The Iran Deal Is Worth It, Even If They Misbehave

As Congress’ vote on the Iran deal this week enters the theater of the absurd, a resolution edges closer. Cases have been made for and against the deal and its future capital for U.S. foreign policy. However, dissenting voices in the debate fall foul to a key assumption on how Iran is likely to behave if the deal is ratified: that, given the nature of its regime, Iran will inevitably break promises and behave belligerently. Instead, and given the multilateral currents of the deal (chiefly its preamble and limitations), I argue that Iran is less likely to try to spoil the international system and its norms, and is more likely to game them. This distinction is important to understanding Iran’s motivation in signing the deal, and counter-intuitively, in understanding how the deal strengthens monitoring and sanctioning capacity for the U.S., Europe and U.N. if Iran misbehaves. Indeed, countries tend to exhibit three types of behavior toward the international system. They can comply with it, seek to spoil it or attempt to game it. The first two are self-evident, and represent the two opposites of how those against the Iran deal view the world. The third is where I locate Iran, and crucially, many other nations with whom America and the global community have successfully conducted their foreign relations.

Iran cannot build a nuclear weapon under the current deal. This much is ensured by the agreement itself and its conditions for inspection. What critics of the deal argue is that it signals a softening stance toward a regime invariably bent on destroying its regional foes, as well as a country incubating anti-Americanism in a region rampantly regaling militants. This reasoning assumes that Iran is a system spoiler, and cannot be so easily converted into a system complier. Under this logic, Iran will not be rehabilitated unless some monumental transformation takes place beyond a diplomatic promise to control their nuclear ambitions, ending in regime change. But is it necessary to ensure that the Iranian regime becomes a complete complier within the international system before the world invites the nation in?

We can divide up regimes we perceive as harmful to the international system by looking at some as spoilers, and others as gamers. Gamers, such as China, Russia, Bahrain, Pakistan and others, have become acceptable members of the global community in spite of their extending charge sheets. This is because they selectively adhere to multilateral institutions and their norms, undertaking the most minimum of domestic social and political changes that allow them to continue reaping the benefits of the international system and marketplace. Their regimes display despotic behavior, often in form and substance, yet between them, they sporadically provide troops and territory for multilateral and American missions, offer stability in energy markets, invest in development and infrastructure in new and frontier markets, and create new technologies. However, these gamer nations today have greater fears of non-state opposition than they have before – be that from terrorists or their own citizens. This adds a new imperative to maintaining strong government structures that can sustain large public sectors, which deliver infrastructural as well as rights-based services to maintain order. There exists a higher alert for these regimes regarding marginal shifts in their domestic stability, which today cannot be so easily crushed and wished away. Taken together, even though gamers proclaim to articulate themselves in opposition to the U.S., Europe, and their regional foes, they increasingly struggle to isolate themselves too much from the outside – and not only because of a commercial pull, but because of pure regime survival. In so doing, gamer nations are willing to cede space to multilateral institutions and private organizations who, in turn, can ensure these countries remain under the microscope. This increased openness allows countries such as the U.S. that dominate the international system – the compliers – to strengthen their levers of profit and punishment over gamers.

Complier nations are adept at handing gamers, including the trickiest among them. Libya, for example, was brought back from the freeze, despite its weapons-based sanctions tightening around the same time as Iran’s in 1996. Between 1999 and the 2011 revolution, Libya accepted responsibility for its citizens bombing Pan AM Flight 103, renounced terrorism, and eventually dismantled its nuclear arsenal. This took a delicate dance where the U.S. engaged Libya directly, and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan went to meet Colonel Gaddafi, as did influential regional leaders such as Nelson Mandela. American and global firms, in turn, entered Libya and conducted successful business. Yet when the Libyan regime choked the calls of its citizens in 2011, the U.S., Europe and UN had the mechanisms to close the door shut on the Gadhafi regime, and sanctions snapped back.

What the Iran deal represents, building off of the Libya strategy before it, is the crystalizing of a new form of American foreign relations that compartmentalizes values-laden assumptions away from a newfound cosmopolitanism. In this way, the six world powers, including the U.S., will remain in full control of handling “gamer” nations such as Iran, subtly swaying, stopping and signaling at the right moments to ensure the Islamic Republic does not spoil the international system. Ironically, such effective punishment would not be possible, as shown with Libya and also recently Russia, if Iran remained completely shut out. At the same time, allowing Iran into the global system can assist in fighting the biggest terrorist threat which exists today, and enters the Islamic Republic into an expanding emerging market that can bring commercial and cultural benefit to the region and beyond. And this is why the deal is important, even if Iran misbehaves – it strengthens the proverbial hand that President Obama promised to extend during the Cairo speech six years ago.

The P5+1 negotiators have, at several points, likely considered the worst case scenario with the Iran deal. But they also must have considered what they could live with. The deal leaves Iran with a conventional arsenal that looks meek in front of its enemies, and plugs the nation into a global system of commerce and prosperity, the logic of which is well documented. However, an environment where we have more information on Iran and where its regime seeks to adhere to international norms as induced by a heightened need for domestic survival can also be bucketed as a sound assumption in backing the deal. In this change of emphasis, we understand that Iran’s regime survives for now, but it does so by contributing to the global marketplace and at the command of complier control. We deal with such nations – such gamers – everywhere, so the same logic should be applied when considering the Iran deal.


Bilal Baloch is a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford. He is former special assistant to Vali Nasr, Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Morning Consult