Reaching an agreement with Iran over its nuclear weapons programme has been a long and arduous process. The deal, announced earlier today, is a tremendous achievement for non-proliferation and regional security – and for the negotiators and their political leaders. There are good reasons to believe it will stick.
First, there are effective provisions to guard against cheating. The agreement will deter Iran from breakout using existing or covert facilities. There are snap-back provisions to restore sanctions in the event of violations. In addition, the military option is still not 'off the table' – Iran will not want to risk an attack, which would grow more likely if the deal fell through.
Second, while there will be resistance in the US Congress, there are grounds for optimism that they will not succeed in undermining the deal. There is no viable better agreement available if the US turns down this one. For one thing, there would be no international support for more sanctions if the US were seen to have vetoed the deal. The deal’s opponents are unlikely to muster a veto-proof majority against the agreement; and a hypothetical Republican president in 2017 would hesitate before scuppering a deal that had by then been satisfactorily implemented and increased the security of the US and its allies.
Third, Iran is tired of being punished for something that it has not intended to do since the supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s ban on nuclear weapons, which dates from 2003, the year Saddam Hussein was toppled. Iran has recognized that it cannot develop sustainably as a nation without allaying international concerns. It also values its reputation. Reneging on its commitment not to build nuclear weapons, or withdrawing its agreement to the utmost transparency, either during or after the agreed 15-year limits on its enrichment activities, would demolish that reputation, with no appreciable gain to its security because of the retaliation and regional arms race that would follow.
Western negotiators in turn realized that the demands from Israel and others to completely dismantle Iran’s nuclear facilities and install 'anywhere-anytime' inspections were never realistic and could not have been negotiated or forced upon Iran. Iran has been a threshold state for several years. The breakthrough in obtaining verifiable commitments from Iran, including transparency that will last beyond the 15-year limits on what Iran can do, came in 2013, with the realization that it was too late to roll back Iran’s capacities and technical mastery by denying it technology and materials; whereas Iran might agree to postpone enrichment of uranium for power reactor fuel, it would never concede its right in international law to do so.
Sanctions, bold leadership in Tehran and Washington, and the recognition by the negotiators that a lasting agreement needed to be based on the rights and obligations in the non-proliferation treaty and above all on the incentive of mutual interest, all contributed to the success in Vienna.
The US and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states set out their aims in the Camp David Summit on 14 May: 'A deal that fully addresses… concerns about Iran’s nuclear program is in the security interests of GCC member states as well as the United States.' While some will fear that the agreement does not do this fully enough, the case in its favour is that it does so sufficiently, while being much safer for the region than any of the alternative courses of action available.
It does not mean that Iran will be the US’s new best friend. That is a myth – mutual distrust and mutual opposition to each other’s role in the region will see to it that any rapprochement will be gradual and limited. There is no real reason to doubt the strength of the US/GCC strategic partnership and the US commitment to deter aggression against the GCC. Another myth is that the agreement will lead inevitably to nuclear proliferation – acceptance of a verifiable civil Iranian nuclear programme now won’t lead to a Saudi bomb.
Iran will remain in bitter rivalry with the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and their partners, so there is concern about releasing Iran’s frozen oil receipts. But the funds will be used primarily to restore capital investment and public finances hit hard by the oil price. Some may go to support overseas activities, but it will not lead to a big change for the worse in Iran’s behaviour.
The agreement will not lead inexorably to a reduction in tensions, but neither will it increase hostility. It has its risks, but it is, as both President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei have said, a place to start to discuss other crises. Both of them, and Saudi Arabia, should do more to develop this opening into serious regional diplomacy across lines of enmity.
This article was originally published in the Guardian.
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