Could an Iran Nuclear Deal Transform Relations with America?

For some, nothing could be more frightening.

Amos Harel, national-security reporter for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, describes the Israeli perspective this way:

Israel’s idea is that Iran is the evil force in the region—and since they see Obama as naïve about the Middle East they doubt he will challenge the Iranians. Once nukes are off the table then the assumption is there might be some joint understanding between the Iranians and the Americans.

In order to achieve greater accommodation with Iran, the United States could provide less unqualified support to Israel and approach the region with greater even-handedness.

This could manifest itself in stronger pressure on Israel to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, diminished backing for Israeli military adventurism or greater acceptance of Iranian influence in the region. With Obama focused on the so-called Asian pivot, a deal with Iran would also be yet another piece of evidence that America and Israel’s interests in the region are moving in divergent directions.

All these factors—the various Israeli fears about the terms of a nuclear deal and about the geopolitical implications of a deal—mean that, for the Israeli leadership, the preferred outcome is failure. Same goes for Israel’s hawkish allies in the United States. This may help explain recent efforts in Washington to either derail a deal or potentially scuttle it down the road.

Yet even with all these powerful forces arrayed against an agreement, that doesn’t mean talks are doomed. In Iran, for example, the calculation on talks has evolved. While there remain those who want no agreement at all there is today a relative consensus that a deal is needed to throw off the yoke of crippling economic sanctions, which have caused enormous hardship in Iran. Inflation has skyrocketed. Unemployment has risen to 10-15 percent and by some estimates, might be double that amount, and the economy shrank by nearly 6 percent last year. This has transformed the cost-benefit analysis for Iranian leaders. So while hardliners will not accept a bad deal, they are far more willing to go along with an agreement than they were just a few years ago.

The challenge for hardliners will be to limit the impact. They are fine with having a fling with the West, but they’re not interested in a long-term relationship.

If an agreement is reached at some point in the future, “Khamenei and his allies in the Revolutionary Guard will seek to build a firewall against better relations with the West and in particular the United States,” says Javedanfar. Israel will likely take a similar position—decrying a deal while pointing out Iran’s continued destabilizing behavior elsewhere in the region. To that end, they will get plenty of support from their allies in the United States—and ironically, their sworn enemies in the Arab world, like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.

While hardliners in Iran, Israel and the United States might find themselves with little choice but to accept a nuclear deal, they will be working tooth and nail to make sure that’s as far as things go.

Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation. This article was published in collaboration with The American Foreign Policy Project.