Finally, A Deal Is Done: Anything Is Possible, But Nothing Is Inevitable

Ten years after Iran last agreed to a series of concessions on its nuclear activities, the world has at last achieved a ground-breaking agreement that begins to resolve longstanding concerns about its nuclear ambitions. The interim deal offers a strong start to the still-unfinished task of ensuring that Tehran does not acquire nuclear weapons, and it contains a broader array of constraints and verification on Iran’s nuclear program than ever previously contemplated. Equally importantly, the agreement ties Tehran to an ongoing diplomatic process whose primary rewards remain deferred until a far more ambitious agreement can be achieved.

Understandably, the terms of the agreement are now being dissected around the world and, in some quarters, critiqued and even bitterly denounced. I will leave it to others with greater legal and technical expertise to engage in the detailed debates over the language in the agreement — in particular, the verbiage used to parse Iran’s oft-stated requirement that any deal acknowledge its perceived “right” to uranium enrichment.

Instead, at this early stage, I want to weigh in on the domestic political aspects of the diplomatic breakthrough for Iran. It is striking that the deal was achieved at relatively little cost to the brutally effective sanctions regime erected by Washington and its international partners over the course of the past several years. While the interim deal gives a bit more on sanctions that the Obama administration’s assiduous outreach to the press and pundit corps has previously acknowledged — American and European insurance and shipping restrictions appear to be deferred for existing oil exports — for the most part the sums are petty compared the excruciatingly high cost borne by both the state and its citizens as a result of the restrictions.

Fears of sanctions erosion are not founded in any realistic appreciation of the legal regime that has been constructed over the course of the past decade. By designating Iranian financial institutions, including the Central Bank, over their involvement in weapons proliferation and/or terrorism, Washington has forced most of the world to choose between the Iranian market and the American market. By levying substantial penalties on firms for even modest activities in Iran, the Treasury Department has reinforced a longstanding moral suasion campaign against even legal business with Tehran. Few companies will return until the liability and political risk of trade and investment in Iran have been securely reduced; no firms will make billion dollar investment decisions on the basis of a six-month waiver for ancillary segments of the Iranian market.

The upshot is that Tehran will see little short-term payoff for its nuclear gamble. The value of the rial will rise marginally, and the issue of the affordability of the controversial subsidy reform program can be kicked down the road for another few months. But Iranian businesses will still face severe hurdles in any trade with the rest of the world, and the exigencies of structural economic reform will remain just as urgent, and just as politically hazardous, as they do today. The deal struck this weekend, then, is a long-term investment by a regime that has historically banked its survival on adroit improvisation.

So how is that the impetuous Iranian leadership, situated amidst a fractious domestic political balance, has suddenly come to prioritize patience? This is a testament to the regime’s desperation, perhaps, or alternatively its determination to see the nuclear negotiations through to their conclusion — a full resolution of the decade-long impasse. In contrast to the conventional wisdom, which has situated Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani as an embattled iconoclast whose heroic attempts at engagement require external reinforcement, in fact the notion of rehabilitating Iran’s relationship with the world now commands the deep support within the Iranian establishment. The clearest evidence comes from Iran’s suspicious supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This interim deal provides little that should satisfy Khamenei’s imperious expectations, and yet it was greeted with his explicit endorsement.

The deal will be fiercely debated among the Islamic Republic’s elites — there is very little that happens in Iran that is not — and the system’s hard-liners will surely try to use it as a platform for their own ambitions. However, such partisan squabbling will not deter a leadership that has come to appreciate the domestic dividends of detente. If there were any doubt, the effusive public reaction to the deal within Iran — Iran’s foreign minister’s trademark Facebook posts and Tweets received tens of thousands of comments and supportive affirmations, and crowds cheered the negotiating team’s arrival at the Tehran airport — will reinforce the willingness to take the next step. Today, the Iranian government, and in particular its elected institutions including the presidency occupied by Rouhani, in perhaps its strongest position in at least 15 years.  

For Iran, what is truly monumental is the fact that two intensely adversarial states — and a quick listen to Khamenei’s latest screed reinforces the fact that Washington and Tehran remain foes despite this deal — managed to engage in a successful exercise of diplomacy. This is the first time in 33 years that Washington and Tehran have concluded a formal agreement, since the January 1981 Algiers Accords that terminated the 15-month hostage crisis. Even six months ago, few would have imagined that senior Iranian and American officials could engage in the kind of sustained, constructive dialogue that the world has witnessed over the course of the past three months.

The work required to achieve a comprehensive nuclear agreement will prove even more challenging than the past few weeks of talks, but the framework established by this weekend’s deal paves the way forward. On multiple occasions in the months since taking office, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has observed that anything is possible in the world of politics. He made good on that assertion by delivering on a preliminary nuclear after a mere 100 days in office. However, while anything may be possible, nothing is inevitable. Further progress in persuading Iran to do what is necessary to fully rejoin the community of nations will require more work, more creative diplomacy, and more courage by all sides, but especially by the Iranian leadership, over the course of the months to come.