Rejecting the Iran Deal Would Undermine America's Closest Allies

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference about the recent nuclear deal reached with Iran, in the East Room of the White House on July 15. Joshua Roberts/Reuters

In announcing the Iran nuclear deal, President Obama took the unusually aggressive step of threatening a veto of any congressional resolution undermining it. Meanwhile, Republican congressional leaders and presidential candidates lined up to promise to destroy it either at the review stage or after the 2016 election.

But opponents of the deal should beware: It may or may not prove to be effective, but undermining it at this stage would be disastrous far beyond Iran.

The reason is simple—this was not a deal between Iran and the United States; it was a deal between Iran and a coalition which included some of America's closest allies (France, the U.K. and Germany), its biggest competitor (China) and its most significant strategic adversary (Russia). To change tack now and renege on the agreement would damage the United States's credibility and its future capacity to act in a number of ways.

Of the other members of the coalition, the United States has by far the most positive and straightforward relationship with the EU3—Britain, France and Germany. But the transatlantic alliance has been somewhat rockier than usual over the past decade, with Bush-era divisions over counterterrorism and the Iraq War compounded by differing responses to the financial crisis, debates over electronic surveillance and how to respond to ISIS and a reassertive Russia.

Where European and American forces have been deployed together in recent years—in Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq—the result has often been stagnation, or worse.

If Europe and the United States are to demonstrate that they can work together and prove that their mutual interests outweigh their disagreements, successfully implementing the deal with Iran is crucial. A decision by the United States to unilaterally back out would leave a fundamental incompatibility in their respective foreign policies and a legacy of bad will.

But the negative consequences of torpedoing the deal for transatlantic relations would pale in comparison to the effect it would have on U.S. relations with Russia and China. China's interest in importing Iranian energy, along with the general importance it attaches to nonintervention, means a decision by the U.S. to reverse its position and demand a re-instatement of sanctions would be viewed particularly unfavorably in Beijing.

Recent progress on climate change has provided some grounds for optimism about the two countries' ability to work together. Progress on this and other issues of shared concern will depend at least in part on Beijing perceiving that Washington will honor its commitments.

And where the relationship with China has an undercurrent mutual suspicion and competition, with regard to Russia there is virtually nothing else. The number of productive interactions between the two sides has dwindled away over the years. There remain a few scientific and technical areas of cooperation, like the operation of the International Space Station, but on virtually every strategic issue the two stand apart. Few see any prospect of an improvement in the relationship, at least not as long as Vladimir Putin remains president.

To be clear, neither Beijing nor Moscow has a particularly favorable view of the United States that would be undermined by an about-face on the Iran deal. What would be undermined would be trust in third countries where China or Russia is competing with the U.S. for strategic influence.

The containment strategy of the Cold War was effective in part because the branches of the American government were able to work together to make foreign policy. That was reinforced by a strong and interlocking network of allies and partners, all bound together by a basic level of trust that the United States would live up to its stated commitments.

These networks of trust give the United States an immense strategic advantage in areas such as Eastern Europe or the Asia-Pacific. Despite its distance, the United States has significant influence in those regions, not only because of its economic and military power but also because the U.S. has generally committed itself to long-term security guarantees, and by and large has behaved consistently in service of those guarantees.

Undercutting that consistency would leave countries which have historically aligned with the United States suddenly reconsidering whether Russia or China might make a better security partner.

As a result, if the United States unilaterally decided to vacate the deal without clear and unambiguous evidence of Iranian malfeasance, it would find itself not just back at square one, but considerably behind. Its relationship with its closest allies would be strained just as its competitors were empowered—a potentially disastrous combination which would leave it not only unable to successfully contain Iran, but increasingly isolated and unable to cope with other crises farther afield.

Many of those now objecting to the Iran deal argued that the United States lost face when Barack Obama declared a red line in Syria and then failed to act when that line was breached. That argument has some merit.

But the same principle is true here—either the commitments made by the United States have weight, or they do not.

Jacob Parakilas is assistant head, U.S. Project, Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs.