Nixon’s opening to China, which began in 1972 – a diplomatic marvel that began the West’s eventual victory during the Cold War – was preceded by three years of hostility between the world’s two communist superpowers.
In On China, Henry Kissinger recalls how, during the summer of 1969, Soviet troops on the border with China grew to forty-two divisions (around one million men), with all signals pointing to the possibility of a pre-emptive Soviet attack on Chinese nuclear installations. Remarkably, it became in the national interest of the United States to ensure the survival of a major communist power, contrary to the public policy of a generation.
Some point to the rapprochement that occurred between China and the United States in the 1970s as an historical analogy to the future of relations between the West and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The freshly unveiled nuclear deal is seen as analogous to what occurred between Richard Nixon and Chairman Mao. While I believe this comparison to be misguided, I think that the Iranian nuclear deal is a piece of masterful diplomacy, but Iran’s current regional ambitions must also be countered, before any thawing of hostilities can commence.
The deal itself is the best possible outcome that the West could have hoped for. Hawkish opponents of the deal argue along two lines: that an escalation of sanctions and a firmer diplomatic position would have forced a more submissive Iranian posture, or that a “viable” military option would not end in a regional disaster.
Both arguments are intrinsically flawed. The agreement allows for unprecedented access to the front end of Iran’s nuclear activities for 25 years. The “breakout” time for an Iranian nuclear device (the time it would take to enrich around 25 kilograms of uranium-235 to a level sufficient for weaponisation) is still a source of great concern if Iran decides to weaponise – a threat accurately described by Benjamin Netanyahu in his speech to the United Nations in 2012, despite mockery of the crude drawing he had in tow.
However, as Aaron Stein points out in War on the Rocks, the historical inability of the United States to detect clandestine enrichment facilities has one exception: Iran. This points to the penetration of Iran’s nuclear activities by intelligence services. The agreement, despite its flaws, leaves nothing to trust in this regard.
The level of Iranian submission in this deal was remarkably successful, not solely from an Anglo-American point of view. That the deal also encompassed China and Russia – two powers with which the West is currently on mixed terms (given the situations in both Ukraine and the South China Sea) – is a diplomatic achievement not to be sneezed at.
An Anglo-American war with Iran would be a far larger disaster than this deal. Barry Buzan and Ana Gonzalez-Pelaez rightly note that the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 “massively, if not fatally” tarnished the ideal of humanitarian intervention in the region. It’s impossible to imagine that any so-called “surgical strike” on Iranian nuclear facilities would be either successful, or end in something that did not resemble regional implosion.
In truth, critics of the deal point to Iran’s current activities across the Middle East and North Africa: mainly their coordination with, and funding of, anti-Western, anti-Sunni, and anti-Israeli militias, as a sign that any Iranian equanimity to the deal is a sign of foreboding treachery.
While these activities should be of immense concern to policy makers (I’ve written about this previously), there’s no reason to believe that the issues are necessarily linked. The countering of Shiite militias is not an appropriate part of discussions about a complex and historically clandestine nuclear program.
This deal could push Iran towards its “Burma moment”. Steely-eyed caution, rather than hope, should govern the monitoring of its future activities. Diplomacy, it should be said, must begin with something, rather than everything.
As Charles Stevenson writes in War on the Rocks:
“Of course, Congress can say no to the Iran deal. But critics owe us an honest assessment of the risks of war if the deal is voted down. Instead, they pretend that somehow a “better deal” can be had from the collapse of international sanctions and the removal of restraints and international inspections — the things that prevent an Iranian bomb today.”
Joseph Power is the former Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.
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Image Credit: David Holt (Flickr: Creative Commons)