How’s this for symbolism? The interim deal over Iran’s nuclear program came on the last day of Persian New Year celebrations, a day for Iranians to put away past misfortune and make a fresh start. Remarks by none other than the leader of the “Great Satan” — that would be President Obama — were carried live on state television.
Symbolism is, of course, just that. But the deal announced Thursday is not just symbolic. Even at this stage, it is far more specific than most experts expected. It is the kind of imperfect plan, the fruit of grinding diplomatic work and painful compromise, that creates an opening to make history.
You can read the White House fact sheet on it here, or a highly critical take from Fox News; a nuanced and generally positive commentary from the Economist; or the views of one of Obama’s former negotiators with the Iranians here.
There is one thing almost everyone agrees on. The deal still could fall flat on its face. Here are a few of the ways:
• Negotiators could fail to complete the agreement. Plenty of very difficult details remain to be ironed out before the end of June, including exactly how Iran’s compliance will be monitored and how sanctions will be lifted. The first is crucial for the United States and its partners; the latter is a vital concern for the Iranians. Thursday’s agreement means that both sides are more invested in the process than ever, but 35 years of distrust and deep disagreements about many Middle East issues didn’t vanish overnight.
• Iranian hardliners could kill the deal. It’s evident that the agreement is popular on the streets of Tehran, but the streets don’t govern Iran. The governing structure is a tense mix of reformers and hardliners, under the ultimate authority of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. On one side are President Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who negotiated the agreement. On the other are hardliners who deeply distrust the United States and find it useful to keep America as the enemy. This is where the schedule for easing sanctions may become important. If it’s too slow and the Iranian economy doesn’t rebound, hardliners have a potent tool to turn against Rouhani, who has staked his presidency on ending Iran’s isolation, growing the economy and reducing unemployment.
• Opponents in the U.S. could scuttle it. While it’s not quite clear yet what the exact line of attack will be, it’s pretty clear where most congressional Republicans — and some Democrats — come down. Recall the reception Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got in Congress early this month, and the letter from 47 Republican senators to Iran’s leaders. Israel’s reaction was predictably quick and negative. It did not help that, as negotiators were finishing the deal, the head of one of Iran’s most violent militias, the Basiji, declared that eliminating Israel was non-negotiable, a comment Netanyahu quickly seized upon to reinforce his argument that Iran is as dangerous as ever.
• Middle East chaos. There is much more than this nuclear deal going on. Iran is a major player in a region in chaos; the most powerful country on one side of Islam’s great divide between Sunni and Shiite. It has rarely shrunk from supplying weapons or using violence to advance its interests. In Lebanon, it supports Hezbollah, which the United States considers a terrorist organization. In Syria, it has propped up the government of Bashar Assad. It has been a prime backer of Shiites in Iraq, including former Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who alienated minority Sunnis so much that he drove some of them into the arms of Islamic State extremists. And it certainly is somewhere in the background of the current conflict in Yemen. In this atmosphere, Saudi Arabia might pursue its own nuclear weapons. A regional crisis could make this deal seem less urgent, or Iran’s hardliners might instigate an action so egregious that it would tip the balance against this agreement.
Provided the U.S., its partners and Iran can pick their way through these minefields, here are a couple of points about implementation that those still sitting on the fence might keep in mind.
First, Obama has less than two years left in office, and much of the work will be done by his successor. An agreement already in place can be hard to undo. But regardless of whether you consider Obama a visionary or a weakling, what we know now of the 2016 presidential field suggests whoever wins is likely to pursue a tougher foreign policy and be more staunchly pro-Israel. On the Democratic side that’s Hillary Clinton’s reputation. And that attitude is in the mainstream of the Republican field.
Then, there is the issue of inspections. The Obama administration says the most stringent ever imposed will give advanced warning if Iran decides to pursue a nuclear weapon. Americans often think of inspectors and inspections as toothless and endlessly bureaucratic. Sometimes they do so at their own peril.
One cautionary bit of history: U.N. experts who conducted hundreds of inspections in Iraq were far more careful evaluating Saddam Hussein’s weapons program — and therefore closer to the truth — than was the Bush administration.