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Ian Bremmer on why the Iran deal is about much more than nuclear weapons

Ian Bremmer, Ph.D

(Vox) – Ian Bremmer is president of the Eurasia Group, as well as a global research professor at New York University. He’s also been a regular commentator on the Iran deal. And he thinks that much of the commentary misses some of the most important likely outcomes of the deal, like lower oil prices and a possible weakening of the Iranian regime. We spoke by phone this morning, and a lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Ezra Klein: Let’s start with the basic question. Is this a good deal or a bad deal?

Ian Bremmer: It’s a close call, no question. I don’t expect the Iranians are going to hold firm on their commitments. I think the arbitration mechanisms will be challenging. And I think our colleagues in the P5+1 will be more flexible with the Iranians than we will be. So over six or 12 months I think we’ll have a lot of fights over this.

But I accept Obama’s argument that the alternative to this deal was worse for the United States. It’s not that I thought we were going to head for military conflict, but it was going to be difficult for the Americans to maintain the same level of sanctions that we presently have. The Americans would have been blamed by not just Iran, but the Russians and the Chinese, maybe by some others, and so the strong international sanctions that we’ve worked so hard to build over so many years would have eroded. You would have had the worst possible scenario, where the Iranians were not subject to any international inspections or strictures but they were starting to get out from under the tough sanctions regime anyway.

Furthermore, I think there are a lot of upsides for the United States that have less to do with the nuclear arrangements themselves than with the nature of a deal with Iran. No one is really talking about this, but the Iranians will be producing, I would say, at least another million barrels of oil on the market by the end of 2016 under this deal. That means prices are going down. That really hurts OPEC, it really hurts the Saudis, but it’s an unmitigated good for the US!

And it’s not just oil. Iran has a pretty diversified economy. They have 80 million people, they manufacture cars, they have a service sector. This is a country the international community is going to want to invest a lot in. That’s an upside.

I wrote about this in my book The J Curve, but one of the ways you open countries is by removing sanctions and investing. This is why Kim Jong Un doesn’t want sanctions removed from his country. If North Korea became a functioning part of the international system, his regime would fall pretty quickly. Iran’s theocrats also know how dangerous this is. If Iranian expats begin going back to Iran, and Western investment starts flowing in, the likelihood that over a longer period of time the Iranian government opens a little and maybe a lot is much greater.

Now, if you’re Obama, you can’t make the arguments for regime change and oil, because they’re not politically correct, but if you’re actually thinking about the impact of the deal over the long term, I think it’s fairly clear you’d rather have this deal than not if you’re America.

EK: You made this provocative comment on Twitter this morning, where you said that the Iran deal looks better for Obama today than it will at the end of his presidency, but that you’re optimistic that it will look good in the long term. Can you unpack that?

IB: Sure. Right now, you’ve already seen Lindsey Graham say this deal is akin to declaring war with Israel. I think that’s hyperbole, but it shows you where the GOP will be. This is so easy for the Republicans to attack. And I think Hillary Clinton will have a hard time embracing this deal because the Israelis are so strongly against it. In the near term, that noise will grow.

Meanwhile, I think you’ll see hard-liners in Iran saying all kinds of negative things about the US, and that will play into the Republican narrative. And as we start implementing, there will be a lot of debate over the extent to which the Iranians are actually playing by the rules. But over the longer term, I think Americans get a lot out of this, for all the reasons I mentioned earlier.

EK: The backdrop to this deal, it seemed to me, was the question of war. In order to get a deal, the threat of war had to be, on some level, credible. But I don’t think there’s much doubt that the reason a deal was so appealing to the Obama administration is they think war with Iran would be a disaster.

IB: I think that’s exactly the right question to ask. Even though Obama occasionally said that all options are on the table, I don’t think a lot of people believed that. I don’t think the Iranians believed it, the Israelis didn’t believe it, I didn’t really believe it. When you have a pretty risk-averse foreign policy, it’s hard to be credible with this kind of threat. But that really weakens your ability to get a strong deal. And I think that put the Americans in a weaker position. We were comfortable with delay, but I don’t think we had a very credible no. That’s one reason the Russians felt more comfortable in the last few days pushing an end to the UN arms embargo on the table. They understood the US was in a somewhat weaker position.

Now, the Israelis will always talk their book on this, but it’s right for the Israelis to be much more shrill on the existential nature of the Iranian threat to force everyone else to keep their focus on it. That doesn’t always mean the Israelis are ready to bomb. It means they want everyone to think they are. And I think they’ve done a very good job on that.

EK: It’s also seemed like if Iran were going to get a deal, it needed to be with Obama. If I were Iran and I saw Chuck Schumer becoming leader of the Senate Democrats, and Hillary Clinton becoming the likely Democratic nominee for president, and the much more hawkish language coming from Republicans, I would’ve thought I really need to make a deal before Obama leaves office. But a lot of this deal will be implemented after Obama leaves office, and probably by someone a lot more hawkish than he is. So how should that change how we think about it?

IB: One of the things that moved the deal forward from the Iranian perspective was they understood they needed Obama not just to sign it, but to implement at least some of it and get the sanctions off. But remember, implementation is not just the president in 2017. It’s the IAEA and the P5+1. And those are institutions and countries with very different perspectives on what we should accept from the Iranians. The Russians wanted the arms embargo off of Iran because they support Iran on Syria, and because they want to sell arms to the Iranians. This is going to come up under the next US president. The Chinese want to buy oil from Iran. They’re going to be in there a lot faster than the Americans in terms of signing investment deals. The Europeans want trade and energy from Iran. The Americans are much more strategic in terms of being concerned about Iran’s threat to the security order, but it’s not just the Americans doing this deal.

As much as everyone — the Republicans, the Israelis, the Saudis — are blaming Obama for the deal, they should really be blaming the Russians and the Chinese and the Europeans who, in many ways, were pushing for a softer agreement than Obama. And this will be a bigger problem for the next president. So part of the question for the next president isn’t just their position on the deal but their relationship with the Russians, the Chinese, the Europeans.

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