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How We’re Making Progress With Iran, Even If the Nuclear Deal Fails

by Mark Hay

July 16, 2015
Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in Paris earlier this year.

Since negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 countries (America, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom) commenced on June 26th, there have been missed deadlines and a spate of nervous nail biting as uncertainty reigned regarding the outcome of the talks. But early Tuesday morning, negotiators in Vienna, Austria finally produced a viable nuclear deal. The massive document, still being parsed for details, basically constitutes a promise by Iran to curb any nuclear activities that could contribute to weaponization for at least 15 years. Tehran will allow regular non-proliferation compliance inspections and unprecedented access to state facilities in perpetuity, with heightened monitoring by watchdogs for the next couple of decades. In exchange for this (and a host of other little guarantees), some of the world’s harshest sanctions, ratcheted up on Iran especially over the past decade, will slowly roll back towards normalization.

The deal, eagerly awaited by folks in Iran and abroad, has already been hailed as one of the biggest diplomatic wins of Barack Obama’s presidency. Yet while commentators are eager to dissect how the plan could rewrite the political calculus of one of the world’s most contentious regions, everyone acknowledges that the deal’s standing text is far from implementation. Over the coming months, all parties involved in the deal will have to approve the text—and America’s congress has made it clear that it’ll be a hard sell here, where Republicans are especially irate that we didn’t fully break Iran into total capitulation, dismantling not just their entire nuclear program but their ability to fund rebel proxies throughout the Middle East. Bombast from the religious elites of Iran about how the struggle against America will continue whether or not there’s a deal also has some folks doubting the long-term impact of this brief accord. And there’s a lot of time, even if the agreement comes into active play, for either side to screw up or reneg on one of its promises. So we all have to admit that the text itself is a fragile achievement at best.

Yet even if the deal worked out on Tuesday fails at some stage over the coming months and years, the very process that created it has already radically altered Iranian-Western relations. Although some of the biggest changes in global sanctions or Iranian policy can only come into play once the deal is ratified, minor changes instituted as signs of good faith to help negotiations along have started to change the tone of engagement, especially between America and Iran—if not in both nations’ mass medias, then behind closed doors and in diplomatic circles. And the accumulation of these minor changes, which will in some cases be hard to reverse, may soon irrevocably change the standing of Iran on the global stage and the future of the Middle East, even if not supplemented by the more profound changes everyone is waiting on.

President of Iran Hassan Rouhani

While it’s pretty clear what brought America to the negotiating table 20 months ago (curbing Iran’s nuclear program), the realities that forced Iran to swallow its pride and start talking to us are less apparent to most Americans. Iran’s dog in this fight has, from the start, been the existential crisis posed by global sanctions. Over the past 30 years, and especially over the last decade, America has hit Iran with some of the strongest economic penalties ever laid upon a nation. These measures have functionally triggered a massive depression, wrecking the Iranian currency and spiking poverty by denying Tehran’s access to oil and gas markets and billions of dollars in assets stored in foreign banks. Iran recognizes that lifting even one layer of sanctions (say on oil exports) could boost their economy into a comparative renaissance, bringing in hundreds of billions of dollars within the next few years. Hence from day one at the negotiating table, Iran has been clear that any deal would hinge upon immediate sanctions relief and the rapid movement towards economic normalization over the coming years.

But both Iran and America were pretty good at standing their ground up until this point. The Iranians were able to work just enough black market voodoo and leverage just enough open trade channels to keep basic services online and fund their ruling elite and state apparatus. And America, increasingly energy dependent, could go on squeezing Iran’s economy forever. Something pretty serious had to shift to get Iran to act on its desire for sanctions relief and trust that America would negotiate rather than dictate in a meaningful and productive manner.

A switch probably flipped back in 2013, when it became apparent that America might be approaching peak global sanctions capacity. That year, officials in Washington, D.C. worried that, though in the midst of the most punitive sanctions ever, Iran’s elite hadn’t budged on their nuclear program. And across the world, countries with greater historic trading commitments to Iran and more of a stake in seeing Iranian oil (the fourth largest reserves in the world) flow onto the markets were making it clear that they wouldn’t tolerate increasing sanctions forever. Especially because the harsh global sanctions that were in play didn’t even seem to be producing results. Iran did elect a reformist president who ran on a pro-negotiation platform that year, though, which likely led America and other nations to strike at a pivotal moment of reevaluation.

The time between the initial re-address between America and Iran in 2013 and the end of negotiations this week wasn’t one of pure stasis and status quo (although you might think it was given the narratives of stalemate prevailing in the press). Rather, almost as soon as Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, came to power and started talking to Obama, America started to slacken its enforcement of sanctions, expending less money and manpower on choking out Iran’s global market workarounds and allowing a little more money to flow back into Tehran’s coffers.

P5+1 Nations, with representatives of the EU and Iran meet in 2013

This loosening of the noose probably built the trust to bring Iran to the table, but it was far from the only relaxation of the negotiations process. By the end of 2013, an interim deal spurred the West to release $7 billion in sanctions relief and unfreeze about $4 billion in Iranian assets. This was a pittance compared to the total cash flow Iran was still losing, but it set a precedent for the negotiations process. Moving through 2014 and into 2015, the US made it clear that it would be willing to ease sanctions in stages, perhaps even before the full implementation of any deal to come, so long as progress continued to move forward. And at the same time as the US opened up about its willingness to ease its grip in small steps, other powers in the world apparently started slacking off as well, slowly bolstering Iran’s economy as well as its faith not just in this singular negotiations process, but in the notion of working with the West.

Gradually easing sanctions even before the full revocation and absolute establishment of new curbs on Iran’s nuclear capabilities isn’t tantamount to giving Iran free passes, as some people might interpret this sequence of events. The snap-back provision in Tuesday’s deal sets a precedent by which America and other negotiating powers promise to instantly reassert lifted sanctions should Iran betray its good faith in carrying through on its promises and general trajectory.

But the function of this piecemeal, low-grade, pre-deal relaxation of tensions can actually set the West and Iran on the road towards reconciliation, even if the deal proper fails. Belief that small concessions can beget small concessions and that executive political spheres can work together in good faith and standing goes a long way towards stabilizing disputes between nations, even if they don’t have some grand scheme or locked-in treaty to dictate their every step. It also allows peak sanctions to fade (as some nations will be unwilling to ever reinstitute some of their more onerous sanctions) without giving Iran a political victory, instead flipping the trajectory towards trust building. And even basic openings with Iran, through low sanctions enforcement, mild concessions, and relief, will help to ease desperation within the nation and increase regular contact with other countries, netting Iran back into a space where rational, measured interpretation is absolutely necessary to their prosperity.

No matter what happens to the larger deal itself during debates within America’s Congress or the hardliners in Iran’s religious circles, we’ve already relieved a good deal of pressure—and likely will ease a little more (at least as much as we can) over the coming months. We’ve reestablished an underlying degree of trust and the technical and psychological ability to relate with each other. In terms of big headlines, if the situation ends up lacking of a big, cathartic moment of resolution, it will certainly seem less fabulous than America’s resumption of trade and diplomatic ties with Cuba over the past seven months. But in practical terms, when it comes to rewriting how we engage with disputes in the Middle East and navigating the supposed threat of Iran’s influence in regional conflicts, even the minor adjustments that laid the groundwork for the current deal are an accomplishment for America's foreign policy and international relations at large.

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How We’re Making Progress With Iran, Even If the Nuclear Deal Fails