Iran Nuclear Agreement: Diplomacy Bears Fruit

Over the weekend, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) certified that Iran had met all of its commitments to roll back and limit its nuclear programs under the terms of a U.S.-backed deal reached last summer. In exchange, some economic sanctions have been lifted and the West will unfreeze roughly $100 billion in Iranian assets. The lifting of these sanctions should open up new opportunities for investment in Iran’s economy, particularly in oil. The deal also included a prisoner exchange in which five Americans were freed from Iranian custody.

Under the terms of the agreement, Iran has shipped 98 percent of its nuclear fuel to Russia, shut down a reactor designed to produce plutonium, and dismantled more than 12,000 centrifuges used in the production of highly enriched uranium, among other initiatives. The New York Times has a great series of graphics explaining how the deal limits Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear weapon here.  It is important to note that most aspects of the American trade embargo remain in place.  This nuclear deal lifts many international sanctions on Iran’s oil and financial industries, which will provide the country with much-needed cash in a period of low oil prices.

There are, of course, no guarantees that this agreement will permanently eliminate Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear weapon. The long-term success of the agreement depends on the IAEA’s ability to access and monitor sites in Iran to verify continued compliance. This proved to be a major stumbling block in US-Iraq relations in the 1990s, but it should be noted that the Iraqis never did succeed in restarting a program capable of producing a nuclear weapon during all those years of fighting about IAEA inspections. (More on this in my forthcoming book, Cheap Threats, which I will be discussing on the blog in the coming weeks.)

As I argued this fall and as the Obama administration has consistently asserted, this agreement is the best available means for curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The administration should see the successful implementation of this agreement as a major foreign policy achievement—one that took years of painstaking negotiations without the instant gratification of bombing or other short-term military instruments. Critics assert that the deal leaves the United States and its allies vulnerable, that it does not do enough to disarm the “rogue” Iranian regime, that negotiating makes the United States look weak…there is no shortage of articles (or Presidential candidates) criticizing it. Are there reasons to be concerned about Iran’s foreign policies? Absolutely—but the same can and should be said about its rival Saudi Arabia.

Iran’s compliance with the agreement also dovetails nicely with last week’s discussion of North Korea and the concept of rationality. Critics have long alleged that Iran, like North Korea, is a rogue nation with crazy leaders bent on hastening the arrival of the apocalypse. This deal demonstrates that it is possible to negotiate with regimes that we do not necessarily understand and that do not necessarily share our own views of the international system. Of course, comparing Iran and North Korea is a little like comparing apples and oranges, and North Korea has successfully manipulated international negotiations to its own benefit on several occasions. We can, however, take this agreement as evidence of the promise of diplomacy in a world that CNN would like us to believe is teetering on the brink of meltdown.