January 16 was implementation day for the summer 2015 agreement between the Islamic Republic of Iran and six world powers known as the P5+1 regarding Iran’s nuclear research program. By the terms of this accord, Iran is to curtail its nuclear activities, soothing Western fears that it aims to acquire an atomic bomb, and the West is to lift the sanctions that have isolated Iran from the global economy. The deal is a major diplomatic achievement that nonetheless throws the sheer scale of the Middle Eastern conflagration into sharp relief.
The P5+1 includes Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia, but the breakthrough in negotiations came in late 2012 when Oman hosted quiet direct talks between Iran and the United States. The Obama administration kept the face-to-face meetings going despite the increasingly flustered fulminations of Republicans, as well as Israel, Saudi Arabia and their respective mouthpieces. The Iranian leadership, for its part, looked past the Obama administration’s decision to step up the sanctions, its rejection of a 2010 Brazilian-Turkish initiative that could have brought an earlier resolution and its sabotage of Iran’s research with computer viruses (and perhaps more traditional means as well). At a deeper level, the deal transcended over four decades of mutual hostility springing for Americans from the hostage crisis and for Iranians from the CIA-sponsored coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953, subsequent US backing for the hated Shah, the US “tilt” toward Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war and President George W. Bush’s inclusion of Iran in an “axis of evil.”
The US-Iranian rapprochement is only partial, but its portent should not be understated. Prior to the 2012 contacts, the two long-time foes were on a collision course that could well have ended in US bombing of Iranian nuclear facilities and other military confrontation. Such a conflict would have been disastrous for both countries and would have deepened the calamities that have befallen Syria and Yemen, with a high risk of additional proxy warfare elsewhere.
The pact is also a success for nuclear non-proliferation. On January 16 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that Iran had undertaken all measures required for sanctions to be lifted. Iran dismantled more than 13,000 centrifuges, the devices that spin uranium ore into reactor fuel, or low-enriched uranium, leaving it with a fraction of its former capacity. The more advanced centrifuges that Iran disabled are in storage under IAEA seal and supervision. The UN’s nuclear watchdog further verified that Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium is far smaller than what Iran would need to enrich further to weapons grade and that Iran poured cement into its heavy-water reactor that could have produced plutonium for a warhead. Iran also agreed not to engage in computer modeling or other simulation of nuclear weapons design. The IAEA will monitor Iran’s nuclear activities on a continuous basis to make sure that these strictures are adhered to.
The Islamic Republic, of course, has always insisted that its nuclear research is for peaceful purposes only. There has never been solid proof to the contrary, but the clandestine origins of the current program gave outsiders reason to be suspicious. With this agreement, Iran has accepted restrictions and external scrutiny that go considerably beyond its obligations as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The deal, in other words, is as good as it gets—in terms of assurances that Iran is not building the bomb.
It was salutary, in fact, that in the furor over the deal in the US media and political spheres so many Establishment figures were willing to acknowledge reality. No US administration, no matter how bellicose, was ever going to compel Iran to surrender. To the contrary, the obduracy of the Bush and (for a time) Obama administrations on the subject of uranium enrichment wound up lending the Islamic Republic considerably more leverage when serious negotiations finally started. Staying close to the letter of international law, and loudly asserting its treaty rights, Iran managed to obtain enough centrifuges and enrich enough fuel to have something to give in exchange for sanctions relief. Now that the accord is completed, no US administration can afford to renege on it. The other five powers that signed the deal with Iran will not acquiesce in such abandonment—barring egregious Iranian violations—and Washington, not Tehran, will be alone.
Opposition to the agreement, if it goes beyond macho obsession with US primacy, is rooted in the notion that the Obama administration has betrayed Washington’s two main strategic partners in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia. This objection is utter nonsense: The White House has actually ramped up the twin “special relationships.” Months before the Iran deal was struck, the US pledged still more arms sales to Israel and the Arab Gulf states. In early March, Vice President Joe Biden met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss a new Memorandum of Understanding by which the US would send $5 billion in military aid for the next three years, on top of the $3.1 billion that is already on the way. And the US continues to slip target coordinates and high explosives to the Saudis for their criminal assault on Yemen.
Rather, the single-minded pursuit of détente with Tehran reflects the Obama administration’s own reckoning with grim realities of geopolitics. Israel and Saudi Arabia are garrison states that show no interest in “stability,” certainly not if that overworked locution means “peace.” Other US allies, such as Bahrain and Egypt, are betting blindly on pure coercion to bring restive populations to heel. Afghanistan and Iraq remain war zones more than ten years after US invasions. Elsewhere, with Syria being the chief example, events are out of any one power’s control and the outcome is impossible to predict. But the level of Russian, Iranian, Saudi, Turkish and other outside intervention there demonstrates the limits on US clout, which were always there but which Obama’s predecessors chose to disregard. The nuclear accord, with its tacit but unmistakable disavowal of aspirations to topple the Islamic Republic, is the administration’s effort to spare its successor still another quandary. It is crisis management and not a revision of grand strategy.
The Iran agreement is no magic wand, neither for winding down the combat in the Islamic Republic’s vicinity nor for improving that state’s horrid human rights record. Its promise is to banish the specter of yet another war in the Middle East. The deal’s tragedy is that its impetus came from the collapse of the regional order and the accompanying, incalculable human suffering.