The nuclear deal reached between Iran and the P5+1–five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany–is a historic breakthrough and a great step forward, but many domestic and regional obstacles threaten the longevity of this interim agreement.
Hardline factions within Iran are concerned about the potential results of a long-lasting deal that could alter the anti-western nature of the regime, while other countries in the region, such as Israel, find the Islamic Republic’s ambitions to be dubious. Iran’s moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, has to navigate a number of impediments during the next six-month interim agreement in order to set the stage for a potential long-term deal.
The current agreement caps all aspects of Iran’s nuclear program. No new centrifuges will be installed, no new enrichment facilities will open, and activities at the Arak heavy-water production plant will be limited and eventually stopped. Furthermore, daily IAEA inspections at the Natanz and Fordow enrichment facilities will be allowed, uranium enriched above 5% will be diluted to below 5%, and stocks of 3.5% enriched uranium will not be increased. In return, Iran regains access to nearly $4.2 billion of its frozen assets and will see an easing of restrictions on trade in petrochemical products, precious metals, and parts for aircraft and automobiles. It is estimated that the total financial package will be worth $7 billion to the country’s economy over six months.
EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif along with the foreign ministers of six world powers in Geneva.
This agreement may not be ideal for the West or Iran, but isn’t that the definition of a good compromise? The Islamic Republic freezes its production of 20% enriched uranium and dilutes the current stockpile, easily arguable as a step back from what the country has long labeled as a “heroic national accomplishment.” The West, by agreeing to a 5% enrichment level, tacitly approves of Iran’s right to enrich, a concession that could be costly in the eyes of many hawks.
Nevertheless, the deal is “limited, temporary…and reversible,” which is true in regards to sanctions relief and Iran’s ability to restart its nuclear activities. Six months is a short testing period for each side to examine the other’s commitment– a genuine, and much needed, trust building exercise.
This trial period will not take place in a vacuum. There are many domestic and regional obstacles that could easily derail the process and hamper the development of a long-term deal.
The major domestic obstacle for president Rouhani’s moderate administration is the opposition of hardline factions. Iran’s radical conservatives fear that any attempt to make peace with their enemy could result in tectonic shifts in the ideological foundations of the regime, which recognizes the western world as enemies of the values preached by the Islamic Republic.
Hours after the details of the nuclear agreement were announced, Keyhan, a conservative Iranian newspaper, published an article discrediting the accomplishment. “The U.S. Was Not Trustworthy: The Geneva Agreement Lasted for One Hour,” read the title of the piece. The editorial criticized the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry by adding that Iran’s right to uranium enrichment was being “violated and denied.”
For the time being, however, criticism seems to be coming from semi-independent conservative factions driven by ideology and a culture of resistance. The country’s senior political elite, including the Supreme Leader, seem to be united in praising the agreement as a victory.
In a letter to Ayatollah Khamenei that summarized the accomplishments of his first 100 days, Rouhani announced that the West acknowledged Iran’s right to enrichment and, as a result, sanctions will be eased.
“Achieving what you have stated is worthy of praise and appreciation of the nuclear team and other practitioners. This could be the basis for other thoughtful initiatives,” Khamenei wrote in his reply.
The interim agreement, as interpreted by Iranian officials, allows the country to enrich up to 5%, provides some much needed economic breathing room by easing sanctions, and reduces the chance of a military strike by Israel. However, as indicated by some of his recent anti-western rhetoric, Ayatollah Khamenei reserves the right to rain on the diplomatic parade if he senses that the ideological and security foundations of the regime are in danger.
Rouhani has been able to keep Khamenei content, and extremist factions at bay, because of his biggest source of political capital–the popular support of millions of Iranians. Rouhani acknowledges the value of popular support–an asset his predecessor lacked–and will do all he can to maintain it.
“Everything we have is because of you. Because of your resistance, your unity, your solidarity, and your unwavering support. The epic [election turnout] on June 14 was your creation. And today, this success is one of the fruits of that epic political presence. The government is proud to have achieved this success within the first 100 days of its administration. God willing, this path will continue with your assistance,”Rouhani announced in his speech to the nation following the nuclear deal.
The Iran deal could lead into a more permanent rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran, which is a big cause for concern on the parts of Israel and other regional powers such as Saudi Arabia.
In the eyes of many regional countries, Iran remains a revolutionary country with hegemonic aspirations. Any type of a long-term agreement could perpetuate the Islamic Republic’s ambitions, which may threaten the region. In the eyes of the Saudis, if Iran is no longer spending its resources to combat the United States, then it will be better positioned to dominate the Persian Gulf–a historic rivalry for regional supremacy between the two countries recently intensified due to political instability in Bahrain.
It is also feared that the ongoing negotiations will give Tehran a free hand to expand its support for the Syrian government and other U.S. adversaries throughout the region, such as Hezbollah–a concern for Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf countries.
Furthermore, Israel still views Iran’s nuclear ambitions as an existential threat. Hours after the agreement was reached between Iran and P5+1, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that “What was concluded in Geneva…is not a historic agreement, it’s a historic mistake.”
As an opponent of the deal, Israel believes the agreement provides Iran with too much freedom to continue with its enrichment efforts, and that it is simply a tactic used by Tehran to buy time. They are suspicious of Iran’s diplomatic rhetoric and believe it to be nothing but a “smiley campaign” launched by Rouhani to fool the western powers.
For the time being, Rouhani seems to have the support of the White House. Obama is discouraging the U.S. Congress from imposing any additional sanctions by highlighting their potential damage to the deal. Israel is not staying quiet and the U.S. Administration is attempting to appease Netanyahu while Iran’s commitment to the deal is tested. Rouhani is battling his opponents at home, while trying to pacify the country’s apprehensive Arab neighbors. The ultimate success of the interim agreement depends on how the U.S. and Iran manage to handle the worthy adversaries of a potential long-term deal.