On April 2, a nuclear framework agreement was reached by the P5+1 to limit and inspect uranium production in Iran for 10 years in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. This is a good faith agreement around the baseline parameters. This means that the official agreement is yet to be drafted within three months or before, where the more minor details will be hashed out along each major party’s concerns.
Sound bites from national leaders were initially upbeat but have since altered their tone to the respective home audiences. The U.S. and the Iranians are forced to mitigate their harshest critics at home. President Barack Obama moved from a celebrated stance of “historic understanding” to seemingly playing down the agreement with the statement: “nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed.”
President Obama warned a Congress bent on raising new sanctions that his actions with Iran are “beyond politics” and that this was a matter of “war and peace.”
“Iran will face strict limitations on its program,” said the president. “And Iran has also agreed to the most robust and intrusive inspections and transparency regime ever negotiated for any nuclear program in history” and “if Iran violates the deal, sanctions can be snapped back into place.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in a translated CNN message on his return home, stated that the P5+1 agreed that Iran has the right to enrichment and the world has accepted that Iran is pursuing peaceful nuclear objectives within the framework.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered the most vitriolic condemnation for the nuclear talks that involved six major world players and Iran, warning that the deal would “threaten the survival of Israel.”
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s worries are largely taken out of proportion, say his critics. He is also at odds with his own intelligence and security service personnel, the public lack of appeal for military strikes against Iran and a strong political divide in the country in spite of his recent re-election for the fourth time. President Rouhani attacked his statements, calling them hypocritical of a secret nuclear power that has defied international law and never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Iran has repeatedly stated that its nuclear program is for civilian use only and the difficulty has been the verification process. This claim has two important objectives of empowerment and intended assurance. A “mystery” factor makes them look strong to enemies. The assurances for peace are designed to make them appear innocent. Both effects from such a position have allowed them to optimize an advantage in the nuclear framework agreement.
There are two areas of contention from critics around the globe: 1) the feasibility of verification and 2) the duration or sunset for limited uranium refinement. The agreement attempts to curtail the first while stalling the latter concern. In other words, Iran might build in secret or they might be at it again in a decade or both with the agreement signed and in place by June 30.
While these criticisms are important as they are valid, one must consider the alternatives to a final nuclear accord as either Western complacency, greater coercive diplomacy (already pushed to near limits of non-military actions), or future military strikes on nuclear installations—which war with Iran over a longer period of time and increased hostilities for ages.
Either Iran will remain rogue and isolated or they will reconnect with the international community. The nuclear agreement does not alter this dynamic. It does, however, potentially assure a more stable actor in the region and the world while getting a greater peak inside. One tricky aspect is balancing the nuclear agreement over the next three months with the outbreak of war in Yemen and across Syria and Iraq. The Sunni states may press their advantage too far after re-balancing Tehran. The P5+1 have an expectancy to remain more neutral but they also have an obligation to interfere in the case of human rights and aggression. Failure of an agreement would also mean directed Shia terrorism at the Western world in addition to Sunni terrorism aimed at the U.S. homeland. But even with the agreement, there are no guarantees. Violation of the agreement by either party will see greater hostilities.
— Hassan Rouhani (@HassanRouhani) March 26, 2015
Is there another alternative? If Tehran breaks the final agreement once signed, then they are also doubly dead. America, Israel and every Sunni state will pummel them to the ground. But this is the last of last resorts—a never hope option, if you will. Congress may derail the negotiations yet with the raising of sanctions but it is unclear why they would do this in relation to national security or positive U.S. foreign policy interest.
On the other hand, as almost half of the U.S. Senate explained in an open letter to the Iranians, a future President might not honor the executive agreement between the U.S., Iran, France, Germany, the UK, Russia and China. Without Senate confirmation it will never become a treaty. But that would mean breaking executive agreements with some of America’s closest allies (i.e., UK, France and Germany) who are also party to the agreement. It would also mean a departure of a long fought international consensus of limiting Iranian nuclear ambitions together that includes Russia and China.
Iran, for its part, is already under fire from economic sanctions that harm its economy but not its ability to function in as a disruptive regional player. They face hostility to Shia populations and are involved in three proxy wars in Syria, Iraq and now in Yemen. They do not have a backer like Israel and Saudi Arabia which can make their movements more erratic. They also have political action opportunism in Kuwait, Bahrain and must protect minority populations under extremist Sunni threats, such as Pakistan. It would be utterly foolish for Tehran to fail to finalize an agreement by June.
What’s next with Iran?
The world awaits Iran’s next move should the deal go through. It also awaits Washington’s next moves. Iran can really go toward greater belligerence at great cost to their present survival against a Sunni coalition or greater integration and reward beyond the region. It can go closer to the West or farther from it. As the world splits up into a more bipolar East-West dynamic, Iran is inclined to go east. This means closer to China with far less scruples and a Russia with none. But also, one must keep in mind the cold facts that Israel, Turkey, the Arab states and most of the world are also going east; and not just with economic ties, but with technology and arms trading as well.
So far, the talks offer little headway into changing the broader dynamics altering the region. America might do better to continue working indirectly through the UK to restore U.S.-Iranian relations creating a stronger backdoor channel with potential for normal pending relations in the future. Meanwhile, Washington must be careful to keep what little pull it has left with other regional players. Constructive engagement means more than diplomacy but America is rightly only willing to go so far with Iran. Apparently, Iran sees that it has done nothing wrong at all.
How U.S.-Iran relations will look will depend largely on what happens in the next three months at the conference table as well as on the battlefields in the region.
The real issue is not nuclear weapons but why Iran might want to pursue them in the first place. These reasons are: 1) the Islamic Republic must continue to act as the symbolic guardians of Shia Islam, 2) active protection of Shia enclaves, 3) opportunism in building regional political and militant strongholds around Shia enclaves; and 4) the pro-Palestine objective.
Addressing these concerns and how to influence them must be a priority in American statecraft. It might be difficult to cool down aggressive Iranian actions if they receive sanctions relief, as those in Congress have argued. Iran is willing to threaten Israel over mounting abuses in the West Bank and Gaza but is not in a place to do so. It is likely that the Syrian Civil War has actually diverted anti-Israeli actions for the time being. One might hope Iran might be willing to shut off Hezbollah aggression. After working with Syrian paramilitary underground, it is likely that such sadism cannot be retracted.
Ideally, a resolution on Palestine statehood alongside Israeli statehood should draw peace between traditional power centers, but even a landmark peace treaty like this would not bring peace in the Middle East. It would likely increase the radicalism of emerging non-state power centers such as the Islamic State and international jihadists, while calming state hostilities. In other words, Israel might be made safer from Iran and less safe from jihadist fringe groups. Iran under Rouhani might accept Israeli existence if it could sell the hardliners an apparent victory for Palestine. Unfortunately, there are no foreseeable scenarios with or without a nuclear deal where Israel is safe or not “threatened.” Its presence, its creed, its democracy and its actions are all consequential.
Further regional agreements or treaties should reach far and wide. They must be conflict silencers tied to the Iranian equation; and in addition to the nuclear deal. Diplomacy power plays can be impactful if reality, understanding and strategy are harnessed on all sides. All of this right now is wishful thinking, but the direction of affairs might be reset toward a better regional roadmap. While there is no pure peace future, there are more peaceful and more stable alternatives through clever statecraft; and through this region especially, one must be the smartest fox.
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