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What the Iran deal means for America's place in the Middle East

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

The nuclear deal with Iran is done. And while it could still fall apart — if Congress decides to kill it, for example — the odds are that it will end up shaping US Middle East policy for quite some time.

The nuclear deal could not just reshape the United States' relationship with Iran, but also have major consequences for its relationship with Israel and other Middle Eastern countries. That leaves a huge open question: How will this deal affect US policy in the Middle East?

To answer that, I called up Ilan Goldenberg, the director of the Middle East security program at the Center for a New American Security. Goldenberg, a former State Department official, is the author of a report on how the United States should deal with the new political reality created by the Iranian nuclear deal.

We spoke about how Congress, including Republicans who are hostile to the deal, might improve the deal instead of killing it, what to do about Israeli and Saudi fears that the nuclear deal might hurt their security interests, and what should guide US-Iran policy outside of the nuclear negotiations. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Zack Beauchamp: Now that a deal has been inked, what does Obama have to do to make it work?

Ilan Goldenberg: The most important thing to do now, in terms of just the deal itself, is strengthening the agreement. The question is whether you can actually get bipartisan congressional buy-in for something like this — to make sure that when you hand over the deal to the next president, that next president executes it effectively (even if it's a Republican).

The danger is that you have something like the North Korea handover from Clinton to Bush or the Iraq handover from Bush to Obama; it wasn't that they absolutely renounced everything their predecessor had done, but the amount of senior-level attention dropped dramatically. I don't see the next president cutting up this deal, but I do think that if it's not implemented with vigor, it's not going to succeed in the long run.

ZB: What could Congress do, specifically, to make the deal work? What would a helpful law look like?

IG: Here's what [the law] would include:

  • Snapback sanctions: official congressional sanctions that would only go into effect if Iran violated the agreement, that would be separate and apart from what's in the deal
  • More money for IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] inspections, so you can have the absolute best inspections mechanism
  • Potentially an independent congressional board that would be responsible for implementing the deal and overseeing it, which is I think something a lot of members, Republican or Democrat, would like

Everyone's all into [the deal] now, but three or four years from now, I don't think we're necessarily going to have that same level of interest and support, or high levels. When you don't have that, what you can end up with is people just not paying attention.

After there's the fight over the deal, [this kind of law] would allow Republicans to say, "We hate this deal, but we're stuck with it now, and we'll implement and improve it through our prerogative for oversight."

Democrats can say, "We think this deal is good, but we want to make it better through Congress."

ZB: What about in the Middle East? How does Obama need to manage the US relationships with Iran now that a deal's been struck?

IG: There are opportunities to engage with Iran, but there are challenges. Iran's going to continue to do a lot of nasty things that are against America's interest. So the smartest way to think about the region, now, is how we thought about the nuclear program: a combination of engagement and pressure.

In terms of pressure, we do need to push back more forcefully against Iran's support for surrogates and proxies in places like Syria, Yemen, [and] Iraq. We need to signal to the Iranians — through a combination of stepped-up covert action, more cooperation with our partners, and stepped-up [naval] interdiction efforts like we just did off the coast of Yemen — that the US isn't necessarily leaving the region, and that we're going to push back when our interests are at stake. Small things with a clear message work with the Iranians. They don't want a direct political fight with the US.

But even as you do that, you should look for areas to engage and cooperate with them, whether it's Afghanistan, maritime security, some tactical stuff in Iraq. To get to the point where you can eventually have a real political negotiation in the region — where you can put all the key partners in the room and do something like the [international nuclear negotiations] to settle some of these civil wars — you're going to need to do some of this first.

ZB: In the really long run view, do you think — as Obama has suggested — that there's a chance to transform Iran's approach to the region? To make its goals and behavior less destructive?

IG: I think there's an opportunity. I don't know if it'll be big: It partially depends on our policy, but it also depends on [Iran's] behavior and what happens in Iran.

There's going to be a huge food fight inside of Iran. There are those who say this will help the moderates and pragmatists, guys like [Iranian President] Rouhani and [Iranian Foreign Minister] Zarif, assert their influence on areas of policy they haven't so far. Others argue that you're going to see a double-down from the IRGC [Revolutionary Guard] and other hard-liners to make sure there's a one-off deal.

I think it's possible those two things happen at the same time. What we're going to have is a really tumultuous period inside of Iran about where Iranian policy is going. I don't know what's going to come out the other end of that. You're probably not going to know until the supreme leader passes from the scene. He's a relatively old guy, not in great health, but he'll be around for a little longer at least. He's got a very skeptical view of the United States; as long as he's in charge, I don't think things are going to fundamentally change. But what happens after him is an open question, which is why what's going on below and around him with all these competing factions matters.

We'll see. It's possible it goes in that direction [of a pro-US turn in Iran]; it's possible that it doesn't. We need to have a policy that's prepared to take advantage of that opportunity but also mitigates risk and doesn't assume an opportunity and leave ourselves vulnerable.

ZB: America's friends in the region — Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states — have been really upset by America's outreach to Iran. They're not going to take the nuclear deal, let alone any further overtures to Iran, well.

IG: The reality is that for the next year or two we're treading water. Any president who cuts the deal with Iran that I believe [Obama] has cut will face a backlash from the Israelis and the Gulf states. For the next year and a half, we're trying not to make things worse with our partners.

I don't think that Obama, whatever he does for the next year and a half, is going to have trust or deep relationships with the Gulf states and Israel. It's just not possible at this point, especially with the personal issues between Obama and [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu.

This administration can start us on a track that the next president will have to pick up on. The nuclear deal sets the table for that, creating a new avenue for engagement.

The fact that the secretary of state and the Iranian foreign minister have a real channel for talking to each other is a good thing. There will be opportunities for us to keep engaging with the Iranians, and we'll have to be clear-eyed and open-minded about it. But that's a real opportunity for us, and it's really up to the next administration to say [to our allies], "We've got this nuclear deal, and the reality is that we're going to have to talk to both the Iranians and you guys too."

ZB: Is there anything Obama can do to reassure the Saudis and the Gulf states that we aren't, all of a sudden, taking Iran's side?

IG: You don't need to give them weapons. But if you say, "We're going to have a serious conversation about how we're going to push back on Iran's influence in the region," and develop a strategy with them, I think that would be very reassuring for them. That's the concern they take most seriously.

I would take a number of steps along with [the dialogue]. We'd actually do things together — that's joint intel, that's training, that's exercises.

But maybe the most important thing you can do is actually have a serious Syria policy. That starts with taking this training effort we have [for Syrian rebels] that's trained like 60 people, and taking serious restrictions off of that so we can actually have a credible effort to train an alternative Sunni force.

These types of things send signals that we're serious about the region.

ZB: What about Israel?

IG: A big part of this is simply sitting down and going through the details of the nuclear agreement: creating reassurances with [Israel] about how we're going to implement it. They also care about the regional piece, so we can do a lot of the same stuff as with the Gulf states. But for Israel, there's also a concern that this deal isn't going to be effectively implemented, that it's going to fall apart and Iran's going to get a bomb.

What you really need is a very deep, high-level dialogue on what the United States would do if Iran violated the agreement, how we would judge violations, and things like that.