The Iran Nuclear Deal

Why Diplomacy Succeeded and Regional Alignments

Signatories of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action announcing the agreement in Vienna, 14 July 2015. From left to right: Foreign ministers Wang Yi (China), Laurent Fabius (France), Frank-Walter Steinmeier (Germany), Federica Mogherini (EU), Mohammad Javad Zarif (Iran), Philip Hammond (UK), John Kerry (USA). Image Source: Wikipedia

On July 14, Iran and the P5+1 – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (Britain, China, France, Russia, United States) plus Germany – concluded a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) concerning the future of Iran’s nuclear program. On July 20, the UN Security Council unanimously endorsed the landmark deal.

In late October, Iran is expected to begin implementing its part of the agreement. In early 2016, following the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) confirmation of Iranian compliance, the UN, US and EU will begin lifting sanctions and unfreezing Iranian assets – opening the way for Iran’s reintegration back into the global economy.

Basic Framework of the JCPOA

Broadly speaking the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) places extensive limits on Iran’s nuclear programme; makes provisions for an intrusive inspection regime to monitor and verify Iran’s compliance; creates a “Joint Commission” to resolve disputes that may arise over the implementation of the deal; establishes a “snap back” mechanism to ensure that should Iran cheat on its obligations, sanctions will automatically resume without the need for a new Security Council vote to avoid a possible Russian or Chinese veto; and outlines the sanctions that will be removed following Iranian compliance.

The JCPOA will last for ten years, but some restrictions envisaged by the deal will remain in place for up to twenty five years. 

Why Diplomacy Succeeded

Last meetings before nuclear agreement. Image Source: Wikipedia

The Iran deal has been widely praised as a triumph of nuclear diplomacy. Through negotiation and compromise, Iran finally accepted unprecedented restrictions and inspections on its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of international sanctions and reintegration back into the global economy. Why did diplomacy succeed? 

Leadership Changes

The elections of Presidents Obama and Rouhani, in the United States and Iran respectively, changed the complexion of the diplomatic negotiations. Both Presidents were determined to reorient the diplomacy of their respective countries away from the adversarial policies of their predecessors.

Obama came to power intent on placing diplomacy at the forefront of US’ engagements with adversaries – a policy that recently led to the restoration of diplomatic ties with Myanmar and Cuba.
Similarly, Rouhani’s electoral mandate hinged on his campaign promise to bring Iran out of sanctions’ induced political and economic isolation.

This context set the tone for a more positive participation in the negotiation process from the two most important countries in the dispute: Iran and the US.

Alignment of Major Power Interests

The Iran nuclear accord was signed amidst the backdrop of worsening tensions between the world powers. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and destabilization operations in Ukraine had put it at loggerheads with the west. China’s growing assertiveness in East Asia and its expansive claims in the South China Sea had seen diplomatic relations with the US deteriorate.

Despite such inauspicious circumstances, the world powers nevertheless maintained an impressive degree of unity during the nuclear negotiations. Why?

All had a vital interest in the diplomatic process being concluded successfully for three basic reasons.

The first is rooted in the fact that historically the five legally recognised nuclear powers – US, China, Russia, France, UK – have always sought to preserve their nuclear monopoly. Consequently, they have often been the strongest champions of strengthening the nuclear non-proliferation regime.

The real strategic concern for all the major powers was that a nuclear armed Iran could set off a dangerous chain reaction in the Middle East – with regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey, similarly going nuclear, and Israel coming out of the closet regarding its own atomic arsenal; all to balance against an empowered nuclear Iran.

The destabilizing potential of a nuclear arms race in an already unstable Middle East could also lead to a disruption of oil supplies, an acute concern for China and the European powers given their dependence on Middle Eastern oil.

The second basic reason has to do with proximity. 

Only the weak Caucasus and Central Asian countries separate Russia from Iran; and both Russia and Iran are littoral states of the Caspian Sea. This geographical proximity largely informed Russia joining the sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table. Like any great power, Moscow doesn’t want nuclear armed neighbours.

This proximity concern also factored into the EU’s strategic calculations because the Middle East and North Africa are traditionally seen as part of Europe’s broader neighbourhood. A nuclear armed Iran, and the dangers of proliferation in the region, risks placing atomic weapons in the hands of major non-western states on Europe’s doorstep.

It also indirectly factored into China’s decision to stick with the diplomatic process.

China is surrounded by nuclear threshold states (i.e. countries with the industrial capacity, nuclear infrastructure and technological know-how to become nuclear powers) such as South Korea and most significantly Japan. 

For Chinese policymakers therefore, the guidelines for Iran’s nuclear programme could become “part of an implicit international standard that could be adapted and applied” against China’s neighbours, says Tong Zhao, an analyst at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy.

The third reason for the success of the diplomatic process has to with preserving great power freedom of action. More nuclear armed states invariably means less scope for military action by the great powers against stubborn smaller powers.

This has been a central concern for the US as it remains the only true global military power. A consistent theme of US post-1945 grand strategy has been the effort to thwart both friends and foes from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Francis Gavin, a seminal thinker on US foreign policy, argues that the three core drivers of US nuclear policy has been the desire to “safeguard its security, preserve its power, and maintain its freedom of action”. US policymakers have “aggressively sought to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons” because they “could be used to deter the United States and limit its freedom of action, both regionally and in the world at large”.

This sentiment is echoed by Colin Kahl, the US Vice President’s National Security Advisor, when he stated candidly at an academic conference for nuclear experts in 2013 – a year before he entered government – that “it is precisely because of the potential constraint on American … freedom of action in the Middle East that U.S. policymakers so heavily weight some of the ills associated with a nuclear-armed Iran”. 

Regional Alignments

How will the Iran nuclear accord shape the Middle East’s strategic landscape?

One big positive trend to look out for is the possibility of a reduction of the decades long tensions between the US and Iran. The negotiations and compromise that produced the JCPOA demonstrates that constructive and positive dialogue is possible between Washington and Tehran.

Similarly prior to this deal, the US and Iran proved that they could work as de-facto partners with mutual interests in combating the so-called “Islamic State”. American jets have practically acted as the air force to Iranian backed Shi’ite militias in Iraq.

With the suspicions around Iran’s nuclear programme resolved, the trend towards tactical cooperation on regional security between Washington and Tehran could become more prominent. 

However, this doesn’t mean that a full-fledged alliance between the two erstwhile adversaries is in the offing.  The US and Iran are still sharply at odds in Syria over the fate of the Assad regime; and Washington has supported Riyadh’s war against the Iranian backed Houthis with weapons, intelligence, and most visibly ships to help enforce a Saudi-led naval blockade in Yemen.

While strong disquiet over what they believe was the US sacrificing their security interests to reach a grand bargain with Iran may push the Gulf Arab states to begin diversifying their strategic partnerships – the outreach to Egypt and India, and Saudi Arabia’s warming ties with Turkey, underscores this trend – the US will nevertheless remain the principal strategic guarantor of these states.

Likewise, the US will continue to depend on the Gulf Arabs for stability in the energy market, and for its strategic presence in the Middle East.

One other trend that could become more prominent with the signing of the nuclear accord is a closer regional alignment between Iran and Russia.
There had been palpable tensions between both countries over Russia’s participation in the sanctions regime against Iran. Russia unilaterally cancelling the sale of the S-300 surface-to-air missile system in 2010 (after the weapons had been fully paid for) to force Iran to the negotiating table, and to placate Israel, only reinforced Iran’s traditional suspicion of Russia as an unreliably power.

Putin’s lifting of the ban on the delivery of the S-300s in April, and the lifting of UN mandated sanctions, has removed the main sticking point in the strategic partnership between both countries.

A major negative trend to look out for is an intensification of the strategic rivalry between Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The JCPOA only seems to have convinced the authorities in Riyadh that Washington is determined to exit from the region; leaving the way open for Tehran to expand its power. This basic assumption will lead Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab allies to step-up aggressive military actions to push back against what they see Iran’s growing regional influence.

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