The historic nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 negotiators announced on July 14 is a transformative event for the Middle East, a victory for U.S. nonproliferation strategy, and will surely be one of U.S. President Barack Obama’s most consequential foreign policy achievements.
Auspicious as this occasion is, though, there is no guarantee that the agreement will survive, given how contentious the implementation phase is likely to be. Nor can the deal by itself end the lingering animosity between the United States and Iran, which predates the nuclear program. The landmark nuclear agreement will only be sustainable if it continues to serve the national interests of both countries. And here, if they think beyond their strategic divorce in 1979 and the recent deal itself, they will realize that they have much to gain from improved ties—and that the agreement will be crucial to this process.
To be sure, those in Tehran and Washington who oppose the deal—and those countries in the Middle East that have benefited from Iranian-U.S. estrangement—won’t make things easy. Still, the agreement is a risk worth taking, considering how unattractive the other alternatives are. Indeed, although the United States and Iran did not get everything they wanted in the negotiations, the agreement is the best they could possibly attain at this juncture. It is a “win-win” for both countries, and a triumph of diplomacy and hope over war and cynicism.
TURN DOWN FOR WHAT?
As Congress begins deliberations about the agreement, opponents will relentlessly lobby legislators to reject the deal on the grounds that it has not closed all pathways to a nuclear bomb and has legitimized Iran as a threshold nuclear power. But they will not be able to offer a viable alternative to it. Should Congress vote to reject the agreement anyway, Obama has promised to veto their decision. Overriding his veto would require a 2/3 majority in both houses of Congress, which is unlikely. Moreover, doing so would profoundly tarnish U.S. prestige and make it extremely difficult for Washington to sustain the existing sanctions regime on Iran. In other words, the chances that the agreement will survive Congressional opposition are good.
The breakout time for Iran to build a bomb, should it ever decide to do so, will be extended from the estimated two to three months to more than one year.If opponents fail to scuttle the deal under Obama, though, they will seek to convince Congress and the next president to continue and possibly intensify Washington’s containment of Iran. They will warn that lifting the sanctions and unfreezing Iran’s estimated $110 billion in foreign assets will make the country more eager to destabilizing the Middle East. They will insist that anti-Americanism remains a foundational principle of the Islamic Republic. What they will not mention, of course, is that the U.S. policy of containing Iran for years has not worked and has helped transform Iran into a regional power
The P5+1 agreed to lift nuclear-related sanctions on Iran because the negotiators were convinced that all pathways for Tehran to build a bomb Iran had been satisfactorily closed and that its key nuclear activities would be seriously curtailed or frozen for at least a decade. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, released on July 14, is a detailed and highly technical document that outlines in methodical detail the responsibilities of Iran and the six global powers. According to the document, Iran offered major concessions. It agreed to stop enriching uranium at 20 percent, a process only a few countries have mastered. Iran also consented to reduce the number of its centrifuges by two-thirds and to redesign the core of the heavy-water reactor at Arak so that it cannot produce weapons-grade platinum. Altogether, Iran will be compelled to get rid of 98 percent of the entire stockpile of its enriched uranium, which it can ship out of the country or sell. At any one time, Iran will be allowed to have inside the country only a fraction of the enriched uranium it would need to build a bomb.
The net result of these restrictions is that the breakout time for Iran to build a bomb, should it ever decide to do so, will be extended from the estimated two to three months to more than one year. This will give the West ample time to stop Iran from going nuclear.
The critics of the deal insist that they still don’t trust Iran. They shouldn't. Nor does Iran trust the West. That can come only slowly and through confidence-building measures, of which this deal is a good start. Verification, transparency, and continuous monitoring of the Iranian nuclear facilities will also help. In fact, Iran has accepted the most intrusive inspection and monitoring regime ever imposed on a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, including continuous monitoring of the Fordow facility, which is a highly fortified underground facility designed to withstand aerial bombardment. Iran has agreed to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect, where and when necessary and in consultation with Iran, any suspected Iranian military facilities. Tehran has also agreed to answer all questions pertinent to the military dimensions of its past nuclear activities.
Washington must slowly move away from its traditional and unconditional support of Saudi Arabia, but without fully undermining its alliance with the Kingdom. There, Washington can take a few risks. After all, Saudi Arabia cannot and will not find a better ally than the United States.
Washington must also seek a more balanced and nuanced approach toward the Saudi-Iranian cold war. A good place to start would be discussions among all three about Yemen and then Syria. But without the nuclear agreement and reduction of tensions with Iran, the United States would not be able to play this role, which would give it some maneuvering room to protect its national interests with minimal cost in the Persian Gulf and beyond.
When much of the Middle East is descending into unpredictable civil and sectarian wars, Iran is a regional lynchpin. A U.S. detente with the country can potentially help Washington achieve many of its goals in the Middle East. But this demands strategic imagination and patience. Almost two years ago, I wrote for Foreign Affairsthat we can and should do business with Rouhani to resolve the nuclear impasse. Now its time to do even more.