Sunday, November 24, 2013
The historic nuclear deal Iran signed with the United States and five other world powers early Sunday morning represents the biggest gamble of President Barack Obama's presidency, and the success or failure of that bet will have serious repercussions for the administration's standing on Capitol Hill, Washington's relationships with Israel and other Middle Eastern allies, and the national security of the United States itself.
The deal painstakingly assembled during four days of marathon negotiations at a luxury hotel here calls for Iran to halt most of its uranium enrichment efforts, eliminate its stockpiles of uranium already purified to near weapons grade quality, open its facilities to daily monitoring by international inspectors and significantly slow the construction of the Arak plutonium reactor. Nuclear weapons can be assembled using either enriched uranium or plutonium, and the new pact is designed to make it difficult, if not impossible, for Iran to gain enough of either material for a bomb.
In exchange, Iran would gain some relief from the punishing economic sanctions that had been leveled by Washington and its allies in recent years, freeing up roughly $6 billion. Tehran also won a commitment that the so-called P5+1 nations - the United States, Russia, China, France, Germany and Britain - wouldn't impose any new sanctions for the next six months. That was an important win for the Iranians since the existing measures have cut its oil exports in half and driven the price of its currency down to a historic low.
The negotiations between the two sides have been going on in stops and starts for nearly a decade, but the actual unveiling of the deal was strangely muted. The text of the agreement itself was signed at roughly 3:30 AM in Geneva's Palais des Nations in a quiet ceremony open to only a small number of reporters and not televised or otherwise broadcast electronically. Lady Catherine Ashton, the European Union's chief diplomat and one of the of the deal, didn't participate in the public rollout of the agreement or take any questions from reporters.
President Obama, speaking from the White House, said the deal "halted the progress of the Iranian nuclear program" and "cut off Iran's most likely paths to a bomb." He also stressed that the agreement was an interim measure designed to give negotiators from both sides six months to work towards a broader, permanent nuclear agreement. If a deal couldn't be reached - or if the United States found evidence that Iran was trying to secretly continue work on its nuclear weapons program - Obama promised to restore the sanctions that had been lifted and impose harsh new ones.
The White House moved quickly to try to preempt criticism that the deal gave Iran too much. A senior administration official in Washington said the primary U.S. sanctions against Iran's oil and banking sectors would remain fully intact, which means that Iran would lose roughly $30 billion in oil revenue over the next six months, far more than it stands to gain as part of the agreement. "Iran will actually be worse off at the end of this six month deal than it is today," the official said.
With the agreement in place, the administration is now gambling that it can overcome three distinct challenges.
First, the White House has to persuade skeptical lawmakers to hold off on imposing new sanctions on Iran during the next six months. That may be a hard sell given the number of lawmakers from both parties who want to increase the sanctions on Iran rather than softening or relieving any of the existing measures. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, a close White House ally, has said he's prepared to take up a tough new sanctions bill when the Senate comes back into session next month. The bill would almost certainly pass if it was put to a full vote. Secretary of State John Kerry said Obama was prepared to veto new sanctions legislation, but that's a battle the White House would dearly love to avoid.
Next, the administration faces the tough task of convincing Israel that the deal does enough to constrain Iran's nuclear program that Israel should give the administration more time to work out a permanent pact with Tehran rather than resorting to unilateral military strikes. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was harshly critical of earlier iterations of the nuclear deal and has promised to do whatever is necessary to protect his country. Administration officials said Obama would speak to Netanyahu Sunday to brief him on the details of the deal. One official said in an interview that the White House felt that Netanyahu, no matter how angry he was about the agreement, would reluctantly give the administration six months to test Tehran's intentions. With the P5+1 countries committed to ongoing negotiations with Iran, the official said that Netanyahu knows any military action would risk rupturing Israel's relationships with the U.S., China and most of Europe. "Bibi will hold his nose, but he'll let us have six months," the official said.
The third and final unknown is what the deal will ultimately mean for American national security. The agreement imposes an unprecedented number of new restrictions on Iran's nuclear program and, if fully implemented, would make it extraordinarily difficult for Tehran to obtain a bomb. Still, the deal doesn't require Iran to disassemble any of its roughly 19,000 centrifuges or to destroy all of its uranium enrichment equipment. Netanyahu and other critics argue that leaving the core infrastructure of Iran's nuclear program intact means that Tehran could restart its weapons push anytime it wants, particularly if it senses that the West has lost its appetite for further sanctions or the potential use of military force.
Even if the deal succeeds in freezing Iran's nuclear program, meanwhile, Washington and Tehran still remain on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war and face lingerng disputes over Iran's support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, a network of heavily-armed Shiite militias in Iraq, and Shiite activist groups in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states. The nuclear deal could clear the way for further pacts down the road devoted specifically to issues like reducing Tehran's support for the regime of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. For the moment, though, those disputes serve as reminders of just how enormous a bet Obama has made by inking this new nuclear deal with Tehran.
-This report was first published in Foreign Policy on 24/11/2013