Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Nuclear Framework Agreement: What to make of this deal with Iran?

By Mahmood Monshipouri

The art of brinkmanship combined with right personalities on the stage have produced a promising framework agreement that speaks volumes about the fruits of diplomacy and engagement. Though there is no perfect and/or pretty arrangement, but from a non-proliferation standpoint, the P5+1 agreement is a good deal.

The surprisingly detailed and thorough terms set out in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – after the April 2, 2015 negotiations at the nuclear talks in Switzerland–  are a clear illustration. Experts have underlined the fact that no state has ever voluntarily negotiated special restrictions on its own ongoing nuclear program as severe as the ones Iran has accepted, and that no state has ever previously negotiated inspection methods on its own installations as intrusive and extensive as the ones that Iran accepted.

Although Iran’s enrichment program continues unabated, Iranian officials have agreed to cap enrichment levels at 3.67 percent for the next fifteen years.  This will cut Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium by about two-thirds.

Monitoring and verification methods will be installed to prevent — or better yet block — the covert pathways. The breakout period of 2-3 months will be increased to 12 months and robust, and intrusive inspections will be enforced to ensure that the process of enrichment remains focused on the generation of nuclear energy for civilian purposes.

The Fordow facility will be converted into a research center working on medical isotopes that have no military utility.  Iran’s heavy-water reactor at Arak will not produce weapons-grade plutonium. All nuclear facilities will be open to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), signifying maximum transparency and openness on Iran’s part.  Some inspections will even go on for 20-25 years.

In exchange, Iran will receive relief from sanctions that have crippled its economy in recent years. In case of any violations of the terms of agreement, “snapback” provisions can be immediately activated to re-impose the sanctions.

A good deal?

Exactly what is the definition of a good deal?  The answer lies in the fact that there is a tremendous groundswell of support in both Iran and the West for this deal. Granted, both the Obama administration and the Rouhani administration face a very tough road ahead, as the challenges inherent in seeing this agreement through over the next few months are enormous.

But the fact of the matter is that an extraordinary and unprecedented channel of communication has been created between the Iranian diplomats and their American counterparts. The importance of both the tangible and symbolic impacts of this communication process should not be slighted.  n this sense, it can be said that this agreement is more than a nuclear deal; it is about changing and redefining Iran’s relationship with the West and especially with the United States.

Perhaps the bigger question is this: how did we get here? The roots of this rapprochement must not be exclusively sought in the crippling sanctions and the threat of war against Iran, but rather in three major developments that in my view have facilitated this reconciliation: the tragic events of 9/11, the failure of military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the rise of radical Sunni Islamism in the region, mostly manifested in the genesis of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  The Islamic State has made the stability of Iraq largely dependent on Iran and has rendered countries such as Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia culprits in the creation of the ISIS.

Changing political dynamics

Without getting ahead of ourselves, it is important to realize that these three developments have changed the political dynamics not only in the region but also in Washington and Tehran.  In Iran, the threat of Islamic radicalism in the region has helped moderates and pragmatists come to power.  If a comprehensive deal emerges in late June 2015, President Rouhani’s clout will considerably improve, giving moderates a noticeable boost.

The dynamics of the youth bulge and the educated populace in Iran, coupled with the looming prospects of the reformists winning a majority in the 2016 parliamentary elections, will surely favor this power transition in Iran in coming years. Could this mean that the future belongs to moderates in Iran? It could and — in my view — should, given that Iran has reversed a rule that had barred women from entering stadiums to watch big sporting events such as soccer attended by men. The new ruling now allows women to attend sport stadiums, especially soccer stadiums, which is an immensely popular sport in the country (New York Times, April 5, 2015, p. A8).  This certainly is a win for President Rouhani, who had campaigned in the 2013 presidential elections to broaden individual freedoms.

What consequences will this deal have for the region’s geopolitical stability? Several, I happen to believe. It could lead to a broader reordering of a region roiling in deep disarray. If the United States decides to withdraw from parts of the Middle East region — at least on the ground, while still maintaining the control of skies and sea lanes — in order to manage its other strategic interests in Asia (a policy that has come to be known as “pivot to Asia”), then seeking some political reconciliation with Iran makes perfect sense.

Why does this policy represent a plausible option? Because Iran holds the solution to several regional problems, including instability in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, to mention only a few. In practical terms, can the U.S. subcontract the fight against ISIS to Iran?  This may not be the obvious answer, but it is the more effective solution under the circumstances.

Paradoxically, but understandably, the Islamic Republic finds its interests overlapping with the United States in this situation.  That is a scary proposition for Iran’s Arab neighbors specifically, and the Arab world more generally, at a time when they suffer from a lack of a center of gravity and strategic leadership, with Egypt’s hands being tied in regards to its own domestic politics for years to come and the Saudis’ new and uncertain venture in Yemen causing unforeseen difficulties for them further down the line.

While it is too early and premature to talk about a major shift in geopolitical realignments in the Persian Gulf region in the near future, the prospects of change in the region have never been so dramatically obvious.

Questions going forward

Meanwhile, several questions persist: Will Iran play a new role in the region? What new security system or structure will be put in place to reduce tensions in the region?  Will there be a regional peace treaty in the Persian Gulf region?

For now, the United States must find new ways to assuage not only the Saudis’ concerns and fears but also those of its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partners. This might explain why President Obama has invited the leaders of the GCC states to meet at Camp David this spring.

It is worth noting that most troubles in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are a function of the lack of stability, democratic process, and economic progress. Blaming Iran for the MENA region’s domestic problems has increasingly lost its luster.

While President Obama is likely to make great strides toward preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, he cannot be expected to do much to curb domestic instability and mismanagement caused mainly by endemic corruption and poor governance.