By Oliver Tang
The phrase “Iranian nuclear deal” is likely to elicit multifarious reactions from people. Some people would possibly roll their eyes and question the credibility of Iran’s claims that it would follow a nuclear deal, citing reasons as basic as, “It’s Iran.” Others would disapprove of the conditions of the deal, believing that the terms of the deal are too easy on a country once (and possibly still) seen as a nuclear pariah. As French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius stated, shortly before causing a temporary halt in negotiations, “One wants a deal…but not a sucker’s deal”. Others, like leader of the National Iranian American Council Trita Parsi, would be quick to praise this “historic deal”, citing it as a revolutionary landmark in breaking down tensions between the United States and Iran. As a high school debater who spent two months arguing the merits of the use of unilateral United States military force over multilateral options (such as the international diplomacy that led to this agreement), I am all too wary of the arguments of for and against why Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani can be trusted. I’ve debated opponents calling Rouhani a moderate leader, a breath of fresh air from the hard-liners that used to govern Iran (I’m looking at you, Ahmadinejad) who is willing to work with Washington and the UN. I’ve also run into opponents who brought up Rouhani’s alleged history of violating nuclear agreements by hiding nuclear facilities as the former head of Iran’s nuclear negotiation team. A deeper look at the events leading up to the deal may shed some light on what we should expect.
The United States and Iran have traditionally not been on the best speaking terms, with official diplomatic ties cut off in 1979 after the Iran hostage crisis. Following the obvious threat of a nuclear Iran, Ahmadinejad’s outspoken tendency to promise America and Israel’s destruction, and Iran’s tenuous support of regimes like Syria as well as terrorist organizations, the UN has since voted no less than 6 times in the past 3 years to establish and strengthen sanctions on Iran. The US was a major enforcer of these sanctions, taking the extra steps to ban important privileges like exporting oil and having access to international banking, enforcements that it has only loosened very recently to a select few countries (China, India, South Korea) in light of a nuclear deal. If there is one thing that is certainly true about sanctions, it’s that they have devastated Iran. The UN historically reported that 576,000 children alone were killed as a result of sanctions leaving the country unable to important necessities of life like food and medicine. Both the efficacy and ethicality of sanctions were under heavy fire; nobody was truly sure whether Iran truly stopped its nuclear program under pressure and whether such harsh actions were even justified in the first place. No long-term solution seemed to be in sight.
However, two elections made a nuclear deal possible. First: Obama. In a popular televised debate for the Democratic presidential nomination, the then-Senator promised to sit down with Iranian leaders without any preconditions, a promise that his opponent, former first-lady, Hillary Clinton called “irresponsible and frankly naïve”. Ironically, the two would both work together within two years, as President and Secretary of State, to attempt to reach an agreement with an Iran ruled by hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. However, this leads to the second election: that of Hassan Rouhani. Rouhani, former head nuclear negotiator of Iran who won the presidential election with a landslide, has already shown some promise to the West. His opening presidential statement was, “Moderation in foreign policy is neither surrender nor conflict, neither passivity nor confrontation. Moderation is effective and constructive interaction with the world”. While he did not aim to completely discontinue Iran’s nuclear program, he stated that he was willing to work out a negotiation of less harsh penalties while still being able to keep Iran’s ability to develop nuclear energy. Additionally, the country of Iran as a whole seemed to be more willing to negotiate with the West over nuclear policy as Saeed Jalili, the country’s current nuclear negotiator who advocated resistance, placed 3rd in the polls.
These two developments were what gradually led up to the agreement in front of us today. The Associated Press reports that the US has been secretly talking with Iran for a significant portion of 2013 up to five times, a revelation that even Israel and its prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu were unaware of until this month. However, the agreement has expanded to more than just the US and Iran. An organization called P5+1, represented by Mohammad Zarif (Iran), Catherine Ashton (EU), Guido Westerwelle (Germany), Wang Yi (China), Laurent Fabius (France), William Hague (UK), Sergey Lavrov (Russia), and John Kerry (US), met with Iran as early as mid-February to discuss Iran’s nuclear program and agreed on a later November meeting, when the deal was finally reached.
It is extremely important to clarify the actual provisions of the agreement. Iran agreed to stop enriching nuclear material at a rate of 20%, (which is the borderline when nuclear energy becomes nuclear weapons) and went to the point of agreeing to both keep uranium enrichment below 5% and stop their infamous Arak power plant. Of course, the country’s current reserves also have to be dealt with and P5+1 is currently negotiating a timeline for the country to un-enrich its nuclear material already past 20%. In exchange, $7 billion of relief from sanctions is en route to Iran to mitigate the devastating impact sanctions (which have been promised to be frozen for 6 months) have left on the country and give the Iranian people some breathing space .
As promising the initial agreements sound, like every deal which leaves us with winners and losers, it is not without its critics. Regional allies like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel are uneasy about any deal with Iran and do not think the country is to be trusted. Such countries are also afraid that the potential relief this agreement may provide Iran may lead to the Khomeinist regime regaining traction and leaders like Ali Khameini, who wants to “crush the United States” into powder. There are also disturbing implications over acknowledging Iran’s (and the world’s) right to pursue nuclear energy. At what point does that right stop? Will acknowledging a regime like Iran’s right to something like this escalate into “a right to enrich” and a general acceptance of all levels of enrichment? There are also still those wary about Iran’s supposed history of violating nuclear deals. However, Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Robert Kirk (R-Ill) have been heading a bipartisan bill gaining traction that might provide a temporary fix. Threatening a boost in sanctions should Iran ever go back on its word, hopefully such warnings are enough to deter Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The deal is set to go in place in January, as Reuters reports.No matter how divided people may be over the efficacy of this deal and the promise of a solution to Iran’s nuclear aspirations, it’s undeniable that this deal is an unprecedented level of US-Iran relations. Hopefully, that alone can confirm that we have good things in store when it comes to Rouhani’s Iran.