CAIRO — On a basic level, the framework deal between world powers and Tehran will be judged by whether it prevents an Iranian bomb, but that will take years to figure out.
A more immediate issue is the projection of Western power. Supporters of the framework deal can argue that the U.S. and world powers extracted significant concessions from Iran, breaking a decade-long impasse and proving that diplomacy backed by tough sanctions can bring about positive change even in the Middle East.
But if, as critics contend, the agreement ends up projecting U.S. weakness instead, that could embolden rogue states and extremists alike, and make the region’s vast array of challenges — from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Syrian civil war to the fighting in Libya and Yemen — even more impervious to Western intervention.
The United States wants to rein in Syria’s President Bashar Assad as his ruinous civil war grinds into year five. It would like to encourage more liberal domestic policies in Egypt and push Iraq’s leaders to govern more inclusively. Despite years of setbacks, the U.S. would still like to see a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But if leaders in those places read the fine print of the agreement the U.S. and other world powers hope to reach with Iran by June 30 and conclude that they were duped or have flinched, these leaders will be less likely to give in to pressure in the future, rendering the Iran agreement a lonely foreign policy achievement clouded by the region’s chaos.
The implications may first be seen in Iran itself. If the agreement leads to acceptance of Iran’s theocracy, hard-liners could feel less pressure to curb their support of regional militant groups and crack down even harder on dissent at home. They would be flush with cash from the lifting of sanctions and emboldened in their confidence that the West will turn a blind eye.
Alternatively, the deal could mark a major victory for President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, and a broader rapprochement could bring about a Persian glasnost of sorts that leads to democratic reform.
Whichever direction Iran goes will have wide-ranging implications for the rest of the region. Iran backs powerful Shiite proxies in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. It also has supported the Palestinian Hamas, the Sunni Islamists who rule Gaza. Sunni powers like Egypt and Saudi Arabia fear and distrust Iran and have warned of a regional arms race if it becomes a threshold nuclear weapons state. Saudi-led warplanes are bombing the Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are supported by Iran, though both Tehran and the rebels deny it arms them.
The implications of a weak United States, meanwhile, are not just regional but global, affecting events from Russia to China and North Korea — as well as the prospects for global accords on climate change or even significant trade deals.
Many of these questions will only be answered by the final agreement, assuming there is one. On one hand, Iran accepted limits on its enrichment levels and centrifuge numbers to prevent the accumulation of weapons-grade material for a decade or more. “Breakout time” to a bomb would be extended from mere months to a year or more.
But on the other, its right to enrich uranium would be enshrined, its facilities would remain in place, the sanctions would be lifted and a sort of legitimacy bestowed.
Critics in Israel and elsewhere cannot understand why world powers, ho could afford to play for time, did not squeeze Iran by presenting it with a mind-clearing choice between having a nuclear program and having an economy.