What Iran talks critics get wrong

Story highlights

  • Talks are continuing over Iran's nuclear program
  • Jacqueline Shire: A nuclear deal is just the beginning

Jacqueline Shire served as a member of the U.N. Panel of Experts on Iran from November 2010 through 2014. The views expressed are her own.

(CNN)There is plenty of noise surrounding the nuclear deal that is being negotiated with Iran. But for all the heat generated by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to Congress and an ill-conceived, panicky letter to Iran's leadership organized by Sen.Tom Cotton -- the latest debate is creating little light.

Indeed, it may actually be obscuring the fundamental issue of Iran's own foreign policies -- and whether Tehran's destabilizing activities abroad should preclude a deal at all.
Unfortunately, few in Congress have taken the time to consider the matter in a thoughtful, coherent manner.
    There are, of course, certain realities that should not be in dispute: Yes, Iran is a regional adversary to a number of its Gulf neighbors and Israel. And it does aim to provoke Sunni-led Gulf states and generally to sow seeds of sectarian Islam abroad.
    In addition, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp's Quds force is alleged to have provided training and weapons to a range of militants -- Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria, Houthi rebels in Yemen, disenfranchised Shia Muslims in Bahrain, and even to militant groups in West Africa.
    Most recently, Iran has been directing military operations by U.S.-equipped Iraqi forces against ISIS militants in Iraq, forces that have been aided by U.S. airstrikes.
    Netanyahu grasped the irony, starkly warning "when it comes to Iran and ISIS, the enemy of your enemy is your enemy." (Although Sen. Marco Rubio appears to be confused, insisting at a March 11 hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Iran must be unhappy with U.S. airstrikes against ISIS).
    Yet the question that Netanyahu did not answer, and which Sen. Cotton and his 46 colleagues have not even asked, is what exactly should be done about Iran's activities abroad?
    Many in Congress fail to grasp that Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and his colleagues in Iran's Cabinet, with their U.S.-PhDs and understanding of plural democracies, are not cut from the same cloth as the hardliners in charge of Iran's Quds force (its commander, Qasem Suleimani turns up in Lebanon and Iraq despite a travel and asset ban). And yes, it was the Quds force that provided the explosives and operatives that led to significant U.S. casualties in the early years of the 2003 Iraq war.
    To answer the question of what to do about Iran's activities, it is important to understand that the nuclear agreement, while it has little to do with Iran's arms transfers or extracurricular activities in the region, can lay the groundwork for a far more serious engagement about Iran's role in the region -- and in a manner that addresses head-on the concerns of its Sunni neighbors, many of whom are eager to resume longstanding trading relationships with Iran.
    The reality is that Iran's reemergence into the international community in a postnuclear deal environment would allow the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to assert its interests in the region, and to lay out expectations of Iran as a constructive partner.
    It might even lead to quiet, back-channel diplomacy about the future of Syria without al-Assad.
    None of this is possible in the absence of the nuclear deal. Once Iran begins to navigate its relationships as more than the isolated, nuclear-threshold pariah state it currently is, there will be less tolerance internationally for destabilizing arms transfers and the training of would-be insurgents.
    And there is no need to rely on Iran's word that it will refrain from such activities. As U.N. Security Council resolutions are rewritten to lift the ban on uranium enrichment in Iran, the ban on Iranian arms transfers can and should remain in place, with U.N. member states required to report to the Security Council any violations of that ban by Iran.
    Ultimately, as important as the nuclear issue is, the real promise of a deal is only partially about limiting the country's nuclear ambitions -- it is also about returning stability to a shattered region, exhausted and impoverished by war. Iran, the United States and Gulf allies can be partners in such a process with clear eyes and no illusions about how difficult it will be.
    A nuclear deal is just the beginning.