Paul Pillar

The Importance of the Iran Agreement

A dominant reaction to the framework agreement on Iran's nuclear program, based especially on the State Department's fact sheet about the deal, is that it is remarkably detailed and thorough. The lead article in the New York Times described the agreement as “surprisingly specific and comprehensive.” Immediate reaction in much of the Israeli press was typified by the comment of widely read columnist Nahum Barnea, who wrote that “the details of the agreement that were reported yesterday are surprisingly good.” Irreconcilable opponents of doing any business with Iran were thrown off balance, reduced mostly to reciting old talking points that seemed all the more stale amid the news of the moment. Some notable people who were not among the irreconcilables but had expressed skepticism about a nuclear deal and could be expected to line up with the opponents have instead, seeing the terms, expressed at least mild support for the agreement. These people range from Bill O'Reilly of Fox News to King Salman of Saudi Arabia, not to mention the former head of Israeli military intelligence.

Over the next three months as the negotiators work on the still-challenging task of ironing out the remaining details, the opinion pages and airwaves will be filled as well with details, about types of centrifuges and inspection arrangements and much else. Some of that commentary will reflect genuine and legitimate concern that the final agreement be as carefully constructed and free of loopholes as possible. Probably more of the commentary will consist of the irreconcilable opponents raising as much doubt as possible about as many provisions as possible in the hope that the net effect will be to increase political support for killing the deal. All that the opponents will really be telling us is that this agreement, like any international agreement, is not perfect and does not meet the farthest-reaching goals of either party. They will continue their doubt-promoting campaign as they always have, without offering up any feasible alternative for similar detailed and skeptical scrutiny. Almost every detail the opponents address, about uranium enrichment and inspection access and much else, is a detail on which the agreement gives the United States more than it would get from the alternative, which is no agreement.

Amid all the wallowing in details, it behooves us to step back and to contemplate the big picture of what this agreement means and why it is important. The agreement, if completed, will be a major inflection point in U.S. foreign policy, particularly U.S. policy toward the Middle East. This moment is one of those times when it is especially useful for discourse and debate to be strategic and to address the overall direction of U.S. foreign policy rather than getting bogged down by a preoccupation with details.

The agreement has strategic importance for U.S. foreign policy in at least the following four respects.

First, it sets a direction for a major player in the Middle East—i.e., Iran, the second-most-populous nation in the region—that is consistent with U.S. interests and also in the interests of trying to make the Middle East a less tense and conflict-prone region than it already is. That direction is one in which nuclear weapons have no role in Iran's future and, inextricably linked to that restriction, Iran slowly and partially sheds the stigma of a pariah. The leadership of Iran, including the supreme leader, evidently have decided—and if they had not, it is inconceivable that they would have taken the negotiations as far as they have and made the concessions they have—that it is more in their interest and Iran's interest to move in this direction, even at the price of the restrictions they have accepted on Iran's nuclear program, than for Iran to be a bomb-building rogue. This decision gets to the all-important matter of Iranian intentions, which is so often ignored amid fanciful speculation about what Iran might conceivably do with its nuclear capabilities. The agreement, if completed and implemented, will confirm Iran's decision to move in the non-rogue direction and reinforce—because Iran would have that much more to lose if it departed from that trajectory—its decision. By contrast, defeat of the agreement and an indefinite prolongation of pariah status would instead give Iran more motivation to do the sorts of things pariah states do, including possibly trying to make a nuclear weapon.