The winners, losers, and inbetweeners after Iran’s nuclear deal

Much to smile about.
Much to smile about.
Image: Reuters/Caren Firouz
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As the details of the nuclear deal with Iran are parsed, you will hear variations of this phrase: “There are no losers, it’s win-win for all.” That’s the sort of thing you hear from winners trying to soften the blow for losers—and from losers pretending they haven’t lost.

Make no mistake, there are big winners—just follow the sound of celebratory fireworks—and big losers in this deal. And then there’s the US, which is, at best, neither a clear winner nor loser. If the best secretary of state John Kerry could come up with is, “we have a chance here,” then it’s far from clear that the deal represents a victory for the US. It is only a chance.

Here is a rundown of the winners, losers, and inbetweeners:

The winners

Iran: First of all, and most importantly, Iran will get nuclear weapons. Not right away, to be sure: the deal requires Tehran to put those plans on hold for 10 years. But 10 years is a blink of an eye in geopolitical terms. In the meantime, the deal allows Iran to send a generation of scientists to the best universities in the world for training in nuclear technology. It can also, for now, buy “peaceful” nuclear power technology.

And Iran only needs to wait five years for the ban on buying conventional arms to be lifted. First up, it can look forward to delivery of surface-to-air missile systems ordered from Russia, weapons that will alter the military balance in the Middle East. Soon after, Iran will be able to acquire new warships, jet fighters, helicopters, tanks, and all manner of military hardware.

And Tehran will have lots of money to buy those toys. The lifting of economic sanctions will unfreeze $100 billion in cash that has been in escrow for years. Iran also stands to make at least that much in oil revenue every year—or maybe three-quarters of that, if energy prices plunge as more Iranian oil hits the market. Over the next few years, there will be a rush of foreign investors into Tehran, toting the proverbial bags of cash.

Other gains for Iran are harder to measure in money. Probably priceless is the removal of Tehran’s pariah status. It can now take a seat at the high table of nations, from where it can push its interests and protect its allies. For instance, expect Iran to have a big say in how the world should treat Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s genocidal dictator and Iranian puppet.

Syria: That brings us to the second big winner from the nuclear deal. Assad has been able to count on billions of dollars of Iranian financial assistance—as well as weapons and military personnel—with which to slaughter tens of thousands of his subjects. And that was during the height of the sanctions. With those chains removed, Iran will be able to boost aid to its ally. And not a moment too soon: Assad has been on the ropes lately. Expect fresh infusions of cash, bigger than the recent $1 billion line of credit.

Hezbollah, Hamas, Houthis and other proxies: Not long after the fireworks displays have faded in Tehran will the regime need to deal with a long line of proxies and supplicants who want in on that $100 billion action. As I’ve pointed out before, terrorist groups like Hezbollah, Hamas, and Yemen’s Houthis—groups that have been doing Iran’s bidding for years—are all running short on men, money, or materiel. They will jostle with Assad’s Syria to get fresh handouts from Tehran.

Russia: Vladimir Putin enjoys nothing so much as poking the West—and especially, the US—in the eye. But the Iran deal gives Russia tangible winnings, too. The quickest wins are in the prospect of major arms deals: that’s why, of all the so-called P5+1 countries negotiating with Iran, Russia was the most ardent in arguing for the immediate lifting of the UN arms embargo. Indeed, even before the nuke deal was struck, Moscow was promising delivery of its S-300 missile system to Tehran. Russian oil companies are also limbering up to enter Iran—although they will have stiff competition from the next entry on our list.

China: If recent history in the region is any guide, Chinese oil companies will likely become the biggest investor in Iran’s oil sector—just as they have in Iraq. Chinese arms makers will also compete with their Russian counterparts for big defense orders.

The losers

Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies: Since the kingdom has set itself up as the yang to Iran’s ying, every victory for Tehran represents a defeat for Riyadh. But in practical terms, too, the Saudis will find that a wealthier, better-armed, and geopolitically-empowered Iran is bad news. The Houthis, who continue to control most of Yemen despite a ferocious bombing campaign by a Saudi-led alliance, will undoubtedly get more support from Tehran. The Shia militia has already made daring inroads into Saudi territory, and there’s no telling how far they will go with a fresh Iranian wind blowing in their sails. Having failed to persuade its own cat’s paws—Pakistan—to commit ground troops in Yemen, Saudi Arabia may be forced to send its own untested (if expensively armed) soldiers across the border. No good has ever come of Arab armies invading Yemen, as Egypt can attest.

Israel: In the end, it’s clear nobody bought prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s claims that Iran represents a clear and present danger to his country. He will furiously lobby the US Congress for the next two months to scuttle the deal—if we’re lucky, he’ll bring some more crude cartoon graphics to display. But it seems highly unlikely that Congress will be able to stop the deal, leaving Netanyahu twisting in the wind.

The inbetweeners

The United States: Over the next few days, expect the Obama administration to spin the deal as something like a victory. They will say it is much better than going to war with Iran, but this is highly disingenuous because the alternative to a deal was never automatic war. They will argue that the deal gives American companies new economic opportunities in Iran, but the experience in Iraq suggests that these businesses will find it hard to gain a foothold. They will say, too, that Iran can now help fight ISIL—that is, at best, a “maybe.” Iran’s interests in that fight are much narrower than the West’s: Tehran wants to ensure Assad’s survival in Syria, and to prevent the killing of Shia in Iraq. It doesn’t care if Sunnis continue to be slaughtered, or if the terrorists plot attacks against the US and other Western nations.

Kerry’s description of the deal as “a chance” is the most accurate summary. Of course, both he and his president will be long out of office by the time all the sanctions and embargoes are lifted, and even longer when Iran is allowed to pursue its nuclear ambitions unfettered. The world by then will be a very different place. But only one country will be able, with complete certainly, to remember July 14, 2015, as a day of triumph.