It is easy to reduce any analysis of the Geneva agreement to the number of centrifuges Iran will still have and the levels of enrichment that are permitted. Just last month, Gary Samore, who worked the nonproliferation file during President Obama’s first term, was quoted in the New York Times saying that “ending production of 20-percent-enriched uranium is not sufficient to prevent breakout because Iran can produce nuclear weapons using low-enriched uranium and a large number of centrifuge machines.” Samore’s concern about the leap from low-enriched uranium to weapons-grade is even more justified given that Iran is now deploying fast centrifuges that operate at five times the speed of the centrifuges used by Iran in the past.
But these important considerations are dwarfed by something far more fundamental. Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons is being made by a country with unquestionable hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East. As negotiators pose to have their pictures taken in Geneva, Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces are on the ground in Syria taking part in President Bashar Assad’s bloodbath against the Syrian people. They are not just training the Syrians, they are directly involved in the mass murder of innocent civilians. Their ambition is to make Syria into an Iranian satellite, placing them as a power in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The head of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s think tank already characterized Syria this year as “the 35th district of Iran.” In speaking about the national-security strategy of Iran back in 1991, in the Iranian daily, Ressalat, Khamenei declared: “Where do we look in drawing up the National Security Strategy of the Islamic Republic of Iran? Do we look to preserve the integrity of our land, or do we look to its expansion . . . We must definitely look to its expansion.” In short, if Belgium were getting nuclear weapons, few would be concerned. But the Iranian case is entirely different.
The Iranian drive for hegemony is not just about rhetoric. In the last five years, Iranian weapons ships have been cruising in the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, fueling insurgencies in Yemen, the Gaza Strip, and Lebanon, as well. President Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq, who came out of the pro-Iranian al-Dawa movement, which conducted joint operations with Hezbollah in the 1980s, is also the defense minister and interior minister of Iraq. He is placing the powers he has amassed at the service of Iran. No wonder Saudi Arabia, which sees what is going on to its north in Iraq, to its east in Bahrain with a Shiite protest movement, and to its south with the Shiite revolt in Yemen, is so concerned. Thus Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia told Jeffrey Goldberg a few days ago that “the threat is from Persia, not from Israel.”
The big question then is not how Washington will handle the inevitable violations in this agreement, but how it will handle the next moves of Iranian expansionism. For as Iran approaches a nuclear threshold capacity, it is likely to become emboldened. Historically, since the days of President Wilson and Colonel House, when a hegemonic power rose on the European continent, the U.S. put in place a security structure to contest its drive for domination or to defeat it, if necessary. With Iran sensing that it has emerged victorious from this latest Geneva agreement, one can only hope that someone is thinking about contesting its actions against the West and against the allies of the United States.