The agreement signed last week between major global powers and Iran was over four years in the making and is, by any measure, a very big deal. In broad brush, it comprises an Iranian agreement to accept severe limits on its nuclear activities — in order to forestall development of nuclear weapons — in return for lifting international economic sanctions that have isolated and impoverished Iran. The agreement has critics galore. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proclaimed it was a “dark day” and Republican leaders in Congress denounced it in apocalyptic terms — before they had even read it. President Obama was more measured but equally emphatic in defending what the negotiators had produced as the best feasible outcome and concluding with the pointed question: if not this, what?
When faced with something as fraught and complex as this agreement, it often is helpful to back off and examine the original challenge faced by U.S. diplomats and their negotiating partners, first in Lausanne and then in Vienna. For more than 35 years, U.S. relations with Iran have been deeply hostile. This toxic history begins in 1979 when a cleric-led revolution overthrew the Shah of Iran’s government (an American supporter) and replaced it with a regime dedicated to igniting religious-revolutionary fires across the Middle East. In the process of seizing power, cleric-inspired mobs invaded the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took American diplomats hostage — a condition that lasted for well over a year. The incessant mantra of the new regime and its supporters in large public rallies became “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.”
The U.S. response was not flaccid (except for the bizarre effort by staff in the Reagan White House that came to be known as the “Iran-Contra Affair”). Substantial Iranian assets in the United States were seized and tough economic and military sanctions imposed. When the Iranian clerics turned their revolutionary zeal against Iraq, the United States covertly assisted Saddam Hussein. The Iranian “Revolutionary Guards” suffered terrible casualties in what ultimately became a military stalemate. With growing evidence of a covert Iranian nuclear weapons program, Washington led a successful effort to enlist United Nations support for sanctions on Iran.
In Iran, the clerical regime dug in, adopting brutal police-state methods to suppress domestic dissent while supporting like-minded allies in the neighborhood including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shiite militias in Iraq and the Assad regime in Syria.
This, in general outline, was the situation facing Barack Obama when he took office. From the outset, the new President made clear his desire to terminate America’s Middle East wars and build bridges to adversaries, notably Iran.
No-one thought this would be easy. A new president in Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was a bombastic ideologue who delighted in baiting the United States and Israel (“the Holocaust is a myth,” etc.). Despite sanctions, Iranian nuclear efforts were on a fast track. The United States and Israel (by all reports) launched a novel and technologically impressive cyberattack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. It was a great success, but it only set back the program 10-12 months. Meanwhile, Tehran’s inflammatory rhetoric helped build political support in Israel for a hardline Likud administration led by Netanyahu. Netanyahu, from all evidence, became (and remains) obsessed with Iran and the presumed threat it poses to Israel’s existence. His solution is quite straightforward; the United States must attack Iran on Israel’s behalf and destroy Iran’s nuclear capacity — and preferably much of the country in the process.
This was not the future President Obama had in mind. But any sort of productive negotiation with Tehran seemed to be politically impossible. Then in 2013 the White House (and the world) caught a break. Elections in Iran, with all their limitations and distortions, produced a new and very different president — a moderate, pragmatic cleric named Hassan Rouhani. His election — and this was critically important — was due to support from middle class, secular and especially young people who desperately wanted an end to hardship, to sanctions and to isolation from the West. Rouhani, with extensive experience in New York with the Iranian United Nations delegation, selected an American-educated foreign minister. His unmistakable message to Washington was “Let’s talk.”
No-one entering the subsequent negotiations had any illusions. Just as President Obama was under unrelenting pressure from Netanyahu and his political allies in the United States Congress not to compromise, so Rouhani was under similar pressure from the clerical hardliners opposed to any deal with the “Great Satan.”
Given these realities, the fact that any agreement was reached is remarkable and the fact that it is a better agreement than most if not all American expert observers thought possible is extraordinary. The final document is more than 100 pages of detailed provisions setting up mechanisms to ensure Iran does not produce a nuclear weapon over the next 10 to 15 years at a minimum. At this point there is a calculated gamble. The hope and expectation in the White House is that an Iran free to engage with the rest of the world and exposed to all the influences that entails will become a very different country. This is an ancient and proud civilization, and not long ago, it was a close partner of the United States (and also Israel) in the Persian Gulf. A full return to those days is not a realistic objective; but an Iran that works for, not against, regional stability and progress is within the realm of realistic imagining.
Besides, as President Obama (rhetorically) asked: “What is the alternative?” Another Middle East war?