For those Americans, diplomats and wonks following the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (CJPoA) over Iran’s nuclear program agreed on July 14, attention has now shifted from Vienna to Washington, to the next scene in this tortuous strategic drama over nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. Pouring over the deal, specialists are this week passing their judgment in the first exchanges over what promises to be a heated and complex debate over the next two months that will shift in confusing ways between detail and strategic political assertion.
Narratives are being crafted to persuade members of Congress before they vote on the deal. Those against will highlight its shortcomings, possible loopholes that a malevolent Iran will exploit to achieve threshold status, regain access to their money currently frozen in accounts, and to bully their neighbours. Those in favour will follow the President’s lead and claim that the best involves draconian caps on Iran’s activities, and is superior to any alternative course of action. Many will highlight the ability within the deal for the United States to keep the screws on Iran and force them to comply, with the threat of snap-back sanctions.
If the deal is rejected by the US Congress because of Republican hubris, there will be incomprehension across the world outside of Israel and the Gulf states, a public diplomacy disaster for the United States and its non-proliferation agenda. For if the US Congress rejects this extraordinary deal it will demonstrate that amongst those opposing the deal there was never any intention to support negotiations except as a tactic to rope in global alliances against Iran. It will show sanctions not as a tactic to force negotiation, but rather as a punishment and humiliation, a tool for regime change.
The European allies will find it hard to stay alongside, and the Russians and Chinese will implement the agreement regardless. Unity will fall apart, and there could be a high risk of contagion of resistance to other parts of the non-proliferation regime. Many NPT member states are already deeply frustrated with a regime increasingly seen as a tool to freeze power relationships in the interests of the nuclear weapon states. They accuse the weapons possessors of being interested only in pulling up the drawbridge and on building ever-more intrusive measures to inspect and to punish those states unlucky enough to join a treaty that punishes those who had failed to develop nuclear weapons before 1967. A rejection of this deal by Congress would confirm the view of many states that the Americans are an unreasonable, unreliable partner in developing and enforcing a regime in a fair manner.
This deal, concluded in very specific circumstances, will be seen by many as a potential model for strengthening of a non-proliferation regime that so far has been severely hampered by the inconvenience of national sovereignty (except of course after defeat of Iraq in 1991). But there is a problem with this approach that we would do well to pay close attention to.
There is already a danger that some within the majority world will see the deal itself as a Great Leap Forward not for fairness in non-proliferation, but for the established nuclear weapon states in forcing another NPT signatory state back into its box and endorse the most stringent inspections system ever accepted. The deal follows on the heels of an NPT Review Conference that ended in failure largely because Israel was not prepared to engage in a cooperative process with the long term aim of establishing a Middle East free of nuclear weapons and other WMD, and because the nuclear weapon states are incapable of moving toward a world free of nuclear weapons. These are both symptoms of a deeper malaise – that some states, particularly ourselves and our close allies, appear to many to jump quickly into strategies of coercion, using international institutions to protect our national interests at the expense of the wider system.
There are similarities here to manner in which the Greeks have been forced to back down in their challenge to a coercive group of creditors and swallow a pill even the IMF has judged to be so draconian as to destroy the Greek economy.
Parents are increasingly understand that when you resort to punishment early you teach children the values of violence and threat in their everyday experiences. Many governments have recently been learning that in providing public services domestically it is most effective to move away from a ‘delivery’ model to one characterised by co-creation of those services with citizens, and sometimes with private providers rooted within the community. That is to say, citizens and the communities within which they live are essential partners in realising the policies governments seek to enact. This is even more obvious in an age of devolved and distributed power, especially in situations of complexity and peer-to-peer relations. When dealing between governments that make up the international community it ought to be all the clearer that coercion will lead to blow-back in the longer run and destroy all chances of the collaboration essential to cope with the global challenges that are emerging.
This nuclear deal is a good one for an international community that desperately needs strong assurance when it comes to nuclear non-proliferation. But it is also deeply flawed. Just not in the way those criticising it in the United States would have us believe. If we draw the lesson that we achieve compliance with discriminatory and frozen power structures through coercion of ‘rogue states’, it will be a short-lived victory, one that will encourage stronger challenges from more powerful states in future. The deal gives us a temporary breathing space with which to draw Iran into a cooperative relationship beyond the nuclear sphere, to address regional proxy wars involving Syria, ISIL and Hezbollah, a regional nuclear and WMD-free zone, and wider security and economic cooperation. But equally importantly it challenges us to establish a different, more cooperative project to construct an inclusive, co-created international society based upon deeply attractive values – freedom, democracy, the rule of law – that make up our most powerful (soft power) assets that are so often undermined by our own exceptionalism, lack of confidence and cowardly willingness to resort far too early to the use or threat of force.
This article was first published on the Huffington Post blog on 17 July 2015.