The phase one agreement signed in Geneva over the weekend by the P5+1 powers and Iran, though temporary, conditional and fraught with uncertainty, is inarguably good news: It is the first time that Iran has explicitly agreed to freeze or limit parts of its nuclear program, and roll back other parts of it, since the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president in 2005. If the deal holds, the next six months will be the first time in eight years that Iran’s nuclear program has been slowed for reasons other than technical difficulties and outside sabotage. It bears noting that the agreement is but the first step in what remains an arduous task, that of successfully and sustainably defining the terms under which Iran’s nuclear program will operate in the future. But it is a significant and welcome first step.
From one angle, the deal can be understood as the culmination of a long period of successful U.S. and European diplomatic pressure that, with the lukewarm but ultimately decisive support of Russia, China and third-party friends and allies, has brought a serious and conciliatory Iran back to the negotiating table. Clearly, the bite of economic sanctions has shifted Iran’s cost-to-benefit calculus in terms of advancing its nuclear ambitions. In this, the deal is a testament to the powerful multilateral coalition-building begun in the final years of the Bush administration and advanced significantly under the Obama administration, with the U.S. Congress playing an important role over the past few years in ratcheting up the pain threshold.
From another angle, however, the deal can be understood as the culmination of a long period of successful Iranian maneuvering that, with the lukewarm but ultimately decisive support of Russia, China and third-party oil customers, has brought a serious and conciliatory U.S. and Europe back to the table. Clearly, the eight years of continued advances in Iran’s nuclear program has shifted the West’s cost-to-benefit calculus in terms of constraining Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In this, the deal is a testament to the inability of diplomatic pressure alone to force Iran to capitulate, leaving the unappetizing military option as the only alternative to the deal at hand in Geneva.