What the Iran deal means for Tehran's nuclear program — and for the future of the Middle East.
A final, comprehensive agreement is yet to be drafted and signed, but by all indications negotiators have finally achieved a breakthrough in the decade-and-a-half-long Iranian nuclear negotiations.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA) framework agreement, announced in Lausanne, Switzerland, after days of grueling 11th hour haggling between Tehran and the major world powers led by the United States, is the closest we can get to a "win-win" deal. It paves the way for an end to the Iranian nuclear hysteria and a decisive rollback of punitive Western sanctions, which have collectively punished tens of millions of ordinary Iranian citizens.
It's a deal that perfectly reflects the democratic will of the American and Iranian peoples.
Polls have consistently suggested that a solid majority of Americans favor a diplomatic compromise with Iran, despite their reservations about the effectiveness of a deal. And a majority of the Iranian people, who voted for the moderate President Hassan Rouhani based on his promise to restore Iran's ties with the outside world, have also welcomed an agreement that ends Iran's isolation without violating its basic rights to peaceful nuclear enrichment.
While the war-weary American people can rejoice in preventing another conflict in the Middle East, the Iranian people have wasted no time in celebrating the promise of economic recovery and reintegration into the global community. Horns, chants, and cheers have filled the air across Tehran, echoing the country's celebrations during the 2014 World Cup.
The Iranian nuclear negotiations are a powerful testament to the wisdom of diplomacy — and a major boost to the diplomatic credentials of the Obama and Rouhani administrations, which have largely staked their foreign policy legacies on disentangling decades of mistrust between Washington and Tehran. The two powers, which have become de facto allies in the war against Wahabi-Salafist extremism across the Middle East, have taken a fateful step towards a "neither foes, nor friends" relationship. By stubbornly pursuing a diplomatic compromise, despite vehement pushback from hardliners at home and abroad, they may very well have prevented a destructive war in a region that's already the world's most turbulent and traumatized.
The historic Nixon-Mao opening in the 1970s cemented the foundations of a decades-long symbiotic relationship between Washington and Beijing, allowing one of the world's most sophisticated civilizations to rejoin the community of nations — and transform the global economy along the way. The Obama-Rouhani negotiations could produce a similar outcome, allowing the Persian civilization to retake its pride of place on the global stage, unleashing the talents and potentials of the 75 million Iranians who have been besieged and isolated for years under unimaginable external pressure.
But given the seismic implications of a comprehensive nuclear agreement that could potentially redraw the Middle East's geopolitical map, both Washington and Tehran will have to overcome vehement opposition in the coming months in order to meet the June 30 deadline for striking a final agreement. The stakes couldn't be any higher.
The Great Convergence
The two sides may have finally discovered the optimal point of convergence, thanks to the willingness of negotiators to respect each other's "red lines."
For Iran, it will not under any circumstance agree to a complete dismantlement of its much-prized domestic enrichment capacity.
Indeed, Iran maintains that it's entitled to domestic enrichment as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which, under Article IV(I), affirms the "inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production, and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination," provided they're not otherwise involved in nuclear-weapons-related activity. Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif asserts that the country's nuclear program "has always been and always will remain exclusively peaceful."
Iran's other key demand is that concessions on its part should be reciprocated by the removal — as swiftly as possible — of all sanctions, particularly the unilateral punitive measures imposed by Washington and Brussels since late 2012.
The Obama administration, in turn, has made it clear that it will settle for nothing less than a comprehensive, real-time, and verifiable inspection regime to ensure there is no diversion of fissile material for nuclear weapons production (which even U.S. intelligence agencies admit Iran has never yet decided to attempt). More precisely, Washington has settled for at least a one-year "breakout time" cushion. That's the time necessary for Iran to amass enough enriched uranium for building a single bomb.
These restrictions, and the accompanying inspections regime, are meant to allow Washington and its allies sufficient time to respond — whether through sanctions or military intervention — if any weapons-related diversion in Iran's nuclear activities is detected. As Obama bluntly put it, the aim is to "cut off every pathway that Iran could take to develop a nuclear weapon." Any agreement, he added, would "not [be] based on trust," but instead "unprecedented verification."
Much of the recent negotiations have focused on hammering out remaining concerns over the duration of the restrictions and inspections regime, as well as the pace and breadth of the rollback in sanctions. The JCPA reflects a working agreement on these issues.
Among the most important concessions Iran has reportedly agreed to are a reduction of its installed centrifuges by two-thirds; the halting of any uranium enrichment over 3.67 percent (which is only useful for power generation) for at least 15 years; the reduction of its current stockpile of about 10,000 kg of low-enriched uranium to 300 kg; and a promise not to build any new facilities for the purpose of enriching uranium for 15 years.
Iran has also agreed to re-purpose and freeze uranium enrichment at its heavily fortified Fordow facility for at least 15 years, to remove the more advanced centrifuges from its Natanz facility, and to freeze enrichment at the heavy-water reactor in Arak. It's also consented to subject itself to the history's most robust inspection regime under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which will even have access to uranium mines and will exercise continuous surveillance at Iran's uranium mills for 25 years.
The JCPA provides enough room for both sides to claim victory before their domestic constituencies. Iranian negotiators can project "heroic flexibility" before their domestic audience, including hardliners, because they've fundamentally preserved Iran's right to peaceful nuclear enrichment at home. More importantly, the rollback in punitive sanctions — the exact mechanics of which are still under negotiation — will allow Iran's economy to recover, a centerpiece of Rouhani's campaign in 2013.
The removal of Western sanctions, particularly targeted measures against Iran's oil and financial sectors, could pave the way for a huge and much-needed inflow of foreign investment, the recovery of Iran's oil industry, and a resurgence of its heavily battered currency.
Western multinationals are also likely to celebrate. As economists put it, Iran combines the consumer market and human capital potential of Turkey with the hydrocarbon riches of Saudi Arabia and Russia and the mineral resources of Australia. Iran also has one of the world's biggest auto-manufacturing industries, which could tremendously benefit from cheaper and easier access to intermediate goods and technology.
In short, Iran is the hottest emerging market in waiting.
The nuclear agreement will also provide Iran much-needed strategic space, allowing it to get out of the shadow of Eastern powers such as China and Russia, which have exploited Iran's isolation in recent years. In light of sanctions against Tehran, China effectively forced the Middle Eastern country to provide huge discounts on its hydrocarbon exports and engage in barter deals — trading precious oil for surplus Chinese consumer products, which heavily disrupted Iran's domestic manufacturing sector — while gaining privileged access to Iran's vast energy and infrastructure sectors. Meanwhile, Russia is yet to honor its earlier agreement to deliver advanced missile-defense systems to Iran, which Tehran has desperately sought for years.
Many Iranians heavily resent this exploitation, recalling the motto of the Iranian revolution: "Neither the East (Soviet Union) nor the West (NATO), only the Islamic Republic!" With Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on its domestic and foreign affairs, repeatedly expressing his support for Iran's negotiators, much of the Iranian establishment has rallied behind the Rouhani administration's effort to resolve the nuclear crisis.
It's Balance of Power, Stupid!
The Obama administration, in contrast, has to contend with a largely hostile, Republican-dominated Congress at home as well as skeptical allies in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia and Israel, and their lobbies in the United States.
This explains Obama's spirited defense of the JCPA, which came after difficult phone calls with his Saudi and Israeli counterparts. Obama described the emerging final nuclear agreement as the best way to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis, decrying his opponents for failing to provide a "reasonable alternative" and for politicizing a delicate issue, which demands nuanced diplomacy if war is to be avoided.
More than the alleged threat of nuclear proliferation, the real issue at hand is balance of power in the Middle East.
First of all, both American and Israeli intelligence agencies indicate that despite mastering the fuel cycle, Iran hasn't even developed the necessary decision-making structure for weaponizing its program. Leaked documents show that Israel's Mossad recently concluded that Iran is "not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons," despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's assertions to the contrary.
Objective observers, including top intelligence and military officials in the West and Israel, agree that Iran is a rational actor, driven by a largely predictable cost-benefit calculus. Developing a nuclear weapon would not only violate the Iranian clerical leadership's unequivocal fatwa against nuclear weapons, but it would also be irrational for Iran to nullify its conventional superiority over most of its neighbors by providing a perfect excuse to its neighbors to develop their own nuclear weapons.
In A Single Roll of the Dice, Trita Parsi persuasively argues that "balance of power" considerations have largely shaped Israel's strategic predisposition towards Iran, both before and after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The late Kenneth Waltz, among the most prominent foreign policy scholars, similarly argued that the hysteria over Iran's nuclear program is largely driven by concerns over preserving Israel's strategic superiority in the Middle East.
So the Obama administration now faces a two-pronged task. First, it has to prove the viability of the emerging agreement in ensuring that Iran's nuclear program is purely peaceful. And second, it must assure its allies that it won't fundamentally alter the balance of power in the Middle East at their expense. This will be a remarkably difficult task.
The fate of any comprehensive nuclear agreement lies in a full-scale mobilization on the part of the Obama administration — and supporters of diplomacy, inside and outside the government — to overcome domestic opposition and get the U.S. Congress on board. All politics is local after all, even when world peace is at stake.