The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreed to in Vienna on July 14th 2015 by the P5+1 countries and Iran marks the end of three decades of animosity between Iran and the United States. Tehran and other global capitals celebrate this historical landmark, which heralds diplomacy over warmongering. The international community has waited two long years for an agreement to be reached, as talks of negotiations started in September 2013 when a substantive meeting was held between Iran and the P5+1 countries; this was the first of its kind since 1979.
Whilst Tehran views the deal to be a victory for Iran, the celebrations are somewhat premature as Israel and some Gulf States condemn the agreement. Furthermore, Iranian hardliners remain sceptical and this sentiment is mirrored within the American congress too. Even as Iran re-joins the international stage to finally start to abandon its pariah state status, the Iran nuclear deal is unfinished business. This article aims to delve deeper into the multi-faceted nature of the signed deal, looking mainly at reasons for and implications of the latter.
Terms of the JCPOA
A thorough outline of the JCPOA terms is beyond the scope of this article, and so, two important parameters are to be drawn from the extensive agreement. Strict limits will be placed on Iran’s path to nuclear weapons for a decade in return for relief from international sanctions.
Two types of radioactive materials go into the making of a bomb: uranium or plutonium. Iran has about 19,000 centrifuges and this raises serious concerns over nuclear weapons proliferation. Centrifuges are machines used to enrich uranium for the purposes of a nuclear reactor or a nuclear bomb. Iran’s clandestinely hazy demeanour over the last two decades regarding its nuclear arsenal has brought the international community to question the country’s abilities and subsequently there have been several desperate attempts to curb the country’s nuclear capabilities. Since 2002, several EU and UN sanctions have been placed on Iran, which have targeted significant energy and financial sectors. As a result, Iran’s economy has been severely paralysed over the last decade and a half. Key points of the deal require Iran to disassemble much of its nuclear infrastructure and reduce current capacity of 19,000 centrifuges by more than two-thirds in order to re-enter the international community.
The Iran nuclear deal indeed does echo victory for the Obama administration and President Rouhani; however, the deal is not without complication. Economically, it is a done deal; one that could bring Iran onto the path of economic recovery, opening trade relations with the rest of the international community. Politically, however, the story is slightly more complex.
A glance at the past: US-Iran Relations
Elites belonging to the political sphere and media commentators have all expressed opinions on the Iran nuclear negotiations and the July 14th deal but commentary and analyses began as the severity of Iran’s nuclear program and secret plants came to the fore in 2002. That same year, President Bush coined Iran as one of the ‘Axis of Evil’; a metaphor aligning the nation to the 1930s where Axis powers were evil and therefore something had to be done about them. Fortunately for Mr Bush, such a declaration led to the unfortunate perception building for the way the West views Iran and vice versa.
Neo-conservatism within the Bush administration postulated a rather confrontational attitude towards Iran. The Obama administration on the other hand, appeared to drift away from such a stance, although neo-conservatism still very much exists in the corridors of power, persistently so in the aftermath of the Vienna deal.
Over a decade later, diplomatic dialogue has taken precedence over those who oppose such a deal. Some may argue that neo-conservative readings of US foreign policy towards the Middle East are full of myths that need debunking but that won’t truly serve a purpose for this article. Yet, it is important to make mention of neo-conservatism as it does serve to lay some foundations for why the international community witnessed such a delay for negotiations to come to the table in the first place. That may lend itself to neo-conservatism within US foreign policy and that of Iran too.
Anyone with an opinion on the Iran nuclear talks knows that the only thing binding Iran to this deal is a huge ‘if’, an ‘if’ that assumes Iranian responsibility and commitment to uphold the parameters of the deal. Iran’s past points to a lack of commitment to upholding any deal in view of the acquisition of nuclear power. Distrust therefore lingers over the JCPOA, and as President Obama states himself, the deal is built on verification and not trust. The deal thus does not seem to have turned Iran and the US into long lost friends, but has opened up an avenue for dialogue.
Not a done deal: Opposing Forces
The advantages of the nuclear deal are morose, especially in the face of quite powerful opposing forces. Israel, the Republicans, and hardliners within Iran all condemn this deal in the belief that Iran has gained a lot more than it bargained for, which paves the way for Iranian hegemony in the Middle East and consequently endangers the West and more ferociously, Israel. However, this could all be talks of paranoia. At least one can admit to the fact that, despite a diplomatic win, it is not so easy to forget the enemy. Iran is certainly considered an enemy by many.
What is Israel’s issue?
Backing the Iran nuclear deal will result in a vulnerable Israel. At least, that is many Israelis’ attitude towards this deal. Whether this is plausible or not remains a debate of greater length. There is a historical, emotional and psychological precedence for continued Israeli opposition to this deal. In a post-Holocaust world, a nuclear Iran (despite weakened by the JCPOA) poses a colossal threat to Israel. As the Iran deal alleviates international sanctions, the extent of Iran’s economic recovery as a result is unbeknownst to us. Iranian support for Lebanon’s Hezbollah, a group much like Israel’s own rival Hamas, troubles Netanyahu. Whilst Iran and Israel do not share a border, it does share borders with Syria and Lebanon – both countries pertaining to the proliferation of violent non-state actors. Hezbollah upholds an ideology that assumes the annihilation of a Jewish State in the Middle East and Hezbollah is argued to be a proxy of Tehran, who has provided the group with arms. It is thus not difficult to put two and two together. Iran’s nuclear program may have been weakened by this deal but Iran’s actions in the past suggest that the country has the potential to cheat. If the deal is not honoured by Iran, Israel is in deep danger and so is the rest of the world.
A Divided Congress
Republican opposition to the Iran nuclear deal is bizarre. One can understand Israel’s opposition and even the condemnation of some Gulf States (Saudi Arabia in particular) but why the Republicans are adamantly against this deal is rather a chimera. Or not – because the only way to explain this would be to resort back to the Republicans genetic construction; after all, the attitude towards the ‘evil’ Iran since Bush coined it so has not altered. Iran is still a bad actor and the Republicans are determined to undermine the deal. The Republicans call this deal appeasement, their conservative makeup refuses to see this as a peaceful alternative; the other alternative is war. Perhaps the Republicans would like to go to war rather than diplomatically coming to a peaceful resolution?
Republican opposition to the Iran deal is a result of several interwoven factors. As described above, ideology plays a big part. Secondly, Israel has a lot to do with this. Pro Israel lobby groups exist in abundance and do often influence Congress; their influence will certainly not go amiss as they battle to kill the deal. All that is necessary to undo the deal whilst it is still under the 60-day review is for Congress to gather a two-thirds majority of the House and Senate. This is no small matter, however. The Republicans command a majority in both House and Senate and this can contribute to the undoing of the Iran deal but Obama’s veto power will prove a hurdle. Obama will have to convince at least one-third of the Democrats to vote with him whilst the Republicans will have to persuade a significant number of Democrats to oppose the President. There are some democrats who share Israeli concerns over Iran and may well go against the President – that remains to be seen in September
Iran Deal: Implications for World Relations
A diplomatic success in a region diseased by conflict sends a very strong message. But solely the renewed Iran-US relations cannot measure this success; many other actors benefit from this deal. Iran holds the fourth largest crude reserves and the second largest natural gas reserves. This is music to the ears of corporations such as European and Asian companies. If corporations benefit from such a deal so will their countries. International sanctions barred Iran from the use of SWIFT – the financial bloodline. As sanctions are lifted, Iran is able to re-join SWIFT and fully reintegrate itself into the financial whirlpool.
Its reintegration into the world economy highlights a few points. The deal opens the door to a more lucrative flow of commerce between Iran and Eurasian markets; one such market is Turkey, an already energy-poor country. The Iran deal therefore reinforces Turkey-Iran energy trade relations, which arguably is beneficial to the region.
We cannot forget Russia when looking at the implications of the deal. With Iran joining the global oil and gas market, prices will irreversibly decrease. Russia thus fears that the relief from international sanctions on Iran could disrupt its hegemony over European energy imports. Trade relations with Europe have been shaky to say the least ever since Russia’s annexation of Crimea resulting in a series of EU sanctions affecting several sectors including energy. In light of this, a more amicable Moscow-Tehran relation is probably necessary. Severed relations with the West have compelled Russia to look elsewhere and Asia and the Middle East are obvious options, including Iran. Therefore this nuclear deal can also present itself as an opportunity in disguise.
Finally, what does this deal mean for Europe? After all, is it not a European slogan to favour soft power over hard? For that reason, Europe should be overjoyed that effective multilateralism has prevailed in the plagued Middle East. The EU’s efforts in pushing for the Iran deal have not gone unnoticed; that is because Europe benefits tremendously from this deal. Whilst no European power believes that this deal will change Iranian anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric or bolster significant change in the Middle East, Europe backs this deal for a few reasons. The Iran deal is a win for Europe because it helps the EU to act as a more assertive player in the Middle East; and it has failed to do so strongly prior. It proves that multilateralism should not be underestimated and powers of diplomacy as opposed to military resolutions should be consulted. We can look to the economic benefits of a nuclear Iran deal to Europe but by doing so we fail to recognise the larger picture. That picture is the success of diplomacy – a word that resonates as a founding principle for the European Union as a normative power in global relations.
The Iran deal was not going to please everyone and for good reasons but assessed within the context of a crisis-ridden Middle East, it is a success. We just have to hope that Iran adheres to the terms of the JCPOA. But if Iran cheats, it will get caught and if it does get caught, the consequences will send the nation crying. Iran’s best bet is to comply; or we can expect a full-on war, which the deal sought to avert in the first place. Complications adorn this deal, paranoia and distrust will continue to send critics talking for a long time but in the end, let us give diplomacy a chance.
Ayooshee Dookhee is a Politics and International Relations graduate from Royal Holloway, University of London. She is currently working for a public policy, public affairs and campaigns consultancy in London. In September 2015, she will be starting a Masters in International Relations with a focus on Middle East politics at the University of Leiden in The Netherlands. She has a growing interest for issues and conflicts in the Middle East having completed her dissertation on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Her further interests are in international human rights, women’s rights, gender and minority equality and the politics of the European Union.
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*Cover image ‘Iran Deal Reached in Vienna – 14 July 2015‘ by the European External Action Service