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International Politics

Iran Nuclear Deal: Creating a New Paradigm in the Middle East


On Tuesday, the P5+1 nations reached an agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran for the peaceful resolution of the nuclear impasse[1]. A collapse of the talks would almost certainly have resulted in an Iranian sprint for a working atomic bomb and very probably a US-led air campaign to prevent it. Negotiators from both sides have claimed victory; detractors on both sides have claimed catastrophe: that is a good indication that neither side got everything it wanted.


There is still ground to cover and the deal reached in Geneva might still unravel:

  • The US Congress now has 60 days to approve the deal. Congressional Republicans might very well reject it, though they will have to consider that a majority of Americans – including Republicans – oppose immediate US military action against Iran[2];
  • Should Congress reject the proposed agreement, President Obama has already said he would use his veto to overrule Congress. It is then highly unlikely that the necessary 2/3 majority could be mustered to overturn the President’s veto;
  • The Iranian legislature or Supreme Ayatollah might also reject the deal; but this seems unlikely given the immense popularity of the deal with the Iranian people and their expectation of imminent sanctions relief;
  • The United Nations will then need to pass a resolution formally adopting the terms of the agreement in a Security Council resolution. All the permanent members of the Security Council – those with veto power – are already in the P5+1 group;
  • Finally, the International Atomic Energy Agency – the world’s nuclear “watchdog” – must certify that Iran is complying with the terms of the agreement by 15 December 2015.

Only then will any sanctions be lifted, mostly those imposed by the European Union. The United States will not lift congressionally mandated sanctions for years, possibly not even after Iran completes its “demilitarization program” in 8 years. The President may nevertheless begin to revoke those sanctions imposed by executive order.

The devil remains in the details[3]. These are basically the same as the outline agreement reached back in April. Critics argue that Iran is giving up too little and will be able to cheat on the restrictions; but the safeguards and inspections regime is rigorous.

  • Iran must reduce the number of centrifuges from 19,000 to 6,000. The Iranians will be allowed to store the centrifuges rather than shipping them to a third party. However, inspectors will be able to verify the quantities and serial numbers of the stored as well as the active centrifuges;
  • Iran must reduce its stockpile of low-enriched uranium from 10,000 to 300 kilograms and may keep no highly enriched (weapons grade) uranium. Russia has agreed to take the excess radioactive material. Furthermore, Iran would not be allowed to enrich uranium beyond fuel grade (3.67%) for 15 years;
  • IAEA inspectors will have access to all of Iran’s civilian nuclear facilities and will be able to maintain surveillance equipment in these and conduct snap inspections of the same. Inspectors will also be able to access Iranian military facilities suspected of harboring nuclear activities. This will require an official request to which Iran has 24 days to respond. They may express “reservations” in which case the request goes to an arbitration panel that consists of representatives of the P5+1, the European Union and Iran. That would leave Iran and its two possible allies – Russia and China – in a 5 v 3 minority for most situations;
  • Economic sanctions (except from the US) may be lifted once initial compliance is demonstrated by the IAEA report, but they may be put back in place within 65 days of the IAEA reporting serious violations. Additionally, regardless of “good behavior”, the embargo on conventional arms sales to Iran will remain for five years and on the sale of missiles for eight years.

summary of deal

Beyond the details of the implementation and operation of the agreement, the deal represents a “Nixon going to China” moment in US foreign policy. If the deal holds, and if the Iranians live up to their end, and if the Saudis and Israelis come to accept (though never love) the new modus vivendi, it will fundamentally alter the strategic alignments in the Middle East and should lead to greater stability. Normalization of US-Iranian relations will have major impacts around the region and possibly open the door to negotiations on intractable issues, including:

  • The deal will strengthen Iranian moderates against the opposition conservatives and Revolutionary Guards. This might, in time, lead to greater openness and participation by citizens in the government. It is obviously not going to lead to liberal democracy, but it might lead to an end of the xenophobic siege mentality of the current conservative regime;
  • Improvement in the Shia-Sunni relations and the governance of Iraq;
  • Relations between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government; cooperation against the Islamic State;
  • Potentially a negotiated end to the Syrian Civil War, with al Assad going into exile in Tehran;

Admittedly, those are a lot of “ifs” to factor in. But alternatives are limited. The United States military is smaller and weaker than it was in 2003; and Iran is a far larger and more difficult opponent than Iraq ever was. Anyone who proclaims that air strikes alone will deal with the Iranian nuclear program is being deliberately deceptive, as I have outlined in previous articles[4]. Any serious attempt to terminate Iran’s nuclear program must involve an extended aerial campaign, the commitment of ground troops and the recognition that Iran’s reaction might extend to an invasion of Iraq where they might very well be welcomed by the Shiite population.


The nuclear deal is recognition by President Obama that there are intractable problems that cannot be dealt with through military action; it is a return to a more sophisticated and nuanced foreign policy than that practiced by the previous Republican Administration. It is recognition that the Iran, despite its hostility, is neither an irrational actor[5] nor an existential threat to the United States: The Islamic State is both. Should the United States stupidly become involved in a war with Iran, it is conceivable that the Islamic State could actually succeed in its goal of destabilizing and conquering large parts of the Arab world. The inevitable distraction of US forces from the campaign against Daesh and the probable spillover of a US-Iranian conflict into southern and central Iraq would provide ISIS with sufficient breathing room and opportunity to potentially win in Syria[6]: which could have repercussions across Sunni populations – but most especially to radical Wahhabist Saudi Arabia.

Most importantly, it avoids another fruitless war at immense human and financial cost, at a time when growing instability in Eastern Europe and East Asia require our full attention. After more than a decade of war, economic crisis and fiscal constraints, the US military is in desperate need of reinvestment and recuperation: the billions or trillions that war with Iran would cost could very well break the Armed Forces and the men and women who serve.

This is a good deal for the United States: it is the best chance of reducing proliferation risks across the region without war[7]. No agreement can provide a perfect guarantee: Iran might try to cheat. But there are safeguards in place that do not require us to trust the Iranians, or as a former President and Republican idol once said of another Evil Empire: “Trust, but verify”. This one will provide the US with the chance to balance the competing interests and regional powers in the Middle East, advance our interests and our national security, contain the Islamic State and avoid the burden of another war.

Sources and Notes

[1] Yaron Steinbuch, “Iran agrees to historic nuclear deal,” New York Post, 14 July 2015

[2] Sarah Dutton, Jennifer De Pinto, Anthony Salvanto, and Fred Backus, “Poll: Iran poorly handled by president and Republicans,” CBS News, 26 March 2015

[3] Ishaan Tharoor, “The historic nuclear deal with Iran: How it works,” The Washington Post, 14 July 2015

[4] Fernando Betancor, “Peace with Iran…For Now,” Common Sense, 04 April 2015

[5] It should be remembered that the Iranian nuclear program dates back to the 1980’s when it was supported by French technology and equipment. The Iran-Iraq War essentially ended active Persian efforts. These were only restarted in earnest in 2003 when Iran was labelled part of the “Axis of Evil” and when the Bush Administration gave tangible proof that it intended regime change across the region after dealing with Saddam Hussein.

[6] Fernando Betancor, “Outside the Box: Can the Islamic State Actually Win?” Common Sense, 12 June 2015

[7] If Iran manages to develop a nuclear weapons capability, Saudi Arabia will certainly follow them and there are rumors of a Pakistani “option” to buy a working bomb without the long lead time and hassle of an indigenous program.

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