Pulling Iran Back from the Nuclear Brink

By Stephanie Linares, Transatlantic Security Analyst

A six-month interim nuclear deal with Iran was something many believed would not be possible. In January 2009, during his inaugural address, President Obama hinted at what many considered to be a highly ambitious plan to open up communication with Iran. With the signing of the interim agreement, an estimated $7 billion in sanctions against Iran will be lifted. While not a permanent solution of any kind, the agreement is intended as a starting point for further talks to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Despite the potential offered by this deal, it has faced some harsh opposition from allies such as Israel, as well as within Congress, becoming a source of increasingly uncommon bipartisan agreement.


According to the Associated Press, meetings between mid-level U.S. officials and Iranian diplomats began in Muscat, Oman in 2011. These early talks were intended to lay the foundation for further discussions between higher-level officials on both sides. They achieved some progress, leading to Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Jake Sullivan, Vice President Joe Biden’s top foreign policy adviser, to travel to Oman starting in March 2013. In November, the talks were widely believed to be hindered by France’s insistence on four additional demands on Iran. These demands – which included placing all Iranian nuclear installations under international control, suspending the enrichment of uranium at 20%, reduce the existing uranium and stopping construction at the Arak reactor – effectively torpedoed the talks and resulted in a temporary stalemate on November 9, much to the ire of Iran although this outcome found support in Israel and some Gulf Arab states. 


Since the initial meeting in March, U.S. diplomats have reportedly met with Iranian officials five times – the most recent gathering ended with the interim agreement. The deal, agreed to on November 24 in Geneva, is the result of negotiations between the P5+1 (the United States, the UK, Russia, China, France and Germany) and Iran. Earlier French demands were incorporated into the interim agreement – including international monitoring and a moratorium on new facilities. French President François Hollande applauded the move as “an important step in the right direction.” The ability to bring Iran to the table highlights the effectiveness of sanctions in pressuring Iran economically and forcing its leaders to the negotiating table. Persistent inflation over the past few decades coupled with the dramatic plunge in the value of the rial in the past two years has resulted in Iranians paying increased amounts for basic supplies as well as imported goods. Oil, Iran’s main export and economic lifeline, has also been hit by sanctions, particularly by the European Union when it joined the U.S. embargo on Iranian oil last year, which also “blocked Iran from the global clearing system used by banks to process financial transactions.”


Opposition to and contention over the agreement persist, however. Among the most outspoken critics of the deal is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a staunch opponent of the negotiations. Netanyahu called the agreement a “historic mistake” and claimed the world was in more danger than before. Similarly, opposition has grown in Congress. According to the Wall Street Journal, Robert Menendez, the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, voiced the opinion that the “agreement did not proportionately reduce Iran’s nuclear program,” and emphasized what he called Iran’s “history of duplicity.” New York Democrat Sen. Charles Schumer warned that the “disproportionality” of the agreement could lead both Democrats and Republicans to pass additional sanctions in December.


Other potential problems emerging from the Geneva agreement include lingering resentments that could compromise Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Another growing worry is the possibility that the U.S. will have to reassess its policy toward Syria, as the Iranian-backed group Hezbollah is supporting Assad’s forces while U.S. ally Saudi Arabia favors the rebel Sunni forces. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia joined Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in welcoming the Geneva deal, albeit cautiously while insisting that the agreement is only a first step toward a comprehensive effort to remove WMDs from the Middle East.


Despite these reservations, the deal is unquestionably a historic achievement, marking a break from the 34-year political schism between the U.S. and Iran. The agreement is intended as a tactical stepping stone, even if only temporary, for the U.S. other major nations involved in the negotiations to reach the ultimate goal of a final agreement that restricts the Iran’s ability to develop weapons grade uranium and nuclear weapons. Vali R. Nasr, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, described the deal as “a major seismic shift in the region” that “rearranges the entire chess board.”


The simple reality is that no agreement will be able to effectively assuage all the concerns of the parties involved and manage to please hardliners in Iran and Israel, or more skeptical voices in Congress. Even if he so wished, Iranian President Rouhani could not stop all Iranian nuclear enrichment, while Obama and the UN would have been unlikely to gain any significant compromises from Iran without easing the sanctions that have plagued the country for so long. Rather than condemn the development or scrutinize the details of the Geneva deal, this opportunity should be used as a means to test Iranian compliance. Should this temporary deal prove effective, a more lasting agreement may be attainable. Indeed, on December 17, despite the renewed threat of sanctions from the U.S. Senate and pulling out of high-level talks in Vienna over the U.S. targeting of Iranian companies, Ali Akbar Velayati, a top Iranian official and adviser to Iran’s supreme leader announced that Iran was “ready” for a final nuclear deal with the world powers.

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