WWS Reacts: Iran Nuclear Deal

Jul 16 2015
By Kathryn Lopez
Source Woodrow Wilson School
On July 14, 2015, an agreement was signed by Iran and the P5+1, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, China, France, Russia, the U.S. and the U.K., plus Germany.
The final Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was reached after 20 months of negotiating the limiting of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. The announcement was both praised and denounced by officials in the U.S. and across the globe, including U.S. allies in the Middle East.
We discussed the agreement and its political and historical significance with two scholars at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs:
  • Daniel C. Kurtzer, Lecturer and S. Daniel Abraham Professor in Middle Eastern Policy Studies
  • Frank von Hippel, Senior Research Physicist and Professor of Public and International Affairs, Emeritus 
Following the conversation is a commentary on the historic agreement from Wolfgang F. Danspeckgruber, a lecturer of public and international affairs and the founding director of the Liechtenstein Institute on Self Determination at the Wilson School. He has worked on Iran issues for many years. The Liechtenstein Colloquium has facilitated several private meetings with the key actors in Liechtenstein and Vienna to privately discuss specific issues and problems.
Q. What are the key parameters of the Iran nuclear deal?
Kurtzer: First, for the sake of transparency, I have been an ardent supporter of the negotiations effort, and I believe the outcome more than meets the security interests of the U.S. and its allies. It is not a perfect agreement – there is no such thing – but it achieves the purpose of stopping the four pathways that Iran had been pursuing toward a nuclear weapons capability. There are significant restrictions on Iranian enrichment activities, and there is a system of intrusive and extensive inspections and verification. Sanctions will be reduced in line with Iran’s performance of its obligations, and will “snap back” if Iran fails to fulfill its commitments. In sum, this agreement is a very significant achievement in the long history of arms control efforts.
There are three useful sources to consult:
  • The text of the JCPOA;
  • The White House fact sheet; and
  • A very useful guide to some of the details, produced by the New York Times.
von Hippel: The agreement would remove nuclear-related sanctions on Iran in exchange for interim (10 years and longer) constraints on, and international transparency for, Iran’s enrichment and research reactor programs.
Q. Several longtime allies of the U.S., such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, have expressed concerns and even condemned the deal. How will this affect the political climate in the Middle East?
Kurtzer: Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has criticized the agreement in extremely strong language, following months of opposition to the very idea of trying to negotiate an agreement to do anything less than eliminate Iran’s nuclear program. The Saudis and the Gulf Arabs are very concerned that the agreement will encourage Iran’s regional ambitions and that sanctions relief will give Iran the funds to wreak havoc throughout the Middle East. On the other side of the argument, some analysts believe the agreement will usher in a period of internal Iranian economic development, to make up for years of financial stringency under the impact of sanctions.  
von Hippel: Israel, Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf states will be unhappy to see the sanctions lifted. Israel has nuclear weapons, a festering issue that Iran thankfully did not try to link to the deal. Senior level Saudi Arabian officials have vowed to match Iran’s nuclear program. 
Having an enrichment program does move a country toward nuclear-weapon capability. That fact is at the heart of this controversy. Alex Glaser, Zia Mian and I published a proposal in the June 19 issue of the journal Science in which we urged that, in order to avoid Iran’s example becoming contagious, the next step should be to place Iran’s enrichment program under multinational management. We noted that the only enrichment plant currently operating in the U.S. is owned by Urenco, which is under the ultimate control of the German, Netherlands and U.K. governments. We therefore can say to Iran, “We don’t have a national commercial enrichment plant. You don’t need one either.”
Q. How do you expect this to play out in Iraq and Syria, where an Israel-Iran proxy war has already been further complicated by the emergence of the Islamic State?
Kurtzer: In the immediate term, we are unlikely to see any dramatic changes in regional alignments, with Iran and Saudi Arabia fighting proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, and with Iran and an international coalition, led by the U.S., fighting against ISIS.
Q. Iran, the U.S. and the rest of the P5+1 must now present the deal to their respective governments. Do you foresee any significant roadblocks?
Kurtzer: The highly-charged atmosphere in the U.S. surrounding this issue is mirrored by an equally intense disagreement in Iran over the question of whether Iran should agree to any limitations on its nuclear program. Both political communities will be dealing with deep distrust of and animosity toward the other; and the outcome of the debate in Washington and Tehran is not a foregone conclusion. The White House has already embarked on a full-court press to obtain support for the agreement and, at a minimum, to build a veto-proof voting bloc in Congress.
von Hippel: There will be hot debates in both Teheran and Washington about whether or not this is a good deal. This will be complicated by jockeying for political power in both capitals and by Israeli pressure on the U.S.
Q. As time goes on, how will we measure the success of President Obama’s “hard-nosed diplomacy” approach? 
Kurtzer: “Success” will be measured in the first instance in terms of compliance, specifically the degree to which the international community and U.S. policymakers believe Iran has complied with the provisions of the agreement. The second measure of “success” will be manifest in the determination of President Obama and the other five negotiating parties to deal with any Iranian violation of the agreement.  
von Hippel: If President Obama – and the rest of us who think this is a win-win deal – are able to defend it, this could be his most important contribution to U.S. foreign policy. 
Q. Do you think this will work? Will Iran abide by the rules laid out in the agreement? What repercussions will there be if it doesn’t?
Kurtzer: Iran has abided by the terms of the November 2013 interim agreement, a fact that even critics of the current agreement, such as Israel, concede. That said, Iran’s covert activities in the past and the as-yet incomplete understanding of past Iranian programs that had possible military dimensions (PMD) are worrisome. In parallel with this agreement, the International Atomic Energy Agency and Iran have entered into a separate agreement that is focused on resolving the PMD issue. Should this happen, it will provide greater confidence in the JCPOA’s viability.
von Hippel: Iran has been scrupulous in abiding by the interim JCPOA of November 2013. I expect such compliance to continue at least as long as Hassan Rouhani is president. I doubt that a future Iranian – or U.S. – administration will break out. If either does, we quickly will be back into an escalating confrontation.
President Barack Obama speaks of “milestones.” People in Tehran celebrate in the streets. The Iran agreement is a diplomatic achievement of historic proportions, accomplished in Vienna 200 years after the end of the Congress of Vienna. Nonetheless, it is met with criticism from the conservative circles of Washington, Israel and the Sunni Gulf states.
The goal of the agreement was the prevention of an Iran with nuclear armament. Conversely, Tehran wanted an end to the sanctions, while the deal was simultaneously also about no less than the normalization of relations between Iran and the U.S., which have been poisoned for more than 35 years. An era that began with the overthrow of the shah and the occupation of the U.S. embassy in Tehran by Iranian zealots, including a 444-days long hostage-taking of 52 American diplomats, is herewith coming to an end.
Iran is an important regional power: The country lies at the crossroads between the Middle East, Central Asia, West Asia, the Caspian Region and the Caucasus, and has the largest natural gas reserves in the world as well as significant oil reserves. Even more important is its human capital of nearly 78 million inhabitants – the growing middle class is an attractive market for Western suppliers and will make Iran an essential actor.
The human factor – especially the personal performance of the Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, and his U.S. counterpart, John Kerry – played an important role for the realization of the nuclear agreement, which is an outstanding testament to the crisis-solving capability of diplomacy. It has also been interesting to observe how both sides have effectively employed social media, as well as neutralized external sources of negative interference.
Would that deal have been possible without the pressure of economic sanctions against Iran? Probably not. But in the end, all negotiating partners were looking forward to an end to these sanctions. What implications does the Vienna Nuclear Agreement have? Iran will become an integrated member of the international community, which will potentially cause a fundamental geopolitical shift in the Middle East and beyond. The U.S., EU and Russia hope to intensify the fight against the Islamic State, together with Iran. For the conflict-ridden region of the Shia Crescent with more than 130 million people, there is a chance of increased stability, also in Iraq.
Mistrust still will dominate the relationship between the U.S. and Iran for some time to come, and Washington will still continue to focus on its relationship with the Sunni Gulf states and Turkey. But a new balance might soon be feasible – including increased co-operation between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Many Sunni Arab states are likely to cooperate even more closely with Russia and China. Increased Iranian oil and gas production might further reduce world energy prices already under pressure with U.S. fracking and Saudi production. This could, in turn, further contribute geopolitical rivalries in the region. How will these rivalries continue to be hedged as the U.S. possibly withdraws further from the region?
Conclusion: The Viennese Nuclear Agreement is more than "just" a nuclear deal. While it might not necessarily enhance stability in the short term, it certainly provides for the opportunity of a new approach in the Middle East and will, in any case, promote economic upswing.
To read the article in German, click here.

WWS Reacts is a series of interviews with Woodrow Wilson School experts addressing current events.