The Limitations of the Iran Deal


Eighteen months, hundreds of thousands of travel miles, and countless cups of hotel coffee later, the world’s top powers strode up to the stage with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif on April 2 and declared “mission accomplished” – at least for the next three months. The central tenets of the negotiations – preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapons capability, minimizing the risk of a nuclear breakout, and establishing a strict inspection regime over all of Tehran’s nuclear facilities – were a justifiable source of pride for all of the negotiators in the room. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and the European Union’s top foreign policy official, Frederica Mogherini, managed to produce one of the most thorough and strict arms control agreements in the history of nuclear proliferation. This is nothing short of historic.

The political framework of the nuclear agreement, released by the White House and the U.S. State Department immediately after the joint press statement was issued, is well known and has already been analyzed by supporters, opponents, and skeptics of the negotiations. But, when taking an impartial, facts-based approach towards the agreement and judging the text on its merits, it’s difficult to see how the P5+1 didn’t come out on top.

Tehran’s centrifuge stockpile, 20,000 strong before the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was agreed to, will be slashed by two-thirds; Tehran will not be allowed to exceed a strict cap on the amount of low enriched uranium it produces for 15 years; not a single enrichment machine in Fordow will be permitted to churn out uranium for 15 years; the plutonium Arak facility will be reconfigured to be less of a proliferation threat; IAEA inspectors will be roaming Tehran’s nuclear facilities and verifying that the terms are being met; Iran will be a permanent member of the Additional Protocol; and the IAEA will have the power to launch investigations at any time if it suspects that something nefarious is taking place. In exchange, Iran gets a phased lifting of all financial, banking, shipping, automotive, and oil sanctions from the United States, European Union, and United Nations once the IAEA certifies that Tehran “has taken all of its key nuclear-related steps.”

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Still, it’s also important to recognize a reality that some optimists might wish to overlook: As strict and detailed as the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program is, this is not – nor should it be seen as – a magic bullet that will end tensions between Iran and the West. Relations will remain tense and adversarial on a number of regional security issues. The Obama administration may be silently hoping that a deal on Tehran’s nuclear program will lead to something bigger and brighter, like the ascendancy of moderates within the Iranian political system or the beginning of a U.S.-Iran rapprochement that strategically balances a turbulent part of the world. This is unlikely. A first-step comprehensive agreement on the nuclear file is a big win for both sides and has the potential to slow the proliferation of domestic nuclear programs among a number of Sunni Arab countries, but Iran and the West remain diametrically opposed on a number of crucial issues.

In Syria, Lebanon, and in a more muddled Iraq, the United States and its European partners are pursuing policies that are directly contradictory to what the Iranian government is trying to accomplish. The most obvious difference is on the issue of terrorism. For the West, Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon are violent, destructive anti-Semitic terrorist organizations seeking to destabilize the legitimate governments in both areas and consolidate their own power at the expense of Arab democracy and non-sectarian, nationalist political parties. Those same organizations, however, are critical partners for Tehran that provide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force with an essential beachhead in an Arab world largely hostile to a major Shia power. A deal on centrifuges and uranium enrichment will has implications for Iran’s patronage for either Hamas or Hezbollah in the near or medium term, particularly given the fact that both groups remain sympathetic to Iran’s goal of becoming the region’s foremost political power.

The situation in Syria is another case in point. Bashar al-Assad and his regime, responsible for the deaths of an estimated 220,000 Syrians over four years of civil war through the use of indiscriminate aerial bombardment, starvation, and chemical weapons, are a proxy force that the Iranians have been more than willing to support. Indeed, the Syrian National Coalition estimates that Iran has given Assad’s regime tens of billions of dollars to ensure that the Syrian army and pro-government forces possess the weapons, fuel and resources needed to sustain a war effort against an insurgency that the West has supported with covert assistance, humanitarian aid, and non-lethal military gear. The Assad regime, first under Hafez and then under son Bashar, has been the only Arab ally that Tehran has been able to court over the past forty years, and its support over the last four years of the war is an illustration that the objectives of Tehran, Washington, Paris and London are simply irreconcilable at the moment.

Finally, there is the deep and personal dispute between Iran and the West on Israel. Ayatollah Khamenei, the generals of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the Iranian clerical establishment are – and will remain – implacably hostile to anything that the Israelis do in the region, regardless of whether or not a final nuclear deal is struck by June 30. During the closing days of the nuclear talks, the top commander of the Basij militia, Mohammad Reza Naqdi, loudly proclaimed that annihilating Israel was “nonnegotiable” for the Iranian regime. With so much national investment devoted to pressuring Israel along its borders through the subsidizing of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah, Iranian policy towards Israel is guaranteed to remain a lasting and significant problem to the west.

Ultimately, Khamenei is the ultimate arbiter of all things foreign policy and national security, meaning that any hope of a broader improvement in the relationship between Iran and the West needs to go through him before it’s considered a real option. Granted, Khamenei exhibited a degree of realism and pragmatism during the nuclear negotiations that was welcome to negotiators on all sides of the discussion, most critically his willingness to defend the Iranian negotiating team from critics and ensuring that hardliners in the Majlis didn’t get too boisterous in their opposition. But Khamenei didn’t do any of this as a favor to the United States or its partners in Europe – he did so because he fully understood that the economic sanctions that were levied against Tehran’s crude oil exports were such an albatross around the neck of the Iranian economy that it was depriving the government of critical resources from its budget.

For the sake of making the Middle East a safer and more predictable place, the agreement – particularly if it’s completed by the final June 30 deadline – will be valuable progress towards the goal of regional non-proliferation and a historic milestone in relations between Iran, the United States, and European powers. Yet acknowledging the good of what the JCPOA can do for regional stability doesn’t mean that the other problems dividing Iran and the West will be magically resolved over the coming months or even years. Unfortunately, the adversarial relationship that has defined interactions among Iranian officials and those in Washington and European capitals will persist long into the foreseeable future.

Daniel R. DePetris is a Middle East analyst at Wikistrat, Inc., a geopolitical consulting firm specializing in foreign policy and national security trends for clients worldwide. He is also a contributor to the Atlantic Council, a leading national security think tank located in Washington, D.C.

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