Voice

Top 10 Things I'm Thankful for This Year

People like me really shouldn't complain about anything, at least not at the personal level. I've been extraordinarily lucky from birth, and most misfortunes I've experienced have been self-inflicted. That's one of the reasons Thanksgiving is a favorite holiday; though I'm not religious, I like the idea of a day set aside to be thankful for one's blessings and grateful for friends, family, and random acts of good fortune. As in past years, today I offer up this year's Top 10 Things I Am Thankful for This Year (Foreign Policy division).

1. The Iranian nuclear deal. Everyone should be thankful for this because the alternative is an unconstrained Iranian program or another unnecessary Middle Eastern war. The P5+1 countries have a long way to go to reach the finish line, but the interim agreement was a victory for sensible people and a defeat for threat-mongering hawks. One must always be grateful for that.

2. Vladimir Putin. Don't get me wrong: I'm glad he's not running my country, and I usually find his behavior and decisions rather thuggish and heavy-handed. (Remember the Pussy Riot affair?) And were I Ukrainian, I'm certain that gratitude wouldn't be the emotion I'd be feeling toward Moscow right now. But let's give credit where it's due: We should be thankful that President Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov threw Barack Obama's floundering administration a lifeline on Syria.

3. International institutions. You might be surprised to see a realist like me express gratitude for this, but the cold, hard fact is that we wouldn't have been able to start disarming Syria's chemical weapons stockpile if a set of institutions (including the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons ) wasn't already in existence and ready to go to work. Yes, I still think all the attention focused of chemical weapons was misplaced -- far more people were killed by conventional weapons -- but it's not like I'm sorry that Bashar al-Assad's arsenal is being eliminated. And maybe, just maybe, the chemical deal will ease the way for some diplomacy that can end Syria's brutal civil war.

4. Edward Snowden. My conservative father will be upset with me for this one, but I am still grateful to know what the National Security Agency was doing with my tax dollars. Clandestine organizations of all types tend to spin out of control until they are caught, and with luck the experience of getting caught will induce a certain sobriety, just as the Church Committee hearings in the 1970s taught the CIA that its follies could be exposed. None of this would have happened without Snowden, and I think the revelation is worth the embarrassment it has caused and the tensions with some allies of the United States. (My gratitude here also extends to the people who made this possible: Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and the Guardian).

5. AIPAC, CUFI, ZOA, the ADL, WINEP, and the rest of the Israel lobby. Of course I'm not grateful that these groups continue to have disproportionate influence on America's Middle East policy, but it is hard not to be appreciative that 1) their activities are increasingly overt and understood, 2) they failed on Syria and are failing thus far on Iran, and 3) their activities and influence on other issues continue to prove my co-author and me right.

6. Mario Draghi. I still don't know whether the euro will survive -- and neither do you -- and it is hard to be optimistic that Europe will return to robust economic health anytime soon. But absent Draghi's calm but herculean efforts, Europe would almost certainly be in worse shape today. A nod of thanksgiving thanks across the ocean is deserved.

7. Technology. Each year I feel like I am clinging to the technological frontier with my fingernails, and if I'm honest I'll admit that I'm actually just falling further behind. But what technology now makes possible is still remarkable: Our ability to do our work, maintain friendships, learn at a distance, share music and literature, and do a thousand other activities is being transformed on a daily basis. This process is not without its obvious downsides, and the digital divide is just another manifestation of pervasive inequality. But increasing mastery of science and technology is both a source of great human empowerment and pleasure; it is also the best hope we have of surmounting the challenges that are rushing at us in the decades ahead.

8. Dissidents. Foreign-policy makers are a pretty conservative lot, especially in the developed world. It's comfortable staying within the consensus, and that's certainly better for most wonkish careers. But I am grateful for the boat-rockers, muckrakers, edgy provocateurs, and all the other people in the United States and abroad who see things differently and aren't afraid to take on entrenched authority and stale dogmas. Whether it is a Saudi woman behind the wheel, a dissident artist in China, an "activist journalist" in the West, or that rare politician who says what he or she thinks as opposed to what donors or focus groups mandate, the people outside the mainstream are a critical engine of human progress.

9. Humility. A lot of grandiose ambitions have been brought to Earth over the past decade. The United States didn't transform the Middle East at the point of a gun. The euro now looks like one of the great missteps of the past 50 years. Turkey's "zero problems" diplomacy didn't make it the linchpin of a new regional order. India's rise to great-power status has stalled, and China's emergence as a peer competitor is facing strong headwinds too. The dreams of the Arab Spring have withered in the face of an authoritarian backlash. Because ambitious idealism tends to get a lot of people killed, I'm thankful that some of these unrealistic visions have been discredited, and I hope world leaders will focus their attention on what is necessary and possible, instead of on over\ambitious fantasies. Surtout, pas trop de zele.

10. Readers. If a blogger posts on the web and no one logs on, does it make any noise? Of course not. As in previously years, my thanks to all of you who take the time to read this site and to all who tweet, kibitz, or otherwise engage with me and my colleagues at FP and beyond. I hope your past year has given you plenty to be thankful for too and that the next year brings you even more. Happy Thanksgiving!

Photo: Andrew Kelly/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt

What's Really at Stake in the Iranian Nuclear Deal

The interim nuclear deal with Iran is an important step forward, and the various negotiating teams can be justly proud of their achievement. Far be it from me to be a killjoy at this rare moment of progress, but let's not lose our heads amid all the high-fiving and back-patting. Why? Because Iran's nuclear program is not in fact the real issue. The more important issues are Iran's future relations with the outside world and whether the deal paves the way for reintegrating that country into the world economy and the broader international community.

There is something of a paradox in the ways that opponents and supporters of a deal approach the whole subject of Iran's nuclear program and the country's broader relations with the United States and other major powers. Opponents of a deal tend to believe that 1) Iran is governed by irrational and highly aggressive Shiite fanatics; 2) it is hellbent on getting a nuclear weapons capability; and 3) if Iran does get the bomb, it will have dramatic and overwhelmingly negative consequences for regional stability and world politics more generally. Given those (unwarranted) beliefs, you'd think hawks would be thrilled with this deal, insofar as it freezes Iran's current capabilities, will reduce the stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium (i.e., the stuff that could be enriched to weapons grade fairly quickly), and leaves all the truly significant sanctions in place. If the nuclear program is your big concern, then this is a great first step and a more far-reaching comprehensive deal would be even better. (The alternatives -- an unconstrained Iranian program or another Middle East war -- are clearly inferior.)

By contrast, many who support the current deal believe that 1) Iran's leaders are rational individuals seeking to advance Iran's national interests; 2) Iran has not yet decided to seek a nuclear weapon and probably prefers a condition of nuclear latency to a fully developed nuclear arsenal; and 3) getting the bomb wouldn't transform Iran into a major world power overnight and certainly wouldn't enable it to threaten Israel or blackmail its neighbors. If this view is accurate, then a final deal on Iran's nuclear program -- i.e., one that scales back those elements that shorten the breakout period but leaves Iran with some enrichment capacity -- isn't that significant by itself, because Iran wasn't really seeking a weapon anyway and its getting a few bombs wouldn't have that big an impact on world politics.

Thus, the paradox: Many supporters of a diplomatic deal don't believe the danger of a "nuclear Iran" is all that momentous, while opponents of the current deal think Iran's nuclear program poses a grave and imminent threat. One would think the former would be more relaxed about recent progress, while the latter would be more enthusiastic. But that isn't the case: Those with a moderate view of the nuclear danger are much happier with the deal than those who (logically) ought to be more interested in anything that constrains what Iran is able to do.

In fact, the real issue isn't whether Iran gets close to a bomb; the real issue is the long-term balance of power in the Persian Gulf and Middle East. Iran has far more power potential than any of the other states in the region: a larger population, a fairly sophisticated and well-educated middle class, some good universities, and abundant oil and gas to boost economic growth (if used wisely). If Iran ever escapes the shackles of international sanctions and puts some competent people in charge of its economy, it's going to loom much larger in regional affairs over time. That prospect is what really lies behind the Israeli and Saudi concerns about the nuclear deal. Israel and Saudi Arabia don't think Iran is going to get up one day and start lobbing warheads at its neighbors, and they probably don't even believe that Iran would ever try the pointless act of nuclear blackmail. No, they're just worried that a powerful Iran would over time exert greater influence in the region, in all the ways that major powers do. From the perspective of Tel Aviv and Riyadh, the goal is to try to keep Iran in a box for as long as possible -- isolated, friendless, and artificially weakened.

But from the U.S. perspective, that's neither a realistic nor a desirable long-term goal. As I laid out last week, America's main strategic interest in the Greater Middle East is a balance of power in which no single state dominates. In such a situation, U.S. interests and leverage are best served by having good relations with as many states as possible and at least decent working relations with all of them. America's long-term interests are best served by helping reintegrate Iran into the global community, which is likely to strengthen the hand of moderate forces there and make Iran less disruptive in other contexts (e.g., Lebanon). Managing this process will require reassuring existing allies, but this development would also force current allies to listen to Washington a bit more attentively, which wouldn't be a bad thing.

Over the next six months, the fine details of a long-term nuclear deal will receive enormous attention and debate. Given the attention that Iran's nuclear program has received over the past decade or more, that level of scrutiny is unavoidable. But in the end the nuclear issue doesn't matter that much; what matters is whether an agreement on that issue will allow relations between Iran and the United States and the rest of the P5+1 to normalize in the months and years ahead. And it is that development that opponents of an agreement will be desperate to prevent.

Photo: FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images