The Importance of the Iran Agreement

April 4, 2015 Topic: Iran nuclear weapons Region: Middle East Blog Brand: 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.

The consequences of the Iranian leadership's direction-setting decision—if confirmed by a completed and implemented agreement—go well beyond the immediate matter of the nuclear program. The pragmatic inclinations represented especially by President Rouhani will be strengthened politically if his big bet on completing a nuclear deal succeeds, and will be weakened if he fails. The pragmatic inclinations will extend to many other aspects of Iranian foreign and security policy, on which Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif will be much better positioned to challenge Iranian hardliners than they have been as they have concentrated on getting the nuclear deal. A similar dynamic will extend to domestic policy, which is why those especially concerned with advancing human rights in Iran have welcomed the nuclear agreement. It is also why, bearing in mind the longer term effects of more pragmatic Iranian politics and more normal interaction with the West, longtime Iran watcher Gary Sick comments, “If you want regime change in Iran, meaning changing the way the regime operates, this kind of agreement is the best way to achieve that goal.”

Second, the agreement is a significant stroke in support of nuclear nonproliferation. Even though Tehran evidently stopped over a decade ago whatever work it may have been doing on developing a nuclear weapon, the agreement still is an important step on behalf of global nonproliferation given that Iran is a nuclear-capable state that probably has had active interest in a bomb and lives in a dangerous neighborhood of rivals to itself, including one state that nearly everyone believes already has nuclear weapons and whose leadership frequently talks about militarily attacking Iran. No state has ever willingly negotiated special restrictions on its own ongoing nuclear program as severe as the ones Iran has accepted. No state has ever previously negotiated inspection arrangements on its own facilities as intrusive and extensive as the ones that Iran has accepted. This agreement sets the bar high for any other future nonproliferation agreements or arrangements anywhere in the world.

We should consider in light of all this the often-voiced fears about a proliferation cascade in the Middle East and comments by people like the Saudis that “we want whatever the Iranians get.” Given the nature of what Iran has agreed to, the appropriate response to such demands is probably: you're welcome to it—although why any unsanctioned state would want to subject itself to such severe restrictions and intrusiveness is another question.

Third, this agreement partially releases U.S. foreign policy from restraints that have too long inhibited the ability of the United States to use all available tools, especially the diplomatic tool, to pursue its interests in the region. Abstaining from even talking to officials of one of the most important states in the region, as was the case with the United States and Iran until only a couple of years ago, is not an effective way to pursue one's national interests. The nuclear issue itself has already demonstrated the value of finally using the diplomatic tool—after years of failure of the approach of only pressuring and not talking. Cutting the cord that has kept one hand of the United States tied behind its back and following up the nuclear agreement by being able to conduct (even in the absence of full diplomatic relations) something more like normal business with Iran will be valuable to the United States in addressing such regional problems as the civil wars in Iraq and Syria and the violence of ISIS.

The nuclear deal has the beneficial quality of simultaneously supporting both the pursuit of U.S. regional objectives and the global nonproliferation objective. In this respect it is happily different from the nuclear cooperation agreement with India signed several years ago, in which U.S. policy debates tended to pit the nonproliferation community, which was wary of the signal that this agreement would send, against South Asia specialists who believed that this means of nurturing U.S.-Indian relations was worthwhile. The difference between that situation and the Iranian case, of course, is that the Indian agreement in effect accepted India's previous roguish behavior in developing nuclear weapons and operating outside the international nonproliferation apparatus, whereas Iran does not have nuclear weapons, is a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and is now committing itself more than ever to remaining a non-nuclear-weapons state.

Fourth—and by no means last in importance—this agreement is a step toward liberating U.S. foreign policy from three baleful influences that overlap considerably in terms of the people involved and the causes they espouse. One of those influences is a crude exceptionalism that believes the world is divided rigidly into allies and enemies, that the United States shares interests on everything with the former and nothing with the latter, that the only proper approach toward the latter is pressure and isolation, that what passes for diplomacy consists of the United States making demands and other nations being expected to accede to them, that throwing one's weight around is the way to get things done, and that because the United States has more weight and especially military weight than anyone else it ought to be able to get its way on just about anything. Another influence is partisanship that has become so intense and overriding that because the nuclear negotiations with Iran are an Obama project it is de rigeuer for any Republican seeking the presidency to oppose the agreement reflexively.