Consider the alternative: what opposition to the Iran nuclear deal could signal

The deal is at last concluded over Iran’s nuclear program, lifting many economic sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States, European Union and United Nations in return for long term curbs on the country’s nuclear program and the most extensive long-term verification and inspections regime ever accepted by a state. Exhausted negotiators rejoiced over the diplomatic deal after 17 consecutive days of negotiations in Vienna. Twelve years of impasse on the issue and the last two years of intensive coordination between the E3+3 (P5+1) and Iran have resulted in this historic moment. Though as difficult as the process was to get to this point, there remain critical barriers to implementation. Those opposing the deal (notably some hardliners in Iran and US) need to consider an alternative world without this diplomatic solution. They have a simple question to answer: how do we develop legitimacy for a non-proliferation regime that is already under challenge?

The details of the complex deal have been publicly unfolding over the past two days. In his statement yesterday, US President Obama clarified that all bottom lines had been met and Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons were cut off. Granting IAEA access whenever and wherever necessary, this deal was built on verification, not trust. It is understood that the conventional arms embargo will last another five years and restrictions on ballistic missile technology will last eight years. Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium will be reduced by 98%, with stockpile limitations in place for 15 years. A violation could lead to the automatic snap-back of sanctions within 65 days if a dispute resolution process fails. The agreement will be formalized in an attachment to a planned UN Security Council resolution later this month. Operative parts of the resolution, lifting sanctions for example, will be suspended for a few months pending progress on other parts of the deal.

The deal is yet to be ratified in home countries and it is likely to face severe opposition from hardliners in both the United States and Iran. Israel is busy briefing against the deal, and there is little doubt that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be attempting to mobilize lobby groups on Capitol Hill to make maximum use of the two months the Republican-controlled Congress now has to oppose. He was already vocal yesterday, tweeting: “When willing to make a deal at any cost, this is the result. From early reports, we can see that the deal is a historic mistake.” Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely also tweeted: “The State of Israel to work by all means to try to stop approval of the agreement”.

The Obama Administration was already going to find strong opposition even without this intervention. Nevertheless, Congress will need a two-thirds majority to insulate any rejection from a Presidential veto.

From the point of view of a hard-nosed strategic calculation, US Congressional opposition to this deal would appear sorely misguided. This deal marks major concessions on the part of the Iranians in accepting indefinite comprehensive inspections and verification processes, and very long term limitations on their nuclear program. Whilst the Rouhani administration will focus on the successes in achieving sanctions relief, hardliners will characterize the deal as close to capitulation. It contains a civil nuclear ambition marked domestically as a symbol of their independence and scientific prowess. A country run by a system built to some extent upon a robust challenge to the iniquities of the international system has been brought into line and to an extent has compromised its sovereignty. This can be partially offset by a robust diplomatic agenda to roll-out similar arrangements with other states (particularly in the region), and a revitalized process to achieve a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East).

Looked at from the point of view of the international system as a whole, the more powerful states, themselves with nuclear arsenals, appear to have faced down a challenger and used economic coercion to bring it into line and accept, at least for now, the current global imbalance underpinned by the non-proliferation regime. If the US Congress now moves to block this agreement, it will throw away this chance to establish such a ground-breaking precedent in the protection of the current pragmatic (though fragile) global order. It would ensure that the United States will be seen in much of the majority world to emerge from this episode as the unreasonable autocrat, and will harm international buy-in to that order. It will leave the United States and its allies with an unpalatable choice – a far greater use of military action to stamp down on future challengers that may be more powerful than Iran, with all the attendant opprobrium, cost in lives and treasure, or far greater accommodation of challenging states and a more rapid shift in power than we appear to have been willing to countenance in the past.

The legitimacy of the international non-proliferation regime is being challenged. Some may view it as a ploy by the nuclear weapon states to impose the power structures from 1945 on a very different international system today. The lessons of this deal already hold uncomfortable conclusions for those seeking a non-proliferation system built upon such legitimacy essential for the goal of universal adherence. A rejection of the deal on the basis that it does not sufficiently punish or control the Iranians would further expose the hard-nosed exceptionalism and hypocrisy that blocks progress towards a more stable world free from proliferation and nuclear weapons, and could have severe long-term consequences that reach far beyond Iran and the Middle East.

This is not about the legacy of Presidents Obama and Rouhani, but rather about the next stage in international relations, opening up dialogue between Iran and Western countries, and ending years of shutting Iran out as a pariah state. Rewards offered to Iran for accepting the deal would help to strengthen a non-proliferation regime and an international system that operates deeply in the national interests of the more powerful states, particularly the United States. The EU’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, summed it up yesterday in saying: “This decision that can open the way to a new chapter in international relations and show that diplomacy, coordination, and cooperation can overcome decades of tensions and confrontations. I think this is a sign of hope for the entire world and we all know that this is very much needed in this time.” The fact of the deal will inevitably tilt influence in both Iran and the United States towards accommodation. And there is much to be gained by cautious collaboration with Iran and other regional states in dealing with the terrifying complexities of the region.

But are people ready for this next chapter? Comments from members of the general public on Western media sites and Twitter feed show mixed feelings towards the agreement with Iran. When assessing the situation we should consider an alternative world without this deal. The financial sanctions that were put into place years ago against the Islamic Republic were done so in order to reach a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear deadlock. This deal is historic and should be recognized beyond the binary “for” or “against” rhetoric that is being portrayed by political pundits. Some concessions had to be made on both sides, so there will be points that people disagree with, but is that not the nature of diplomacy and negotiating? We should recognize this deal as a promising step forward and it would be “irresponsible to walk away from this deal“.


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