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Iran nuclear deal goes further than most expected — and there are plenty of ways it could fail

REUTERS/Ruben Sprich
Representatives of the seven nations and the EU involved in the Iran nuclear negotiations posed for a photo in Lausanne, Switzerland on Thursday.

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.

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 04/03/2015 - 09:43 am.

    Dancing in the streets of Tehran

    is all you really know about who got what they wanted in this deal. But then there’s this:

    Iran Accuses U.S. of Lying About New Nuke Agreement

    “Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif accused the Obama administration of misleading the American people and Congress in a fact sheet it released following the culmination of negotiations with the Islamic Republic.

    Zarif bragged in an earlier press conference with reporters that the United States had tentatively agreed to let it continue the enrichment of uranium, the key component in a nuclear bomb, as well as key nuclear research.

    Zarif additionally said Iran would have all nuclear-related sanctions lifted once a final deal is signed and that the country would not be forced to shut down any of its currently operating nuclear installations.”

    • Submitted by Anthony Walsh on 04/03/2015 - 11:35 am.

      Also from the Free Beacon, here’s a snappy, reasoned, well-considered headline:

      “The Progressive Plot to Install Barack Obama as World Chancellor Is Going to Fail”

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/03/2015 - 02:01 pm.

      Oh, no!!! They have learned spin!!!

      What did you think the Iranian government was going to say? “Sure, we got the shaft. The other side held all the cards, and pretty much humiliated us. We lost, and we lost big.”

      Yes, even in Iran the government will try to put the best face possible on events. This may come as a shock to you, but they also may resort to half-truths and outright lies to save face at home. Can you imagine a government spokesperson doing such a thing?

      Incidentally, why do the Iranians suddenly have so much credibility in your eyes? Do you only like to believe their anti-American statements?

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 04/03/2015 - 06:29 pm.

      It wouldn’t make any difference:

      If the USA got 200% of what we wanted, folks like DT would argue we should have gotten 300%, Obama could not win, can not win with folks that are already per-disposed, or do they call that prejudiced?

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 04/03/2015 - 12:04 pm.

    Well, it certainly will be interesting to get the range of reaction from the putative presidents.

    And it will be also be fun in the various ways that the hardline right in both countries suddenly find each other in agreement.

    Hugs all around !!

  3. Submitted by Steve Vigoren on 04/03/2015 - 12:18 pm.

    Who is dancing in the streets of Tehran

    oh, it is the poor, the underemployed and underfed, who are hoping for a chance at a decent life.

    But some will find any excuse, hating our president at the top of the list, to not make a sober, logical examination of this opportunity.

    The republicans and the Iranian hardliners find themselves rooting for the same outcome, continue war at all costs, because that is a large part of the basis of their power.

  4. Submitted by joe smith on 04/03/2015 - 03:44 pm.

    Netanyahu, who’s job it is to protect Israel, didn’t like the proposed deal. France’s negotiator said the USA caved in and was disappointed, hell, when the French claim caving in there must be a problem.
    Unfortunately, RB is correct, you can’t trust Govt spokesperson on either side of this.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/03/2015 - 06:17 pm.

      Caving in?

      The French Foreign Minister said that the agreement included positive and undeniable progress, but work remains to be done. I don’t read that as saying the US caved in (I checked the source of your claim, and if you think Fox News or Free Republic can be taken as reliable sources for news about any Obama initiative, well, words fail me).

      Mr. Netanyahu would have opposed any agreement. You can’t go by him. If he doesn’t have security paranoia, he has nothing. Why do you think he didn’t want to discuss the Israeli economy during the election?

  5. Submitted by Bill Willy on 04/03/2015 - 06:25 pm.

    He’s seen it coming for more than 20 years

    I’m not sure if it qualifies him as a someone living in a certifiably paranoid condition, or means he’s just another politician making a good and lasting living convincing people he’s the ONLY ONE who can protect them from the Nuclear Bomb Spewing Dragons Just Over The Dune. But whatever it is, it seems to be an excellent example of how, if you tell people something over and over and over again, they’ll eventually believe it and start repeating it themselves.

    1992: “Then-parliamentarian Benjamin Netanyahu advised the Israeli Knesset that Iran was ‘three to five years’ away from reaching nuclear weapons capability, and that this threat had to be ‘uprooted by an international front headed by the U.S.’”

    1995: “In his book, ‘Fighting Terrorism,’ Netanyahu once again asserted that Iran would have a nuclear weapon in ‘three to five years.'”

    1996: “Netanyahu addressed a joint session of Congress where he darkly warned, ‘If Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, this could presage catastrophic consequences, not only for my country, and not only for the Middle East, but for all mankind,’ adding that, ‘the deadline for attaining this goal is getting extremely close.’”

    2002: “Testifying again in front of Congress in 2002, Netanyahu claimed that IRAQ’s nonexistent nuclear program was in fact so advanced that the country was now operating ‘centrifuges the size of washing machines.’”

    2009: “A U.S. State Department diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks described then-prime ministerial candidate Netanyahu informing a visiting Congressional delegation that Iran was ‘probably one or two years away’ from developing weapons capability. Another cable later the same year showed Netanyahu, now back in office as prime minister, telling a separate delegation of American politicians in Jerusalem that ‘Iran has the capability now to make one bomb,’ adding that alternatively, ‘they could wait and make several bombs in a year or two.’”

    2011: “Despite his heady rhetoric, Netanyahu’s estimates of an imminent Iranian nuclear bomb have consistently been at odds with analyses made by his own intelligence agency. In 2011, departing Mossad intelligence chief Meir Dagan said in his final intelligence summary that, contrary to Netanyahu’s repeated statements at the time, an Iranian nuclear weapon is in fact not imminent, and that any military action against the country could end up spurring the development of such a weapon.”

    2012: “He told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg in a 2010 interview, ‘You don’t want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs,’ adding, ‘that’s what is happening in Iran.’”

    2012: “At the same time Netanyahu was brandishing his cartoon bomb and telling the United Nations that Iran was close to obtaining a nuclear weapon, Israeli intelligence had actually determined the country was ‘not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons.’”

  6. Submitted by joe smith on 04/04/2015 - 11:03 am.

    Al Qaeda is defeated, Benghazi wasn’t a terrorist attack, Bergdahl served with honor, not a smidgen of targeting in IRS scandal, you can keep your doctor on and on it goes…. Netanyahu looks good by comparison … When the French say we folded, the White House claims victory and they are partying in Tehran we should be concerned unless you blindly follow.

  7. Submitted by Andrew Jenks on 04/04/2015 - 08:51 pm.

    Good story

    I believe we will find history to be on Obama’s side. You never make progress with bombs you just spread destruction.
    Sometimes destruction buys time but little else. In the end we all share the same planet. Fast forward 20 or 30 years; quite a few on the extremes will be eating crow (but will quickly try and take credit).
    So it goes…..

  8. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 04/05/2015 - 09:17 am.

    Well, now Obama is in a pickle. Iran has threatened Saudi Arabia over Yemen, which is being divvied up between the Houthi’s and ISIS. It is clear that SA has no faith in Obama’s ability to deal with the crisis he created in the Middle East, and have taken matters into their own hands.

    Who’s next?

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