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From 'Brinksmanship' To 'Hope,' Here's What Might Result From U.S.-Iran Deal


Let's talk through scenarios for the future, a future that includes the nuclear deal with Iran. President Obama offered one plausible scenario on NPR last year. He said Iran should seize the chance to normalize relations with the world.


BARACK OBAMA: Because if they do, there's incredible talent and resources and sophistication inside of Iran, and it would be a very successful regional power that was also abiding by international norms and international rules. And that would be good for everybody.

MONTAGNE: The president says Iran may not change, which is why inspections are designed to limit its nuclear program no matter what. But Israel's leader sees different scenarios, two of them, both bad.


BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Iran has in fact been given two paths to the bomb. One is if they cheat, and they second is if they keep the deal. They win either way.

MONTAGNE: Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel says Iran might secretly try to continue nuclear development now or just do it later after parts of the deal expire. Views of the future color many arguments about this deal. So as part of an NPR News special broadcast, our colleague Steve Inskeep asked experts for their scenarios of the future.


Each scenario is different. Each highlights different parts of a complicated equation. And to be clear, each is presented here only as a plausible scenario. A full-blown prediction in the Middle East is worthless. We will call one possibility the Brinksmanship Scenario. It comes from a prominent opponent of the deal. He is Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute.

FREDERICK KAGAN: The Iranian interest is to continue the deal for as long as possible as long as they're not actually being interfered with in ways that they find unpleasant.

INSKEEP: Kagan expects things to get unpleasant, and here's why. The United States wants to lift economic sanctions tied to Iran's nuclear program. The United States wants to maintain economic sanctions against Iran on other issues, like support for terrorism. In the Brinksmanship Scenario, that doesn't work.

KAGAN: We are going to want to sanction them for a variety of malign activities, including killing, you know, our allies and possibly Americans. And every time we do that, the Iranians are going to threaten to walk away from the deal. And so we're going to be engaged in this constant deal brinkmanship over, is it worth it to us to run the risk to impose the sanctions and the Iranians might walk away, and what would it mean if they walk away? And the Iranians have to calculate, is it worth it to us to walk away and so forth? This is going to be the future of trying to manage this deal.

INSKEEP: If you're the U.S. president and you're in that position, you're trying to go after Iran on non-nuclear issues, Iran responds, this is not fair; we're walking away from the deal - if you're the U.S. president, don't you say, fine, walk away, start enriching uranium again and we'll end up with war and we'll bomb you and we'll win. Why wouldn't the president say that?

KAGAN: Well, hang on. That's what a president should say up to the we'll end up with a war. But it should be, yeah, OK, walk, absolutely and we're going to sanction you and we're going to try to snap back the sanctions and we're going to try to do a whole bunch of other stuff and make it as painful for you as possible

INSKEEP: But in Frederick Kagan's view, a future president won't really have that choice. He says President Obama framed the nuclear deal as a way to avoid war. So if a future president threatens the deal...

KAGAN: You will immediately have a chorus of people who are saying, this begins the march to war. It's Iraq all over again. A lot of presidents, potential presidents won't care about that.

INSKEEP: Well, in this...

KAGAN: Some will.

INSKEEP: Yeah, although in this situation, Iran is walking away from the deal. Iran is being dared to walk away from the deal.

KAGAN: And shockingly I'm willing to predict that that's not how it will be played by the defenders of the deal and by the increasing numbers of people who, for economic reasons, will be invested in having the deal continue. And in my view, this deal effectively sacrifices our ability to influence Iran on non-nuclear issues in exchange for whatever you think about the nuclear agreement, and that's a huge mistake. So I want to sanction this IRGC individual who has been in Syria helping the Assad regime gas his own people. I get the word from the Iranians, if you do that, we're going to walk away from the deal. Do I want to fight that fight? I don't know.

INSKEEP: Kagan argues that Iran is not really that committed to the nuclear deal. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, allowed the negotiations, but has not publicly endorsed the agreement itself.

You pointed out that Ayatollah Khamenei's view is, it's stupid to negotiate with the Americans because no matter what you've negotiated, they're going to cheat. It's possible to summarize much of what you've said as the American version of that. No matter what we've negotiated here, the Iranians are going to cheat. I don't mean to suggest, as Obama did, oh, you're just like an Iranian hardliner. I'm not suggesting that. But there is this mutual suspicion here, which I find very interesting. Do you feel that your suspicions are in some way mirrored by the suspicions on the other side?

KAGAN: Yeah, look, I'm not insulted by it at all. I mean, I think President Obama put in an incredibly insulting way, as he has put most of his attacks on reasonable critics. But I think the Iranians are right, and we're talking about this.

I think that the United States collectively - not the United States as embodied in Barack Hussein Obama, but the United States collectively has not signed up to this deal and doesn't really necessarily intend as a nation to abide by it. We have a whole lot of candidates saying they don't intend to abide by it.

INSKEEP: In Frederick Kagan's Brinksmanship Scenario, the deal only adds to mutual suspicion and distrust. Now let's hear another scenario, the Modest Hope Scenario, which comes from Haleh Esfandiari. She's an Iranian-American scholar who was imprisoned in Iran in 2007. Now in Washington, she sees the Iran agreement as a beginning. She focuses on Hassan Rouhani, the president whose administration made the nuclear deal.

HALEH ESFANDIARI: The ball is in the court of Mr. Rouhani. He has now to deliver his other promises to the people, regardless of what the supreme leader says.

INSKEEP: Rouhani won election in 2013, promising better relations with the world and also a better life at home.

ESFANDIARI: People are expecting an improvement in the economy. People are expecting a lowering in the cost of living. People are expecting more access to the outside world, especially the younger generation are expecting access to employment. They hope that there will be a lot of foreign investment as a result, leading to a lot of jobs.

INSKEEP: The clerics who oversee the government will face pressure to open up the country despite their reluctance. Esfandiari does not expect the forces of change to topple Iran's government. She does expect smaller change.

ESFANDIARI: The conflict is going to be within the elite, definitely.

INSKEEP: Within the elite...


INSKEEP: ...Meaning that the current elite stays in charge of the country. They just argue among themselves...


INSKEEP: ...Over the precise rules.


INSKEEP: In your scenario, if it plays out, will a more democratic society emerge?

ESFANDIARI: It has to.

INSKEEP: Will a different Iranian foreign policy emerge?

ESFANDIARI: It has to. Iran will have to reconsider some of its foreign policy, especially in the region. This does not mean that Iran will give up the support for Hezbollah or its important role in Iraq or in Syria, but it means that it will reach out to the Persian Gulf countries.

INSKEEP: The Modest Hope Scenario from Haleh Esfandiari at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. And then there's the scenario of a longtime visitor to Iran. The journalist Robin Wright has reported on the country for decades.

ROBIN WRIGHT: The nuclear deal, at the end of the day, is not just about nukes. It's about the future of Iran politically. It's about the future of the revolution.

INSKEEP: The Islamic Revolution of 1979. That was the year Iranians took American hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. It's been closed ever sense.

WRIGHT: I went back to the U.S. Embassy in Iran in May and got a tour of a building that is today a museum, where everything looks exactly as it was when it was captured. The tape for the telex machine and the intercepts machine are in place. The passport equipment, the stamps and so forth are in place. It looks like the whole staff just got up and went out for a coffee break. I was given a tour by a docent who was with one of the branches of the revolutionary guards. And I asked him the question, do you foresee the reopening of this embassy anytime soon? And he said, no.

INSKEEP: Not in this building, but the man did expect an American presence will return in some form to Tehran. And that leads Robin Wright to what we could call the Cautious Opening Scenario. Wright suspects the nuclear dear may initially cause Iran's ruling clerics to try to clamp down on society and prevent too much change.

WRIGHT: But the truth is that what's been unleashed here is a different kind of process. It's the beginning of a healing process. It's that phase that Crane Brinton writes about in "The Anatomy Of Revolution" about the beginning of normalcy, the end of a raging fever. But that doesn't mean it's going to happen soon and that it's not going to be fitful. The revolutionary philosophy hasn't changed. But there is an opening, and it is just that. It is one opening when there need to be a lot more to make a difference.

INSKEEP: Two nations - the United States and Iran - share a long and bitter history. There is no scenario in which they escape that history. The question is how they add to it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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