Historic Iranian nuclear deal reached, but what comes next?

Iran’s gradual economic return can play a crucial role in the regional balance of power and geopolitics of the Middle East

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh - Special to Al Arabiya News
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Iran and P5+1 powers have reached a nuclear agreement at talks in Vienna. The agreement can bring sanctions relief to the Islamic Republic as early as the first half of 2016. The economic sanctions have crippled Iran’s economy and significantly cut its oil exports. The accord can be characterized as a win for President Obama, as well as the Iranian, Russian and Chinese governments.

The agreement between the foreign ministers of seven countries can also usher a new era in Tehran's relationships with Western nations. Iran’s gradual economic return can play a crucial role in the regional balance of power and geopolitics of the Middle East.

Although the West views the deal as transformational, Iranian leaders view the deal as transitory. In other words, the Islamic Republic is less likely to alter its major foreign policies (including Tehran’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Shiite coalition in Iraq, the Houthis and Hezbollah) as a result of the deal. According to the deal, access at will to any site would not necessarily be granted for U.N. inspectors.

In the next phase, a U.N. Security Council resolution may be adopted within weeks in order to enforce the terms of the agreement.

Since a deal is not a deal until all relevant parties have signed off on it, the deal has not technically been reached yet. We are more likely to witness the signing and enforcement of the deal in the next few weeks. To reach a real deal and to put it into effect, several other steps need to follow which might present another complicated and extensive process.

First of all, the current agreement and terms should be reviewed by President Obama, Iranian leaders, France, Germany, Russia and China. Secondly, the UNSC resolution may occur in the month of July.

Third, in addition, the agreement will be reviewed by the U.S. Congress and Iran’s powerful hardliners, including the senior cadre of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps and the office of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Both sides will be watching each other closely. The Iranian leaders, primarily the Supreme Leader who has the final say in domestic and foreign policy issues (and who must sign off on the deal), will scrutinize the U.S. Congress' reaction to the agreement in the following weeks. Khamenei is indeed in favor of the agreement due to the fact that Iran’s negotiating team would not have taken any steps without being instructed and authorized. Khamenei might offer some minor changes, though.

On the other hand, the U.S. Congress will likely vote against the agreement, arguing that the deal will keep Iran’s nuclear threat intact. President Obama will likely veto Congress' decision. In order to overturn the President’s veto, Congress will need two-thirds of the votes in each chamber (the Senate and House of Representatives). The House of the Representatives is controlled by the Republicans. But the Republicans need to peel off 12 democrats to their side in the Senate in order to block the agreement from being signed by the President. This task is difficult to accomplish.

Finally, when Congress fails to overturn the president's veto, the deal will be either signed before the IAEA verifies that Iran is complying with the terms of the agreements or after, depending on the final terms. The lifting of UNSC sanctions against the Islamic Republic will also follow after a UNSC resolution on the agreement is adopted.

In a sudden shift, the negative tone expressed by Iranian and American leaders as well as the overwhelming pessimism regarding reaching a final nuclear deal was transformed overnight into an unusual, upbeat optimism.

Only a few days earlier, Secretary of State John Kerry pointed out “If the tough decisions don’t get made, we are absolutely prepared to call an end to this process,” adding: “We will not rush, and we will not be rushed.” But on Sunday, he stated that talks were positive. “I think we’re getting to some real decisions. So I will say, because we have a few tough things to do, I remain hopeful. Hopeful,” he said.

Similarly, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had warned Western officials to “never try to threaten the Iranians." An Iranian official accused the United States of altering its position, adding: “There have been a lot of changes in positions." Then, on Sunday, issues seem to have changed and an Iranian official pointed out, "some 99 percent of the issues have been resolved and the agreement is ready."

But were major technical issues such as the timing of sanctions relief, Iran’s breakout time and the range of inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency, resolved overnight? How did the negativity turn to optimism overnight? And is this truly the final phase in the marathon nuclear talks or is there more ahead?

The underlying driving force that keeps bringing the Iranian and American negotiating teams together on the nuclear talks is primarily their dread and President Obama’s fear of the political repercussions in case the nuclear talks collapse. This underlying force has pushed the two sides to continue reaching some sort of agreement at the eleventh hour. Iran’s crippling economy and Obama’s search for a foreign policy legacy were also among other driving forces.

But it is crucial to point out that the negotiating teams from the six world powers (known as the P5+1; China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, plus Germany) and the Islamic Republic may have reached “accord,” rather than a deal.

Again, a deal is not a deal until all relevant parties have signed off on it and the talks seem to be a never-ending diplomatic process. The final signing of the agreement is being constantly postponed.

The technical gap between Iran and the Western powers is too deep to bridge. Nevertheless, one of the reasons behind why the six world powers and the Islamic Republic keep had kept dragging the talks on, announcing small agreements rather than a real deal, was their fear of failure. As a result, in spite of their deep gap on the technical issues, the relevant parties tended to bridge their political gaps on this issue.

Two major players that would have faced considerable repercussions if the talks had failed were the U.S. and Iran. For Iranian leaders, the collapse of talks would have triggered a new round of economic sanctions or military operations against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. In addition, for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, the failure of talks would have meant that they will not have access to the much needed additional billions of dollars to support President Bashar al-Assad, the Iraqi government, and its Shiite proxies in the region. President Rowhani, who like President Obama has gambled all of his foreign policy chips on the nuclear deal, would have lost the support of his political base as people find his presidential promises unfulfilled. The current agreement appears to be a win-win deal for both President Obama and Iranian leaders.


Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-American scholar, author and U.S. foreign policy specialist. Rafizadeh is the president of the International American Council. He serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University and Harvard International Relations Council. He is a member of the Gulf 2000 Project at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs. Previously he served as ambassador to the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC. He can be contacted at: [email protected], or on Twitter: @MajidRafizadeh

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