How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
The interim nuclear agreement signed by Iran and the P5+1 world powers (China, France, Germany, Russia, United Kingdom, and United States) is a momentous first step toward a final resolution of the Iranian nuclear impasse. It is not a perfect deal -- and the parties involved can reverse its every provision. Yet it is probably the best that anyone could hope for at this point in history, and it should be seen as a victory for all its signatories.
The agreement’s opponents don’t see it that way. They argue that Iran is the real winner because it achieved its goals without offering any major concessions (it is suspending its nuclear program for now but has made no promise to abandon it permanently). With Tehran’s history of deception, moreover, they say that there will be no way of knowing whether even its small assurances are genuine.
In truth, Iran has made significant concessions that would freeze some major components of its nuclear program. It has agreed to halt uranium enrichment at 20 percent. (Uranium at that level could be further enriched to 90 percent, which is weapons grade.) Iran has also agreed to convert half of its stockpile of enriched uranium to fuel rods for the Tehran Research Reactor and the other half to five percent purity. After Iran completes those steps, it would take a long time for the country to remanufacture enough uranium to build a bomb. The challenge would be made even more difficult by Iran’s promise to stop construction on its heavy-water reactor at Arak.
It is true that Iran has not been entirely transparent about its nuclear program in the past. But the country has now agreed to the most intrusive inspection and monitoring regime ever imposed on a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Tehran will allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect daily its facilities in Natanz and Fardow, which is fortified to withstand aerial bombardment. For the first time, the country would also allow inspection and monitoring of its centrifuge manufacturing facilities and its uranium mines and mills. Finally, Iran has noted its intention to sign the Additional Protocol of the NPT, which would allow the IAEA to impose and enforce stringent restrictions on the nuclear program. These measures would allow the IAEA and Western intelligence agencies to quickly detect any Iranian moves to redirect its nuclear program toward military purposes.
In return for these concessions, the United States and the European Union have agreed to impose no new sanctions on Iran and to suspend some existing ones on its trade in petrochemicals, automobiles, gold and precious metals, civil aviation parts, and food and medicine. Iran will also be allowed to access between $6 and 10 billion of the cash reserves that have been frozen in foreign banks.
But perhaps the most important concession is that the P5+1 are allowing Iran to continue enriching uranium below five percent. Iran maintains that this is no concession but is, rather, recognition of the country’s inalienable right under the NPT to enrich uranium on its own soil. For his part, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry insists that the interim agreement does not recognize any such right and that Iran is entitled to limited enrichment for peaceful purposes only if it complies with all provisions of the NPT.
Kerry's literal reading of the agreement is probably correct. Still, there is no denying that, on substance, Iran wins this round. And it is for precisely that reason that the deal’s opponents decry it. But any Iranian leader who agreed to zero enrichment would be writing his own political obituary. So unless the United States was prepared to attack Iran, occupy it, and change its regime, it was always unrealistic to expect Iran to completely dismantle its nuclear program or agree to zero enrichment. There is thus some basis to the argument that the recent agreement has implicitly recognized Iran as a threshold nuclear power, a power with the knowledge, expertise, infrastructure, and technology to build a bomb.
In the same way, any new congressional sanctions on Iran would be a deal breaker, since the interim agreement expressly prohibits them. If the United States attempts to impose any now, the negotiations would falter and the existing sanctions regime would crumble. Iran could then resume or even accelerate its enrichment activities. Imposing more sanctions on Iran is thus not a sustainable alternative policy to the current agreement. Perhaps understanding this, the U.S. Congress appears unlikely to impose any new sanctions for the next six months as sensitive negotiations proceed. However, a bipartisan group of senators led by Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) is already preparing contingency sanctions legislation that the group would introduce should the negotiations fail.
The technical aspects of the interim nuclear agreement aside, it is worth remembering the profound strategic ramifications of progress toward any sort of final deal. By opting for talks over bombs, the United States has significantly decreased the chance of war with Iran and enhanced its national security interests. The deal could pave the way for American energy companies’ reentry into Iran's oil and gas industries, which are in desperate need of foreign investment. Improved relations between the two countries would also encourage Iran to be less of a spoiler power in its own region, since it would feel less threatened by the United States. Already, negotiations have strengthened the hands of the moderate forces in Iran that are determined to pursue rapprochement with the West.
The interim agreement is a foreign policy victory for President Barack Obama. Like President Richard Nixon’s China policy, which changed the direction of the Cold War, in this moment, Obama might have initiated a tectonic strategic shift in the Middle East. Nixon faced his share of naysayers and pessimists, who refused to imagine that it would be possible to have normal relations with a radical communist regime. Today, Obama is harshly criticized by those who believe that it is impossible to have normal relations with an Islamic theocracy. In both cases, the critics were too frightened of change and unwilling to experiment with new and creative ideas.
Immediately after Rouhani won Iran’s presidency in June 2013, I wrote in Foreign Affairs that his pragmatism and moderation made him a man with whom the United States could do business. His administration offers the best hope for the two countries to develop a way to manage their conflicts. Just a few short months later, Obama and Rouhani have indeed started to come together. Even if they don’t solve the problems between their countries overnight, they have at least started to lay the foundations for better relations. And that is no small achievement.