Skip to main content

Iran deal a risk worth taking

By David Rothkopf
November 24, 2013 -- Updated 1445 GMT (2245 HKT)
Secretary of State John Kerry, followed by bodyguards, enters the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva for Iran talks on Saturday.
Secretary of State John Kerry, followed by bodyguards, enters the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva for Iran talks on Saturday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Rothkopf: Obama administration deal sets the "hold" button.
  • Tehran to freeze nuclear weapons efforts in exchange for modest relief from sanctions
  • Rothkopf: This puts Iran on hold as more intensive talks continue
  • He says: Deal freezes Israel's edging toward war; shows we did our best

Editor's note: David Rothkopf writes regularly for CNN.com. He is CEO and editor-at-large of the FP Group, publishers of Foreign Policy magazine, and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Follow him on Twitter at @djrothkopf

(CNN) -- The deal reached with the Iranians late Saturday in Geneva represents a risk well worth taking by the Obama administration and the five other powers that negotiated it with the Iranians. If the Obama administration briefly got some first-term international diplomatic credit for the suggestion it would hit the "reset" button on relations with Russia, for this, its most important second-term initiative to date, it has opted for the "hold" button.

The deal is an interim agreement by which Tehran has consented to freeze efforts that could lead to the development of nuclear weapons in exchange for modest relief from international economic sanctions.

David Rothkopf
David Rothkopf

Now that an interim deal has been reached, the Iranians cannot move closer to a bomb as talks proceed. Even skeptics who don't trust Iran and fear it has been moving ever closer to gaining nuclear weapons capability must acknowledge that if this deal slows Iran down at all, it serves a useful purpose. If it does not, but intensive negotiations continue as a result of it, then we are at least no worse off than we were in the first place.

Obama: Iranian deal limits ability to create nuclear weapons

Further, if at the end of the ensuing negotiating phase no deal is reached, taking military action would be seen as more justified given that diplomatic options were exhausted.

That said, this deal has other little-noted or discussed implications and dimensions at many levels beyond the letter of its terms.

For example, despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's advance denunciations of the deal -- struck between Iran and a group of international powers led by the United States -- he deserves as much credit for the deal as anyone else. His incessant banging on the drums of war led the world to believe that absent some diplomatic agreement soon, military action by the Israelis or the U.S. would be inevitable.

Kerry joins top diplomats for Iran talks
Moving closer to deal with Iran
Iran nuke deal close, but obstacles exist

The deal struck Saturday in Geneva was as much to freeze Israel's edging toward war as it was to freeze Iran's nuclear program. For Israel, despite its apprehensiveness about the arrangement, to strike Iran now would make it an international pariah.

For the Obama administration, the deal offers multiple advantages. For the near term, at least, it is a rare diplomatic triumph. It arguably validates its program of sanctions by suggesting that the economic measures drove the Iranians to the negotiating table. But in addition, it not only forces Netanyahu to at least sit on his hands for awhile; it avoids the awkward situation of having to choose between supporting Israel (and inviting a major conflict in the region into which it would like be drawn) and appearing weak on Iran.

For the Iranians, the deal provides some relief from the hardships associated with the sanctions -- estimates run in excess of $10 billion and some suggest the impact might be multiples of that. (Europeans, Russians and the Chinese all also have been hoping for anything that might promise a restoration of economic ties with the oil-rich nation.)

But the deal also gives Iran useful negotiating leverage as it seeks to influence the outcome in neighboring Syria, where the embattled Assad administration is an important ally. Not only has it produced a more robust diplomatic dialogue with the Iranians, but now that the six nations that are engaged in this deal have a stake in it producing a positive outcome, they are less likely to inflame the Iranians or put them on the defensive with a Syria deal that is seen by them as a defeat.

Of course, the critical question will be whether the next phase of negotiations for which this deal clears the way will produce a real breakthrough, a verifiable program for dismantling those elements of Iran's nuclear program that might allow it to develop nuclear weapons. If it did, it would be a rarity, one of the few recent instances where diplomacy succeeded in stopping a nation that wanted nukes from getting or keeping them.

But it would not address the myriad other areas in which Iran has been helped inglame the problems of the Middle East during the past several decades. It would not impact its state sponsorship of terror.

It would not impact its efforts to extend its influence via support for regimes and political actors--from Syria to Iraq to Lebanon to Gaza; indeed, as noted earlier, it might help them in this respect. And what's more, if it gave the U.S. a greater stake in a better relationship with Iran, it might also complicate relations with the Gulf States and the Israelis who see Iran as a threat.

What's more, if the interim deal does not result in a longer term deal, what would happen next? Would war then be the only option? More sanctions? Would the absence of military action in that case suggest it would never come?

The Geneva deal is a genuine diplomatic step forward. If it delays or reduces the risk of Iran gaining nuclear weapons and triggering an arms race in the region, it will be even more than that. But it needs to be viewed with open eyes, with sensitivity to the risks it creates, those it does not address and to its many resonances and potential consequences.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of David Rothkopf.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT