The words above were used by President Barack Obama to characterize the recent draft nuclear agreement with Iran. He’s right, but the future of the agreement is far from assured. A first thing to appreciate is just how hard it was to get to this point. After more than a year of intense diplomatic effort, everything came down to a marathon set of negotiations in a hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland. For several days the talks went virtually around the clock. Wendy Sherman, Secretary of State John Kerry’s principal deputy, was lucky if she got two hours of sleep over any three-day stretch. It’s a point worth emphasizing because many of the Monday morning critics you will hear from have no conception of just how hard this was.
The negotiators were trying to reconcile two conflicting agendas: the United States wanted to put a stake through the heart of a growing Iranian nuclear program that Americans believed is intended to create the capability to build a nuclear bomb. The Iranians insisted their program is for peaceful purposes and that national pride required them to keep the program intact. Both governments were under intense pressure from their extremist political wings at home. For Iran, it is the hardliners (Republican Guards and much of the clerical establishment) who convene regular mass rallies where demonstrators shout “Death to America.” For this crowd, a posture of hostility toward the United States reinforces their own social position and perks — including lucrative smuggling networks designed to evade Western sanctions. As for President Obama, he had Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu excoriating the agreement (before he even saw it) as a sell-out and a mortal threat to Israel. This assumed powerful political relevance when a large number of (mostly) Republican members of the House and Senate lined up in lock step behind Netanyahu. One of the most outspoken was Sen. Tom Cotton, a newly elected Republican from Arkansas. It turns out that Cotton’s successful election campaign was bankrolled by the Israeli lobby. Quid pro quo, anyone?
Besides the nuclear program, itself, the major item on the agenda at Lausanne was the economic sanctions put in place by the United States and European Union to pressure Iran to come to the table. It clearly worked; the Iranian negotiators made it clear that sanctions relief was their primary objective.
The content of the draft agreement is extremely complex. But reduced to its essence, it calls for a dramatic scale-back of Iran’s nuclear program for 10-15 years. Iran’s output of fissile fuel (enriched uranium and plutonium) that goes into a bomb will be terminated. However, the infrastructure of high capacity centrifuges and other equipment will not be destroyed; it will be mothballed and repurposed. This allows Iranian negotiators to go back to skeptics in Tehran and say “we have our capacity for future use if we need it. This, in turn, puts a premium on inspections. Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency will have carte blanche access to all Iranian nuclear sites. As the inspection regime is implemented, sanctions will be lifted on a yet-to-be-agreed timetable. It is all very reminiscent of President Reagan’s famous guideline for negotiating arms reduction agreements with the Soviet Union — “trust but verify.”
President Netanyahu has continued his scorched earth attacks on the agreement. It’s abundantly clear that there is simply no agreement that Netanyahu will find acceptable short of one that allows the Israeli army to occupy Iran’s nuclear facilities. Failing that, Netanyahu wants a U.S. military attack on Iran using deep penetration, bunker-busting warheads. Netanyahu would love to hold America’s coat and cheer from the sidelines while the United States incurs all the awful costs of such a course. There is an expert consensus that such an attack would set back the Iranian program three or four years, at best, while inflaming Iranian opinion, empowering the hardliners and creating a fierce determination in Iran to build a nuclear arsenal, no matter what.
So we are left with one rational option — a draft agreement that must be finalized and signed over the next three months. One of the least noted consequences of a successful agreement is what it could do to the geopolitics of the Middle East. This will be a seismic event. The long familiar pattern with Iran as the enemy of the United States, Israel and the Arab Gulf States will change — perhaps dramatically. We already are seeing harbingers of the future with Iranian-led ground forces and U.S. airpower engaged in a de facto collaboration against ISIS forces in Iraq. It is worth remembering that not so long ago (the 1970s) Iran under the Shah was a strong U.S. ally in the region. Moreover, Iran and Israel (sharing a common suspicion of Arab intentions) also were de facto allies.
For Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Gulf states this is a fraught and uncertain time. For 35 years Saudi strategy has been based on the assumption of U.S. support against a common threat — radical Shiite Iran. With the current draft agreement, Washington is, in effect, saying to Riyadh, “we can’t keep going on like this; we need a more durable basis for regional security built on the reintegration of Iran into the community of nations.” The unspoken American concern is that at some point the Saudis will conclude that the only way they can protect themselves against a threatening Iran is to acquire their own bomb. The alternative is a transformed Iran that no longer poses a threat to Saudi Arabia, Israel or anyone else.