Iran Deal: 5 Scenarios, from Rainbows to Doomsday

Quds Day (Atta Kenare / Getty)
Atta Kenare / Getty

On Tuesday, world powers reached a nuclear agreement with Iran after nearly two years of intense talks, and a decade of confrontation. U.S. President Barack Obama hailed the deal, and threatened to veto any attempt to stop it. The Iranian regime, too, celebrated it as a victory for diplomacy. Israel, meanwhile, panned a “terrible deal” and a “mistake of historic proportions.”

So who is right?

At the moment, there seem to be five possible scenarios, based on potential political and military outcomes to the deal. Almost all of them lead to war, sooner or later.

1. “Unicorns and Rainbows”: Under this scenario, the deal will encourage the Iranian regime to rejoin the international community as a responsible partner. It will not only stop its march towards a nuclear weapon, but will also temper its support for international terrorism, and establish what President Barack Obama calls a “new equilibrium” in the Middle East. Iran renewed threats in recent days to destroy both the U.S. and Israel, and the agreement reportedly lifts an arms embargo against Iran. Nevertheless, Obama’s true believers persist.

2. “New Cold War”: Under this more realistic scenario, the Iran deal will pass Congress (either through a vote or a failure to override a presidential veto), and will take effect against Israeli objections. Israel will decide not to launch a pre-emptive attack against Iran, for fear of alienating the Obama administration. Instead, it will live with a nuclear threat hanging over its existence, much as South Korea does–but  more precariously, given U.S. withdrawal from the region and Saudi and Egyptian determination to develop their own nuclear weapons. A Iraq-style confrontation will be inevitable, and events in the region will soon slip away from U.S. diplomatic or military power to manage.

3. “Square One, but Worse”: It is possible that Congress will reject the Iran deal, and that it will have the votes to override a threatened presidential veto. In that case, the Iran deal may still take partial effect, since Obama intends to allow the UN Security Council to roll back some sanctions, regardless. Yet some U.S. sanctions will stay in place, and some new ones may take effect. Iran will continue working towards a nuclear weapon, but will still be hampered somewhat. A new, tougher diplomatic process can start, led in 2017 by a president who is less likely to be eager to appease the Iranian regime–whether that president is Hillary Clinton or one of her Republican opponents.

4. “Israeli Veto”: The deal will pass in the U.S., either through vote or veto, and Israel will decide to launch a pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. If the strike succeeds, Israel will endure international condemnation, and retaliation from Hezbollah and Hamas, but many Israelis will likely judge the risk and  costs to be worthwhile, since none of the above scenarios offer it realistic security guarantees.

5. “American Doomsday”: Iran uses the nuclear deal to shield an aggressive nuclear weapons program. Working together with Russia and China, which have conducted extensive successful cyberattacks against the U.S., it launches a surprise breakout and neutralizes U.S. efforts to respond by threatening or attacking key U.S. targets. American power and security crumble overnight; “Death to America” arrives.


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