The nuclear deal that the U.S., France, Germany, Britain, Russia and China are now negotiating with Iran is one Washington should accept. It’s certainly not perfect. Iran won’t completely scrap its nuclear program. The agreement would extend Iran’s “breakout time”–the estimated time the country would need from scrapping the deal to building a bomb–from two to three months to one year. The history of Iran’s nuclear program says it will cheat, and inspectors won’t catch every violation. In fact, Tehran may already have started, reportedly growing a nuclear stockpile it had promised to freeze. U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia hate the deal, as do many members of Congress, and the Saudis will respond to the lifting of Iranian sanctions with an independent agenda that will stir up even more trouble in the Middle East.
Yet there are several reasons this agreement is better than any available alternative. Some deal opponents refuse to accept anything short of Iran’s total surrender. That’s not an achievable goal. Iran has come to the table because sanctions and the loss of access to international capital markets have forced the country there. Though sanctions will be intensified in the short term if Iran balks, the country can’t be isolated forever. Russia and China won’t allow it, and eventually, even support from U.S. allies for sanctions will erode. Iran will never feel more pain than it feels now–which is why now is the best time to extract from Tehran whatever concessions can be had.
Israel and the Saudis fiercely oppose the deal, but the U.S. should care more that Germany, France and the U.K. have helped broker it. Over time, European allies will have a much larger impact on U.S. security and prosperity than Israel or Saudi Arabia will. The U.S. revolution in domestic energy production helps Washington resist Saudi pressure to act in the Saudis’ rather than the U.S.’s interests. And though the U.S. will continue to care deeply about Israel, the Israelis can deter aggression from Iran without further U.S. help.
Then there’s the oil angle. As sanctions are lifted, Iran’s oil will return to market, putting more downward pressure on global prices. That will undermine the efforts of Gulf Arab oil producers to pressure Washington into costly, risky entanglements in the Middle East. It will also squeeze Vladimir Putin’s Russia, a country that continues to depend on energy exports for half of state revenue and is a much bigger potential threat to U.S. interests than Iran.
Critics say Iran will help terrorists gain nuclear material. But most of the world’s jihadis are Sunni Muslims. Why seek weapons from Shi’ite Iran when they can go to Pakistan or cash-starved North Korea? A stronger Iran will have more money to spend on militant groups like Hizballah and Hamas and to prop up Syrian President Bashar Assad, but that can’t be prevented forever, and the added revenue might also help Iran combat ISIS.
But instead of continuing to focus on Iran’s nukes, Washington should focus on Iran’s more dangerous weapons. In 2009–10, a virus known as Stuxnet inflicted significant damage on Iran’s ability to enrich uranium. Many experts believe that since that time, Iran has made substantial progress in developing its own cybercapabilities, with attacks on targets that are believed to include Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company.
Even if Iran one day builds a nuclear weapon, it’s unlikely to use it, for the same reason that Washington and Moscow avoided the use of nuclear weapons throughout the Cold War. Despite sometimes over-the-top rhetoric from Iran’s leaders, there’s no reason to believe they’re suicidal. Cyberweapons are another matter: unlike a nuclear attack, they can be used with deniability. As the U.S. and its allies hash out what could be a historic deal, they should worry less about a weapon Iran will never use and focus instead on the weapons it’s already believed to be using.
Foreign-affairs columnist Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy
This appears in the June 15, 2015 issue of TIME.
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