Over the weekend Iran and the P5+1 (permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany) reached what has been labeled as a ‘first step’ agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Three initial observations:
1. Interim but significant
The agreement essentially freezes those aspects of Iran’s nuclear program that most worry the international community (such as enrichment activities and work on the heavy water reactor at Arak) in return for limited sanctions relief. The agreement is meant to last for six months whilst a more comprehensive agreement is negotiated. It might well be replaced by another interim deal that includes a further series of steps if the two sides can’t agree on a comprehensive deal.
Despite the limited nature of this deal it is nevertheless significant. It is the first agreement between the international community and Iran over its nuclear program in a decade. In 2003 Iran and the EU-3 issued a joint statement in Tehran in which Iran promised to cooperate with the IAEA and suspend enrichment activities with a view to reaching a broader agreement on the nuclear program. That agreement was never reached and the last decade saw Iran’s nuclear program, and in particular its enrichment activities, accelerate.
In response, the US led an effort to impose a harsh sanctions regime, and there has been regular talk of military action against Iranian nuclear facilities. This agreement represents a significant walking back from these tensions.
2. Both sides want a deal
One key thing that is different about this agreement when compared to the 2003 deal is the involvement of the US. While the EU3 was in close consultation with Washington in 2003, America's absence from the negotiating table meant a comprehensive agreement was never likely.
But it is not just the fact that the US is at the table that has made the difference. It is pretty clear that both Tehran and Washington want an agreement. As I noted in my piece in Haaretz last week, the Obama Administration wants the nuclear file closed as it tries to reduce its footprint in the Middle East, particularly after a decade of war in the region.
Iran’s motivations are less clear. Many have argued that Tehran is desperate to ease the harsh regime of sanctions imposed over the last two years that have, among other things, reduced Iran’s revenue from oil exports by more than 50%. But while this is probably true, I also think that the regime feels in a relatively strong position in the region at the moment and is therefore more confident in its ability to extract a good deal from Washington. Indeed, in this deal Washington has made a significant concession to Iran by agreeing to the continuation of enrichment activities, albeit at levels much lower than those necessary to build a nuclear weapon.
Nevertheless, if it is true that both sides want a deal, it is not yet clear what Tehran, particularly Supreme Leader Khamenei, wants it for. It is clear that the Leader has given President Rouhani significant leeway to negotiate an agreement. The question is, why? Is it because the Leader is interested in resolving the issue once and for all, gaining Iran sanctions relief and ending its international isolation? Or is he simply pursuing the well-worn tactic of buying time and seeking to weaken international adherence to a sanctions regime that has been so strong and effective? Recent history would suggest the latter, although it does not entirely rule out the former.
3. The deal might be harder to derail than people think
Not unexpectedly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has condemned the deal as a ‘historic mistake’. Other American allies like Saudi Arabia will be unhappy as well. At the heart of their disquiet is a fundamental difference with the US in how they see Iran’s nuclear program.
For President Obama, the nuclear program is the issue. He sees it as a regional and global proliferation issue which he thinks can be resolved by diplomacy. Israel and Saudi Arabia see the nuclear question as symptom of a bigger problem: Iran’s aspiration to dominate the region. They doubt, therefore, that Iran will ever willingly give up its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability. In their view, even if Iran is willing to slow its nuclear program down, a narrow nuclear deal would not address the other aspects of Iran’s regional policy they worry about. Israel and Saudi Arabia don’t want a nuclear deal with Iran, they want the Islamic Republic cut down to size.
Israel and Saudi Arabia will be joined in their opposition to this deal by some in Congress. Hardliners in Iran will also be opposed. Indeed, the agreement is fragile and any number of things could see it fall apart. Yet despite the caution with which this deal should be viewed, it might be harder to derail than people think.
The agreement seems to reflect deeper and broader understandings between the two sides than are suggested by the text itself. It also suggests that the two sides know the general direction they are heading in with respect to a more comprehensive agreement. Moreover, having raised expectations of significant sanctions relief among Iranians, there will be some pressure on Tehran to deliver.
In the US, it is already clear that President Obama will invest a lot of effort to sell the deal to the American public over the heads of any Congressional opposition; he will probably find a receptive audience weary of America’s wars in the Middle East. This might mitigate to some degree efforts by Israel or Saudi Arabia to use friends in Congress to block the deal.
Of course, Israel could always decide to take military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. But if that option was attractive or viable, Israel would have taken it already.
Photo by Flickr user US Mission Geneva.