For the U.S. and Iran, a nuclear accord upends old assumptions

In a solemn speech on state television, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani described the achievement of a comprehensive accord between Tehran and six world powers on Iran’s nuclear program as “an end and a beginning.” Like so many other assertions about the deal, Rouhani’s platitude is only partially true.

The July 14 announcement of an agreement clearly marked the conclusion of one particular process, the negotiations themselves. The two years of intensive talks to hammer out a nuclear accord, a process that gained momentum after Rouhani’s 2013 election, have reached their intended goal. It was the long-awaited culmination of a crisis that began more than a dozen years ago, with 2002 revelations of Iran’s covert nuclear facilities and the European-initiated effort to craft a diplomatic resolution in its aftermath.

The end of the nuclear talks poses a few certain consequences. Teams of weary but relieved government officials who have managed all the minutia of the talks smiled for commemorative selfies as they packed up their briefing books. The journalist corps, which endured repeated confinement in five-star European hotels, finally reaped its front-page headlines after weeks of reporting on menus and meeting timetables. And the three-ring circus of activists and advocates that repeatedly converged on the talks to cheerlead from the sidelines has had to return to less glamorous day jobs.

The more things change, the more they stay the same

But though the negotiating process itself has ended, the factors that undermine its relationship with the world have not. The deal will not put an end to the dispute over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The agreement will now undergo an excruciating dissection in both capitals, with every word of the 159-page English language text probed for signs of leniency or capitulation. Then, if it survives legislative scrutiny (as it is likely to do), a laborious implementation process will ensure that the issue remains a major preoccupation for each of the states that is a party to the agreement, as well as a source of continuing frictions and suspicions between Washington and Tehran.

Nor do Washington’s other differences with Tehran appear to be nearing a more auspicious conclusion. Only the most credulous optimist can assert that a nuclear deal will somehow produce an Iranian epiphany about the horrific and destabilizing consequences of its assistance to Bashar Al Assad. Tehran’s approach to extending its regional influence, via the funding and direction of violent proxies across the region, will continue to exacerbate instability in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and beyond, while fueling the geostrategic rivalry with Saudi Arabia and the related sectarian tensions. This week’s resumption of a trial of a Washington Post reporter underscores that Iran’s unjust detention of American citizens for months or even years will likely continue as well. The same streets where Iranians celebrated a deal yesterday were the scenes of anti-American and anti-Israeli protests, where both flags were burnt in effigy, only a few days ago.

Perhaps most importantly, as I’ll argue in a follow-up piece tomorrow examining the uncertain prospects for new beginnings, the underlying logic of Islamic regime is unlikely to be altered significantly by the resolution of the nuclear impasse. The nuclear agreement was a transactional decision for Iranian leaders, not a transformational one, and the odds against the moderation of the Iranian system remain overwhelmingly stacked against the establishment of the revolution’s elusive Thermidor. 

The vindication of diplomacy

What the agreement should cease is a few of the most enduring assumptions about U.S. policy toward Iran. In particular, we should bid a good riddance to the taboo — far more durable and salient within Iran than in Washington — against direct diplomacy between the estranged governments of the United States and Iran. As suggested above, the broader regional context mitigates against a formal reestablishment of diplomatic relations and fully functional embassies, as do Tehran’s own ideological sensitivities. However, now that Secretary of State John Kerry has racked up more time with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, than with any other foreign official, the retention of the official no-contact policy that governs both sides seems rather quaintly outdated.

The deal validates President Obama’s campaign theme of engaging with adversaries. In a broader sense, it should serve a reminder to a cynical American citizenry (and an even more cynical policy community) that negotiations can yield real results, and that the investment of time and talent can — at the very least — begin to offer solutions to international problems that had long seemed intractable.

Zarif, Iran’s Cheshire cat of a foreign minister, has drawn the bulk of the favorable press, mostly because he has proven himself to be a virtuoso performer throughout the negotiating process. From his early Twitter diplomacy, to his paparazzi-perfect appearance on hotel balconies, to his carefully-scripted return to Tehran, which involved a stopover at Iran’s most venerated Shia shrine — Zarif has surely earned his star turn and the adulation of millions of Iranians.

But the credit for the breakthrough is overwhelmingly due to the American side: the Bush administration’s far-sighted establishment of a robust multilateral coalition to address the Iranian nuclear issue and its cultivation even during the long diplomatic dry spell; President Obama’s sustained investment in outreach to Tehran even when Iran’s political climate was profoundly inhospitable; and Obama’s enormous investment of his own political capital in an inevitably unpredictable diplomatic process with Tehran.

And the outcome could not have been achieved without the determination and ingenuity of the American negotiators and technical experts, who met every Iranian-imposed obstacle to a deal with an inspired bridging proposal, as well as the indefatigable Secretary Kerry who, despite a broken leg and scorn from some corners, made the talks his own personal marathon. Even those who don’t support the terms of the final deal should commend the paradigm of renewed American leadership and problem-solving.

The efficacy of sanctions

The agreement ends another premise about U.S. policy toward Tehran — that of Iran’s invulnerability to pressure. Though Rouhani may have dismissed the influence of sanctions in his celebratory speech to the nation yesterday, there can be little doubt that, without the application of far-reaching restrictions on Iran’s economy, its nuclear program would have continued to expand.

Unwillingness to bend under pressure is a point of profound nationalistic pride among Iranians. A Khomeini-era slogan — “America can’t do a damned thing” — remains splayed across the walls of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran and in any other number of pieces of public propaganda. During the final days of the talks, Zarif managed to bolster his bonafides among domestic critics after his exclamation “never threaten an Iranian” during a conveniently overheard shouting match with European counterparts quickly morphed into an internet meme.

But while official dogma may eschew the idea of yielding to outside forces, Iranian leaders across the political spectrum found themselves surprised by the reach and the breadth of the latter-day sanctions regime. Three decades of indifference to American penalties had inculcated an illusion of invulnerability among the Iranian leadership that was tested and ultimately broken by Washington.

The post-9/11 American measures packed an unprecedented punch by severing access to the international financial system to individual Iranian banks and eventually most of the economy. Changes in energy markets made it possible for Washington to target Iran’s oil production without blowback to the global economy or domestic price at the pump. And Iran’s internal regression — its conveniently cartoonish then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the suppression of 2009 pro-democracy protests — encouraged Europe and much of the rest of the world to jump on board, for the first time in history of Iran’s turbulent revolution. 

Analysts have often argued that Iranian policies are shaped by varying degrees of pragmatism and a rational assessment of the costs and benefits of its options. On the nuclear program, however, Tehran’s uncompromising stance cultivated the perception that its leadership would pay any price for the program. That is disproved by this deal. The sanctions instituted over the course of the past five years forced Iran to temper, at least temporarily, its nuclear ambitions. Pressure worked, to the discomfort of many – including myself – who predicted otherwise.

The clout of Rouhani

Iran’s uniquely bifurcated power structure produces a strange dichotomy in the analysis of its leadership: on the one hand, an obsessive identification with whomever occupies the office of the presidency; and, on the other, a persistent tendency to undervalue its actual influence in favor of Iran’s “real” authority, the supreme leader.

However, as I wrote in the post that launched this blog more than two years ago, Iranian elections matter. They provide critical junctures for leadership and policy shifts, as well as vital openings for public debate and elite competition. This underscores a broader point about the functioning and durability of the Islamic system, which is driven as much or more by institutions than by personalities. Iran’s presidency represents a fulcrum through which the precarious balance of theocratic and popular authority is routinely rebalanced, and a powerful force for shaping policy outcomes and longer-term political evolution in Iran.

As early as the middle of 2013, it was clear that there was an impetus within the Islamic Republic to adjust the approach to the nuclear standoff, and that the presidency would become the instrument through which that shift was implemented. Within the first month of his term in office, all evidence pointed to the likelihood that Rouhani

had been tasked with an explicit mandate to obtain an agreement that would unravel the noose of international sanctions and rehabilitate Iran’s place in the world. The assembling of a cabinet of experienced technocrats, the transfer of the nuclear file to a foreign minister who boasts unparalleled contacts with Washington, the build-up of an unusual outreach to the world — all these were signals that the Rouhani era was intended to facilitate some kind of truce in Iran’s decade-long battle to defend its nuclear program.”

And this week, he delivered on that mission. That he did so while sustaining a mostly harmonious partnership with Khamenei, and managing the system’s other power centers, is evidence of his political acumen and influence, as well as the unusual equilibrium within a ruling system that is more consolidated today than at any point in recent memory. Rouhani’s ability to navigate the complexity of a post-deal environment will present new challenges, as the agreement surely will boost his sway as well as sharpen some internal rivalries. Still, one of the primary lessons of the latest episode of Iran’s fitful evolution is the evidence of the power of the presidency to influence central policy outcomes.

Tomorrow, I’ll explore the question of how the Islamic system may pivot next, with the deal’s sweeping sanctions relief poised to reinvigorate Iran’s economy, and what this means for the future of Iran.