Obama Strikes a Deal with Iran
By Nayyer Ali MD
The United States and the other permanent members of the UN Security Council along with Germany have been able to come to an agreement on the framework of a deal with Iran that limits its nuclear program for the next 10 years.
Iran has built up a nuclear infrastructure over the last decade that includes two major sites for uranium enrichment. Iran has always claimed its program is for peaceful purposes only, and that it has no intention of building a bomb. It is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and it claims that its activities are all legal within that treaty. Iran claims that it must develop its own civilian nuclear program both for medical purposes and for power generation rather than having to burn its oil that could be exported instead.
The United States, Israel, and many other world powers, along with Saudi Arabia and Egypt have all been very concerned about the possibility of Iran developing a nuclear weapon. In order to stop that, harsh sanctions have been applied both unilaterally by the US, and through the UN. As a result, Iran’s oil exports have been cut back, and its economy has suffered from lack of outside investment.
However, the world, and Iran, reached an impasse in the last two years. The sanctions were not stopping Iran’s nuclear development, and the world was not willing to lift the sanctions. Both sides were faced with tough choices. For the US, President Obama rightly recognized that a sanction regime would not stop Iran from building a bomb. A military option was put forth by many conservative voices, most recently by John Bolton in an op-ed in the New York Times. A military strike though would trigger a war with Iran, the consequences and costs of which cannot be foreseen, and given that much of Iran’s key nuclear sites are deeply buried, would be very difficult to destroy with a few airstrikes or missiles. A ground invasion of Iran, a country with three times as many people as Iraq, would be an obvious folly. More importantly, the Green Movement that sprang up after the Iranian elections of 2009 demonstrated that there are very strong oppositional voices within Iran, and a military act by the US would end that movement and destroy any chance of Tehran undergoing a peaceful evolution towards full democracy and a less confrontational foreign policy.
Obama decided to give negotiations a chance. After many months of hard bargaining a deal has been reached. It may not achieve everything that the US or some of its allies would want in an ideal world, but it places real limits on Iran’s program, and prevents Iran from building a bomb for at least the next ten years. If Iran were to break the agreement, it would still require at least a year to build its first bomb, providing the US time to re-impose sanctions and to consider military options.
In exchange Iran is going to get substantial relief from both UN and US imposed sanctions. Some of these sanctions will come off step by step and not all at the start. This will allow average Iranians to see real benefits in their lives and to increase the economic interaction of Iran and the West. Iranians voted for President Rouhani in the last election because he was the most liberal of the available candidates, and he has delivered a meaningful return to his voters, which will strengthen the hand of the moderates in Iran and weaken the hardliners.
The bigger question is whether this deal is a singular event in US-Iranian relations, or a signal of a major change in a standoff that has lasted since 1979. Bringing Iran back into the mix of Middle East politics, and rebuilding US-Iranian relations, is a complex and fraught scenario. The US and Iran find themselves allies in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan, while they are on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel, who has been claiming Iran has been two years away from building a bomb since 1993, has done everything he can to provoke a US-Iranian military confrontation. Obama has been wise to ignore him. He has also been wise to pursue the nuclear deal without bringing in side issues of Iranian foreign policy in general.
The fine details of this framework will be filled in over the next 90 days, and Obama will sign this deal. Congress may not like it, but the Republicans, and even some Democrats, who oppose it offer nothing other than the fatuous statement that they want “a better deal.” In the long history of US arms control treaties with American adversaries going back to the early 1960s, the conservatives have opposed every single deal as a sellout and a failure on the part of the American government to defend US interests. This deal will be no different. But history has shown that each time the conservatives were wrong, and it will show the same with this agreement. Obama should ignore his critics and move forward.