In Zero-Sum Terms, the Iran Nuclear Deal a Huge Victory for Obama

Chief nuclear negotiators U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. (Photo: Yahoo News)

Chief nuclear negotiators U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. (Photo: Yahoo News)

Tehran never had a chance against the juggernaut of conventional wisdom erected and set in motion long ago by the U.S. and Israeli governments, along with the help of the media. It held that Iran was developing nuclear weapons when, in fact, any research, never mind construction, ended in 2003. By dwelling on what Iran may have done decades ago and falsely portraying its legal right to a nuclear-energy program as a threat, and then by sanctioning it heavily, the West kept Iran back on its heels. If you view foreign relations as a zero-sum game, the nuclear deal is a huge win for President Obama.

At Arms Control Law, Dan Joyner explains:

Iran definitely made some very significant concessions. In fact, one might be forgiven for thinking that, with all of the specificity placed on Iranian concessions, and really only fairly vague wording on the lifting of unilateral and multilateral sanctions (i.e. regarding timing) in the joint statement, Iran showed the most diplomatic courage in agreeing to this framework. I’m sure there is much that was agreed to that we don’t know about, and I have no doubt that [Iran Minister of Foreign Affairs and chirg nuclear negotiator Javad] Zarif and his team reached a satisfactory understanding with their negotiating partners on the sanctions question from their perspective. But I suppose I just wanted to highlight that Iran is the party that made the most obvious significant concessions in this framework agreement, and I think that they should be congratulated and respected for this. Though I have zero confidence that the right wing of American politics will see it that way.

Or as, at the Middle East Eye, Gareth Porter puts it:

The framework agreement reached on Thursday night clearly gives the P5+1 a combination of constraints on Iran’s nuclear programme that should reassure all but the most bellicose opponents of diplomacy.

But Porter reminds us:

It also provides the basis for at least a minimum of sanctions relief in the early phase of its implementation that Iran required, but some of the conditions on that relief are likely [to] create new issue[s] between Iran and the Western powers over the process. The agreement’s dependence on decisions by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the penchant of Israeli intelligence for discovering new evidence of illicit Iranian activities will encourage moves to delay or obstruct relief of sanctions.

Porter is one of the very few (if not the only) analysts to note the deal’s obfuscation over sanctions relief: “Figuring out how those pivotal issues were finally resolved requires sifting through evidence that is not entirely clearcut.” It seems the “two sides apparently agreed that they would not release any official text of the agreement.” But he’s able to part the clouds to a certain extent.

On US and European unilateral sanctions on oil and banking, which are of greatest short-term importance to the Iranian economy, the documents says those sanctions “will be suspended after the IAEA has verified that Iran has taken all of its key nuclear-related steps.” That wording appears to suggest that the sanctions would be suspended immediately upon the verification of the last step taken by Iran.

The US text thus seems to indicate that the Iranians won their demand that the Western powers give up their scheme for a “gradual” or “phased” withdrawal of sanctions. But the Iranians had wanted some of the sanctions removed each time they completed the implementation of a commitment, and instead the payoff comes only after the final step taken.

The US document also makes it clear that the “architecture of sanctions” regarding US unilateral sanctions – meaning the legal and bureaucratic systems underlying the sanctions – “will be retained for much of the duration of the deal and allow for snap back of sanctions in the event of significant non-performance.” The Iranians have complained that suspending sanctions while leaving the threat of future sanctions in place has an intimidating effect on banks and businesses regarding resumption of relations with Iranian entities. But they didn’t have much leverage over that question.

Porter goes into detail of the kind you won’t see anywhere else before noting:

Judging from the US interpretative statements, Iran could get the bulk of the sanctions relief in the initial period of implementation – much of it within the first year or so. But that prospect would depend on the good will of the Obama administration and the IAEA. The Obama administration may well be inclined to facilitate the provision of early sanctions relief. But the political dynamics swirling around US and IAEA policies toward Iran suggest that the processes of IAEA assessment and delivery of sanctions may not go as smoothly as Iran would hope.

Would the election of a Republican president affect the future existence of the deal?

Looking even further ahead, Iran is certainly concerned about how a future US administration could and would implement the agreement. Iran was insisting that the UN Security Council resolution repealing previous resolutions with a new one reflecting the comprehensive agreement be passed before the change in administration in Washington in 2017, according to the source in contact with the negotiators. It remains unclear whether the P5+1 agreed to that demand.