How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
It is difficult to judge the nuclear agreement forged last weekend in Geneva as anything other than a good deal. The Iranians will be no closer to having a nuclear breakout capability when the deal concludes than they are today. The amount of money that the Iranians will get is paltry -- about $7 billion total over six months -- especially compared to the roughly $30 billion that Tehran will lose during that period as a result of the sanctions on oil sales and financial transactions, all of which remain firmly in place. The objections that have been raised to the deal so far are either specious or tautological, or require the kind of tenuous conspiracy thinking that we typically disparage when it comes from the Iranians.
But the deal is only a small step in the right direction. Iran will end up somewhat farther away from developing a nuclear breakout capability, but it is hard to go much beyond that. There are so many ways for Iran to acquire the fissile material for a nuclear weapon that it is impossible to assess whether it will set Iran back by a week, a month, or a year. (Any such claims tend to reflect what the claimant wants you to believe much more than objective reality.) Moreover, the interim agreement will last for only six months and says nothing about what will happen at the end of that period. The hope is that the two sides will use the time to craft a comprehensive follow-on agreement; but the interim deal contains only the broadest signposts for such an agreement. Three years from now, if there is no comprehensive agreement, this interim deal is going to look irrelevant -- not bad, just immaterial.
In that sense, the interim deal is only important to the extent it helps to produce that ultimate, comprehensive agreement. Fortunately, the deal has real value as a confidence-building measure.
Simply put, the United States and Iran don’t trust each other. That is understandable given how they have both behaved in the 34 years since the Islamic Revolution. Mistrust is so deeply rooted on both sides that it has often threatened to make any serious negotiations impossible.
What is most significant about the current deal is its potential to overcome that mutual mistrust. Both sides demonstrated a willingness to make concessions on the issues that the other side needed them to -- and that is ultimately what will be necessary if there is going to be a successful final agreement. The United States needed to see the Iranians take meaningful steps to stop their pursuit of nuclear-weapons capability as reassurance that Iran was ready to give it up as part of a comprehensive agreement. Similarly, Iran needed some sign that the West (particularly the United States) would be ready to provide Tehran with meaningful sanctions relief in exchange for major concessions on its nuclear program.
That’s exactly what this deal did. The Iranians agreed to halt their progress toward a nuclear breakout capability for six months. Moreover, by agreeing to dilute its existing stockpile of uranium enriched to 19.75 percent purity, Iran demonstrated its willingness to scale back its nuclear program and move farther away from a breakout capability -- the most critical element of any comprehensive agreement. Similarly, the West showed Iran that it was willing to give Iran some cash and to suspend some sanctions, which are Iran’s minimal requirements for a comprehensive agreement. It is true that the sanctions were suspended but not rescinded, and that they represented the least important of the sanctions on Iran. But the signal mattered more than the substance.
Now both sides can tell their domestic audiences that the other side demonstrated a willingness to make the kind of painful concessions that will be required for a final deal. And that should give everyone some confidence that it is possible to get a more comprehensive agreement, one that would finally end the threat posed by Iran’s existing nuclear program. The interim agreement marks a very important, albeit mostly symbolic, step toward the type of deal that, not so long ago, seemed entirely unimaginable.
Caution is still in order. There are huge hurdles to be overcome. In particular, the U.S. Congress will have to allow meaningful sanctions relief to Iran, just as Iran’s hard-liners are going to have to be convinced not to stand on principle when it comes to their "right" to enrich and their demand to have all sanctions lifted. The U.S. Congress is going to have to agree to allow Iran’s economy to revive and Tehran’s hard-liners are going to have to be satisfied with the revival of their economy and some very limited enrichment activity.
This interim accord makes it possible to imagine such a deal, but it doesn’t make it a sure thing. It brings to mind the Chinese proverb that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. We have finally taken that single step, and we should not ignore its importance after so many false starts. But we still have many miles to go.