So, earlier I told you I had no hot take to offer about the Iran deal. But now I’ve had a chance to read the whole document (well, I maybe skipped the lists) and digest some of the early arguments both for and against it, so…
This is a good deal. By that I don’t mean that we’re going to be looking back on it in 5 or 10 years and saying that it saved the Middle East or anything like that. Who knows what could happen between now and then? What I mean is that, if your goal was to reach the strongest possible deal to safeguard against the possibility that Iran might try to develop a nuclear weapon, and to begin the process of normalizing relations between Iran and the rest of the world, then this was almost certainly the best deal that could have been negotiated right now, in July 2015. Would this have been a better deal if Iran had given up its uranium enrichment program altogether, or if it had agreed to ship out all the uranium it enriched for conversion? Sure, but that ship hasn’t been in the harbor since 2004, if then. Would it be better if its restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activity were to remain in place forever, rather than sun-setting in 10-25 years (depending on the provision)? Sure! It would have been a better deal if Iran had agreed to turn any money it receives from sanctions relief over to me, personally, but that wasn’t going to happen either. Deal opponents who talk about the failure of this deal to “dismantle” Iran’s nuclear program, or words to that effect, are fundamentally using the perfect to try to discredit the good.
There’s a lot to like about the deal from a technical, non-proliferation respect, as arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis explains in greater detail than I could. He contends that Iran gave on at least 6 of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s nuclear “red lines,” while lauding the deal for its limits on Iran’s R&D, its checks on Iran’s ability to covertly pursue a weapon, and its creative solution for reimposing sanctions if Iran gets caught cheating (“snapback”), which somehow got Russia and China to give up their ability to veto the reimposition of sanctions in the UN Security Council. On that last point alone, the deal looks better than anything that could have reasonably been expected as late as last week. Questions definitely remain about IAEA access to Iranian military sites, and this is not only the area that American critics will go after, but it’s also the area most likely to threaten to scuttle this arrangement in the years to come, as inspectors potentially demand access to sites that Iran doesn’t want to open up. The procedure for resolving such disputes seems pretty clear, but it is an adversarial procedure and thus will inevitably lead to tensions and bad feelings on either side (or both sides). And contrary to what appears to be the emerging anti-deal narrative, the deal keeps the UN arms embargo on Iran for another 5 years, and 8 in the case of ballistic missiles.
Moving beyond the technical issues, the deal is more debatable. From the American perspective, Iran is and has long been undeniably a “bad actor” in the Middle East (and the same is true in reverse, to be sure). It supports groups like Hezbollah and Hamas that are hostile to American allies in the region, it backs one Arab government (Assad) that is also hostile to America and its allies and that happens to be repeatedly brutalizing its own people at the moment, and its involvement in Iraq, though broadly on the same page with our own involvement there, has not generally been good for the long-term resolution of that country’s biggest underlying problem (i.e., Sunni alienation). Sanctions relief is inevitably going to give Iran more money to play with in these areas. While I am far from somebody who buys into that hysterical “Shiʿa Crescent” nonsense, Iran will be able to up its support to Assad and its proxy militias in Iraq as a result of this deal. Within Iran, the regime objectively behaves in ways that are contemptible, routinely violating its citizens’ human rights, and while sanctions on Iran for its serial human rights violations aren’t going anywhere, the economic incentive for Tehran to change its behavior in this area will be diminished when these other, nuclear-related sanctions are lifted.
But look, Iran has already been able to offer Assad and those militias plenty of backing even with the sanctions in place, and if this deal leads to a thaw in US-Iran relations beyond the nuclear file, then it offers maybe the only chance of pulling the Middle East out of the death spiral in which it currently find itself. Want Baghdad to stop relying on unaccountable Shiʿa militias and start reaching out to its Sunni community, to undercut the inroads ISIS has made there? Probably a good idea to have Iran in the loop on that. If you believe, as I do, that ISIS can’t be stopped without stopping it in Syria, and that stopping ISIS in Syria can’t be done so long as Assad continues to be public enemy #1 for most of the country’s other rebels, then you would be well advised to work on convincing Iran to talk Assad out of Damascus and into cushy exile somewhere. Is that a long-shot? Sure, but what’s the plan for battling ISIS in Syria otherwise? Want Hezbollah and Hamas to renounce violence and become pure political parties (or disband altogether)? There’s only one patron that can make that happen, and the only hope you have of convincing them to do so comes on the other side of a successful nuclear deal. Yes, there are regional risks to this deal, and in the short-term you probably will see Iran increase its regional activities in ways that are not great for US interests. But there were significant risks to not getting a deal done, namely that without some possibility of a chance in US-Iran relations the awful status quo was likely to remain the status quo indefinitely.
In that sense, whether or not this deal succeeds depends on what comes next. Is this just the first of other agreements to come, on issues of collaboration (say on scientific or cultural exchanges, or on ensuring that the fragile Afghan government can withstand its many challenges) and of contention (could we see a deal to free American prisoners like Jason Rezaian from the unaccountable Iranian judicial system)? Is this really the start of a “new chapter” in the US-Iran relationship, “a new Camp David” as Marc Lynch puts it? Despite the fact that he’s consistently backed his negotiators and the talks themselves, Khamenei has already started ratcheting up his anti-American rhetoric, so don’t expect a grand rapprochement anytime soon, but maybe there could be a slow and steady increase in ties starting on relatively uncomplicated things like those scientific and cultural exchanges. Can Iran and its rivals in the GCC make some improvements in their own relations, with or without US involvement, with an eye toward improving regional stability? Are other countries in the region going to pursue their own nuclear programs now, and if so will they be willing to operate under the same constraints that the Iranians have accepted? If this deal doesn’t open the door to increasing diplomacy with Iran, or if it opens the door to another regional nuclear crisis, then it will have failed. But only time will tell how that plays out.
Finally, what does the near future hold as far as political challenges? Congress now has 60 days to review and debate the deal before it gets to vote on a bill to block its implementation. Obama has promised to veto that bill, which means that opponents will need to muster a 2/3 majority in both houses of Congress to block the deal. Despite the expected Democratic freakout at the prospect of taking a position on anything remotely controversial when there’s an election coming down the line, mustering veto-proof majorities in both houses for a deal that has been negotiated by the sitting Democratic president and endorsed by his likely successor as the party’s presidential standard-bearer is going to be a very tall order.
There will also be a political vetting in Iran, as despite the fact that we Americans like to pretend that Iran is a monolithic dictatorship, that just isn’t so. Conservatives will chafe at the limits that the deal places on Iran’s nuclear program, and as the terms become publicly known some of the elation you saw today in Iran may actually wane. Iranian public sentiment has been pretty clear in its opposition to giving up centrifuges and the freedom to conduct unfettered nuclear research, and this deal compromises on both of those points. Those who are opposed to Iranian moderates will use some of the terms of this deal to go after them in next year’s parliamentary elections, not to mention when Rouhani is up for re-election in 2017. Khamenei may even encourage these forces if he feels that Rouhani is getting too big a political boost from the conclusion of the deal.
In the short-term, conservative elements in the Revolutionary Guard and judiciary may increase their regional adventurism and human rights violations (if I were in the Obama administration, I would be suggesting that we insist immediately on high-level talks with Tehran over their American prisoners) in order to assert their independence from Rouhani’s moderate program, and the way Iran’s political system is organized, he’ll have no way to stop them even if you assume he would like to do so. But as Iran’s economy begins to respond to the lifting of sanctions, conservative elites are going to have a hard time criticizing the deal when they are personally benefiting from its terms, and provided Rouhani can ensure that ordinary Iranians see the benefits of sanctions removal as well, his political fortunes should be OK. Whether that can lead to a long-term realignment of Iranian politics is pure speculation, but again it’s nearly impossible to see how such a realignment could have even been remotely possible without a deal.
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