One may see the nuclear agreement with Iran as the product of a faulty premise and still respect the industry of US Secretary of State John Kerry and his team in arriving at respectable terms consistent with that premise. One may see the prospect of a regionally aggressive Iran soon to be flush with cash as alarming and still—given the positions of Washington’s closest allies and the international community in general—counsel Congress to show solidarity with the commander-in-chief. What really matters at this point is that the United States and its partners pivot from their exclusive focus on closing the nuclear deal to address Iranian behavior that makes the battle against the so-called Islamic State (ISIL or ISIS) something between difficult and impossible.
The premise has been that Iran, left to its own devices, will field nuclear weapons, and that a nuclear-armed Iran would be exponentially more dangerous to its neighbors and to the region than it is now. Two years of track two discussions with senior, well-informed Iranian interlocutors have convinced me that this is not the case.
My Iranian interlocutors—hardliners and pragmatists alike—were gratified by Tehran’s accomplishments in Syria and elsewhere, in particular the preservation in Damascus of a regime completely in the service of Iran’s Lebanese militia: Hezbollah. They noted that Iran’s successful intervention in Syria had been accomplished without a nuclear arsenal. They pointed out that having such an arsenal would encourage their enemies to go nuclear. A thoroughly nuclearized region could complicate an aggressive Iranian policy of armed intervention by potentially turning every intervention into a nuclear crisis.
To give credence to this line of reasoning is not to trust the words of people carefully selected to speak to Americans. It is not the same thing as assigning canonical qualities to the anti-nuclear weapons fatwa of the Supreme Leader. It is certainly not to deny that considerable effort and progress were made by Iran to bring it to the brink of nuclearization; to make it able to “break out” and field nuclear weapons in a matter of a very few months.
No, to give credence to the words of Iranians in this matter requires only putting oneself in their position. Absent a credible threat of regime change imposed by outsiders, does it really make sense to do something that would most probably oblige Saudis, Turks, and others to do the same thing? Would a thoroughly nuclearized region make it harder or easier for Iran to pursue an aggressively interventionist agenda?
If the agreement reached is implemented accurately, Iran will forfeit for a decade or more its mini-break out insurance policy against external regime change adventurism. No doubt, its leaders have concluded that conditions inspiring regime change concerns in 2003 no longer obtain in 2015 and are not likely to arise in the foreseeable future. Tehran is therefore now in a position to accept payment—in the form of sanctions relief—in return for formalizing arrangements that would oblige it to take steps consistent with an outcome it finds desirable: no hand-tying regional nuclear proliferation.
Having embraced the premise that Iran was hell-bent on going nuclear and that the only alternative to a negotiated agreement would be military intervention, John Kerry, his European colleagues, and his team seem to have arrived at a respectable set of terms. As Israel considers its own reaction to the diplomatic outcome arrived at in Vienna, it too must take into account its complete investment in the premise and the availability of plausible alternatives to that which has been wrought diplomatically. For Congress the same considerations apply.
One can question the premise underlying this herculean diplomatic undertaking and the suitability of the terms at which negotiators arrived. Surely, a close congressional examination is in order. In the end, however, President Barack Obama—for better or worse—has committed the United States to a course of action that will attract broad international endorsement, thereby making the sustaining of international sanctions difficult should Congress succeed in derailing administration diplomacy.
Although Congressional review is of great importance, what is absolutely mandatory is that the United States, its allies, and its partners shift gears instantly to counter Iran’s profoundly negative impact on the war against ISIL. Although Tehran’s embrace of violently sectarian Shia militias in Iraq is a gift to ISIL that keeps on giving, it is its material support of Bashar al-Assad’s criminality in Syria that breathes oxygen into the lungs of the pseudo-caliph and his Iraqi Baathist enablers.
The administration has been reluctant to table Tehran’s facilitation of mass murder in Syria so long as the nuclear talks were ongoing. This reluctance must cease forthwith. Iran has it in its power to force Assad to abandon the barrel bombing and starvation sieges that boost ISIL recruitment both internationally and within Syria. Iran has the leverage to oblige the regime and its Potemkin government to deal seriously with United Nations Special Envoy Steffan de Mistura and with the political transition process mandated by the Geneva Final Communique of June 2012.
John Kerry, his European colleagues, and his skilled negotiating team (featuring Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, and NSC Staff Senior Director Rob Malley) deserve top marks for their persistence, patience, and remarkable professionalism. But now is the time for the United States to engage Tehran intensively as the administration considers concrete steps to protect civilians in Syria, thereby setting the stage for the defeat of ISIL. Regardless of what one thinks of the nuclear agreement or the premise underlying it, that which is of transcendent importance now is that Iran’s support of mass homicide in Syria be effectively countered by the United States, its allies, and its partners. The battle against ISIL depends on it.
Frederic C. Hof is a Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.