will see its influence shrink.
Such regional shenanigans lead to greater chaos. Europe was one of the bloodiest continents on Earth until American and Soviet armies divided it up and froze it in place after World War II. Imagine a Germany that decides it can’t trust the U.S. and comes to security arrangements on its own with China or Russia. Imagine Latin American countries opening up their markets to European and Asian countries but not the United States, fearful the American Senate will shoot down trade deals at the last minute. Suddenly, regional power blocs emerge that can threaten American power and prosperity.
Dear Senator Schumer: you clearly haven’t thought long and hard enough about it.
Forget the details of the deal itself; of course Iran can (and may) cheat, and of course Iran will still subsidize its proxies. But Iran cannot conquer the Middle East, and the U.S. can continue to contain Iran on the cheap with its still formidable alliance network.
Rather, the deal shores up badly-needed American soft power. As the 21st century unfolds, American soft power will decide how long the superpower remains super. (Barring someone finding a way to shoot down nukes 100% of the time, which would bring conventional war back to the forefront).
Reneging on the deal at the last minute is an unnecessary self-inflicted blow to American soft power. It undermines the international order the U.S. has worked so hard to build since 1945 and will embolden hardliners in China, Russia, and Iran, all of whom will see America as untrustworthy, weak or both.
Finally, the deal buys not just Iran time; it also gives America at least a decade to rearm and prepare for war. After using up so much of its power over the past 14 years, that’s a decade the U.S. sorely needs. If 2025 rolls around and Iran is run by the same hardliners unwilling to change, the U.S. will be in a much better position to fight them.
If America’s Congress does sink the nuclear deal, it will herald further international chaos. Let’s hope few follow Senator Schumer’s lead.