In his celebrated address to both houses of the US Congress on March 3, 2015, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu castigated the looming agreement on Iran's nuclear program in these words: "Now we're being told that the only alternative to this bad deal is war. That's just not true. The alternative to this bad deal is a much better deal." Given Netanyahu's clear analysis of Iran's aims and methods, however, one might conclude that even better would be no deal, but just to continue pressure on Iran until it abandons its nuclear program, its long-range missile programs and its designs on other Middle East countries.
To draw such a conclusion openly would not have suited an occasion on which the Israeli Prime Minister was seeking maximum consensus and minimum controversy. But that conclusion is demanded by two considerations. Both featured in a warning issued by none other than Saudi Prince Turki Al-Faisal in an interview with the BBC on March 16.
First of all, insisted the prince, "I've always said whatever comes out of these talks, we will want the same. So if Iran has the ability to enrich uranium to whatever level, it's not just Saudi Arabia that's going to ask for that. The whole world will be an open door to go that route without any inhibition, and that's my main objection to this P5+1 process."
But also, he added, "Iran is already a disruptive player in various scenes in the Arab world, whether it's Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, or Bahrain. So ending fear of developing weapons of mass destruction is not going to be the end of the troubles we're having with Iran."
The crucial point is that even if the P5+1 (the US, Russia, China, the UK and France, plus Germany) succeed in overcoming the prince's "main objection," the current negotiations do not address his second complaint at all. Even if, as the US Administration ceaselessly assures us, Iran's drive to acquire nuclear weapons can be frustrated for a while, any relaxation of the current economic sanctions will be used to finance Iran's other drive: its quest for regional hegemony.
That quest currently has a lot going for it. Moreover, the P5+1 governments do not grasp the dimensions of the quest because they are unaware of the fundamentals of Iranian national consciousness.
Every proud Farsi-speaking Iranian grows up conscious of being the heir to two great empires. One of them, the Persian Empire of Cyrus, is known to whoever still read their Bibles. It stretched to the Aegean coast and included modern Israel. Cambyses, the son of Cyrus, added Egypt; thus it remained until overthrown by Alexander the Great.
The second, the Sasanian Empire, is probably unknown to the P5+1 negotiators, but its map more closely corresponds to the dreams of the ayatollahs. It lasted for 400 years before falling victim to the early Muslim conquests. To the east, it incorporated parts of modern Pakistan; to the north, parts of Afghanistan as well as Azerbaijan and Armenia; to the west, Iraq and much of Syria. It further included the entire coast of the (appropriately named) Persian Gulf, all the way to Oman. Oh yes, and in the 570's it also acquired Yemen, which Iran is currently taking over via its sponsorship of the Houthis.
Those were its typical boundaries. Its collapse was due to a late attempt to recreate the empire of Cyrus by seizing territory from the Byzantine Empire (the striped area shown here). The Byzantines drove them back, but the massive losses in battle made both sides into easy targets for the unexpected attack of Muhammad's heirs. Byzantium barely survived, while the Sasanian Empire vanished. The ayatollahs may be prudent enough not to repeat that mistake by taking on Turkey, but their obsessive hostility to Israel is imprudent indeed.
The Sasanians, unknown to themselves, thus ruled over all the oilfields of the Middle East. In another convenient coincidence, the inhabitants of the oilfields are preponderantly Shia Arabs, whether in Iran itself or in Iraq, Kuwait (over a third Shia), Saudi Arabia (about a fifth, but located precisely in the oil-rich areas), Bahrain (two-thirds Shia) and some of the Emirates.
Indeed, modern Iran has a long-standing claim to Bahrain. Iranian nationalists have expanded that claim to encompass all the Emirates. Each of these sheikhdoms has a small native population and a vast majority of foreign workers. The only military obstacles to an Iranian takeover are American bases and the Saudi armed forces. How the Saudis, despite billions spent on American weapons, would fare in a conflict is unknown; they have none of the battle experience of the Iranians. Remember how easily ISIS dispersed the Iraqi army at Mosul. Prince Turki has much to worry about.
This, then, is the danger. Any supply of finance acquired by Iran through a relaxation of sanctions will hardly be used to ease the living conditions of average Iranians, who are inured to sacrifices on behalf of national ideals. Rather, it will be spent first on consolidating Iran's domination of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, then on subverting the Gulf States via their Shia populations.
Netanyahu's address showed consciousness of the broader issue where he said: "We can insist that restrictions on Iran's nuclear program not be lifted for as long as Iran continues its aggression in the region and in the world. Before lifting those restrictions, the world should demand that Iran do three things. First, stop its aggression against its neighbors in the Middle East. Second, stop supporting terrorism around the world. And third, stop threatening to annihilate my country, Israel, the one and only Jewish state."
Those three demands are correct, but Netanyahu spoke only of insisting "that restrictions on Iran's nuclear program not be lifted," whereas also Iran's sources of income need to be restricted for as long as Iran fails to meet those demands. This is why no deal will be better than any deal, provided that responsibility for the failure to reach a deal can be pinned upon the Iranian regime.
How to achieve this? To begin with, the P5+1 could adopt the very successful style of negotiation practiced by Palestinians as well as Iranians. This is to whittle away at the position of the other side by extracting one little concession after another, but then to delay the negotiations indefinitely just when a deal seems to be imminent. The result is that when negotiations do resume, it is not from zero but from an inferior initial position of the other side.
Just one more little concession...
Precisely because there are six of them, the P5+1 have a natural advantage in this style of negotiations, if they are capable of learning it and discarding the respectable rules that govern negotiations among themselves. Whenever a deal seems near, then one of them should come up with a further demand or demands. Indeed, France has just assumed that role. What they could do is adopt that role in succession, so that Iran is the party that needs to keep starting afresh from a worse position. In the meantime, the economic sanctions continue to do their work. Should Iran violate the current restrictions on its nuclear program, there will be evident grounds for intensifying the economic sanctions further.
Even if an initial agreement is achieved in March, such tactics could be used to put off the final agreement from June to September, then from September to December, then from December forever until Iran fundamentally changes its ways. In the meantime, even economic sanctions that had been relaxed can be reinstated by alleging Iranian demonstrations of bad faith.