US Opinion and Commentary

“VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussion and opinion on these policies.” — VOA Charter

Iran Deal an Inflection Point for the Middle East

Posted July 14th, 2015 at 4:08 pm (UTC-4)
Comments are closed

By Barbara Slavin

Combing through the fine print of 159 pages, it is easy to see the landmark nuclear agreement   reached early Tuesday between Iran and the international community as transactional, not transformational.

In return for relief from crushing economic sanctions, Iran has pledged to restrict the most worrisome aspects of its nuclear program for at least a decade, and  for some parts, indefinitely.

But the depth of both opposition and support for the deal suggests  far more is at stake. This is one of those moments that my boss at the Atlantic Council, Fred Kempe, likes to call an “inflection point” – when the hinge of history shifts to something new.

It is too early to judge whether Iran and the United States will swiftly repair their relations after 36 years of mutual vilification. Unfortunately, the chants of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” are likely to continue at demonstrations staged by the Iranian government at regular intervals.

Unfortunately, too, Iran’s hardline security establishment may continue to hold three Iranian-Americans jailed on flimsy pretexts in a misguided effort to gain leverage over the United States.  Hundreds more non-hyphenated Iranians will also remain in prison for their attempts to expand freedom of expression and assembly.

But these practices would not have magically changed for the better in the absence of a nuclear deal. Achieving one empowers Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his cabinet of U.S.-educated pragmatists to try to broaden their agenda to social issues and to catch up with a young, well-educated population that has no use for ideological slogans.

In a speech delivered Tuesday to mark the nuclear accord, Rouhani said “today marks a starting point for a new mood … and a better future for our young people.”

Rouhani also reached out to Iran’s bitter Arab rivals across the Persian Gulf. “We consider regional security as our own security,” he said. “Iran is not after weapons of mass destruction… We call for greater cordiality and brotherhood.”

Countries such as Saudi Arabia are likely to distrust Persian promises while Iran continues to support proxies in Yemen, Iraq and Syria. Syria, in particular, has become a Pandora’s box of violence and dysfunction in part because of the sectarian hatred stoked by the Saudi-Iran divide.

But if Iran faithfully implements the nuclear agreement, that should reduce concerns that othercountries in the region will also seek to acquire the nuclear fuel cycle. It would also be helpful for the  Obama administration to try to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia together for a security dialogue that includes other key regional and global actors such as Turkey and Russia.

For now, attention will turn to implementing a complex agreement with hundreds of moving parts. The deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), will be codified in a U.N. Security Council resolution as early as next week.

The Obama administration will also submit the deal and accompanying certifications to Congress. Because negotiators failed to meet a July 10 deadline, Congress will have 60 days to discuss the agreement instead of 30. But, with a lengthy August recess on the calendar,  a vote will not occur until after Labor Day.

So far, U.S. views of the agreement have broken along largely partisan lines. Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush, echoing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, called the JCPOA “dangerous, deeply flawed and short sighted” and not diplomacy but “appeasement.”

Yet it was Bush’s brother, George W., whose refusal to negotiate directly with the Iranians from 2003-2008 is in part responsible a massive increase in Iran’s nuclear capacity. There were zero centrifuges spinning when he took office as opposed to 6,000 at the end of his second term.

The agreement reached today would bring Iran’s centrifuge numbers back down to 6,000 from 19,000 and restrict Iran from producing uranium beyond 3.67 percent of the isotope U-235 – far below the 90 percent needed to make weapons. Iran would also cap its stockpile of low-enriched uranium at 300 kilograms, a 98 percent reduction from the reserves it has now and a fraction of what is required for a single nuclear weapon.

Iran would reconfigure a heavy water reactor under construction at Arak so that it cannot produce weapons-grade plutonium and foreswear uranium enrichment at an underground facility at Arak. Iran has also pledged to allow access to military facilities to clear up questions about possible past weapons-related research.

No deal is perfect and in an ideal world, Iran would have no nuclear program whatsoever. But as President Obama said early Tuesday, “without a deal, there is no scenario in which the world joins us in sanctioning Iran until it completely dismantles its nuclear program.”

It would be interesting to hear how Jeb Bush and other critics would improve on an agreement blessed by all the world’s other powers.

As Obama said, “no deal means no lasting constraints on Iran’s nuclear program” and a greater chance of a disastrous new war in the Middle East.

(Barbara Slavin is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and Washington Correspondent for, a website devoted to news from and about the Middle East. The author of Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation (2007), she is a regular commentator on US foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, and C-SPAN.)

Comments are closed.