And that's what these kinds of negotiations have always been about: When you rightly cast aside as peacenik nonsense all this rhetorical bullshit about a "nuclear-free" Middle East (or world, as Obama likes to dream), how do you navigate Israel's unsanctioned monopoly on weapons of mass destruction? Because that's a strategically unstable situation by any historical standard.
This 365-day accord, then, would seem to be a sign that all sides involved view both Iran's enduring "breakout capacity" and Israel's missile-defense shield as constituting just enough deterrence against the region's "existential threats" — namely, Tehran's fear of U.S.-engineered regime change and Jerusalem's fear of being "wiped off the map." But how much do these two antagonists — and the Obama administration — really stand to gain over the course of the next allegedly dialed-down year? Let me count the ways.
Israel: Time to Build Up the Shield
It's stunning that Israel has gone nearly four decades unchecked with all these WMDs. But it's more stunning still that this stockpile, even as an effective deterrent against country-on-country conflict since the Yom Kippur War, hasn't really brought the Israelis any lasting peace. Meanwhile, the true Arab threat has shifted from demagogic (Ahmadinejad's big talk notwithstanding) to demographic (Israel's low birthrate relative to Palestine), and no number of nuclear warheads can balance that increasingly unfavorable correlation of forces. It was only a matter of time before the region's pre-eminent rivalry (Persian Shia versus Saudi Sunni) yielded an embryonic challenge to Israel's two hundred-plus nukes.
And so, after almost a quarter-century of quiet cooperation with the Americans, Israel is now on the verge of perfecting a multi-layered missile-defense shield that protects against short-range rockets coming out of southern Lebanon and Gaza, plus anything Iran can toss its way. Not only will Israel remain on the map following a potential first strike, it'll have second-strike capabilities secure enough to wipe off the map any fantasy-league roster of neighboring Islamic regimes you care to name.
Iran may be just getting on the playing field, but Israel will remain — for the foreseeable future — the only team that can professionally compete on both sides of the ball.
Israel's impressive achievement already creates a quiet confidence among its military ranks. Don't believe me? Check out Juniper Cobra, the two-week combined U.S.-Israeli missile-defense exercise that began this week. It's the latest in a series of biennial war games that stretch all the way back to 2001, and it lays the groundwork for next year's debut of Israel's Iron Dome system, designed to shut down those over-the-transom threats from Hamas and Hezbollah. No, this comprehensive defense package does not rule out the suitcase-bomb scenario, but that one has been around for many years and nobody has more operational experience there than Israel's intelligence agency Mossad.
The key thing to remember, once you get past Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's fantastical comparisons to Nazi Germany, is that Iran's nuclear program cannot rise to the level of an existential threat — something Defense Minister Ehud Barak has already said enough times to make Tehran's Revolutionary Guard squirm.
Iran: Time to Round Up the Bullies
Speaking of which, not enough attention was paid to two bombings on Sunday morning that served as a warning to Tehran's very power-hungry Revolutionary Guard. The message? Your bullying may have worked in the wake of the Iran election, but it's go-for-broke time for the opposition.
Iran may be 90 percent Shia, but barely a majority of its citizens speak Farsi, meaning today's version of the Persian Empire isn't all it's cracked up to be — or becoming. Tehran may reflexively accuse its preferred villains (U.S., U.K.) of "meddling" in its internal affairs, but its near-term fears involve Pakistan's military push into South Waziristan, which brings Islamabad's fight with the Pakistani Taliban right to the doorstep of the restive Baluchistan region it shares with Iran and Afghanistan (which is where those bombs went off). Under the right conditions, what has long been a low-grade insurgency inside Iran could blossom into something far more destabilizing.
So with everything Ahmadinejad has on his domestic plate, it's clear that his administration could use a lengthy breather from all this Western pressure on its nuclear program — if only for the Revolutionary Guards to fully consolidate their power grab. The key for the regime has always been to thread the needle between its citizenry's pride in defying the West over enrichment and growing popular demands for more openness to the world. If this week's deal can substitute for the West's standing "freeze-for-freeze" offer (Iran freezes enrichment and the West freezes sanctions), then Ahmadinejad and Co. can claim a victory of sorts — more openness and the right to enrichment preserved.
The key to the new enrichment accord will be Tehran's willingness to hand over the bulk of its low-grade uranium all at once rather than piecemeal. The bulk shipment would indicate that Iran is at least a year off from replenishing its supplies from still-unknown enrichment facilities, like that of the "new" site that's suddenly up for inspections. So we'll see.
Obama: Time to Make a Deal
As far as the White House is concerned, the Vienna deal obviates what would have been a humiliating diplomatic failure to enlist the support of either Russia or China for truly harsh economic sanctions — something Ahmadinejad's regime just can't afford right now. Yes, some in the Obama administration surely dream that another year's time might just be enough to convince Beijing that other Gulf oil providers can cover China's energy imports from Iran in the event of any seriously going-to-the-mattresses scenario, but, as I've said in this space before, such diplomacy is a fool's errand. Beijing isn't worried about Iran lashing out against Israel but Saudi Arabia, its single biggest source of imported oil. So no matter how America seeks to shuffle the deck chairs, China's Titanic-sized fears will never be extinguished.
In the end, for all of Obama's grand rhetoric on ridding the world of nuclear weapons, history has doomed him to preside over the emergence of two rogue nuclear regimes (North Korea and Iran). China is clearly in charge of managing the true nutcase that is Kim Jong-Il, but Obama has a real opportunity with Iran. With his Nobel providing diplomatic top cover, the president should eventually be able to demand and obtain a regional security dialogue that calms down Tehran over regime change while drawing it into talks with both nuclear Israel and the inevitably nuclear Saudi Arabia.
Yes, it's a scary path. But the world has to walk down it, and this week was a big step.