by Jasmin Ramsey
For years predictions about Iran’s nuclear program have been alarmist or defensive: Iran will get the bomb anytime now to every justification possible for the continuation of its program despite the many costs. Central to these hypotheses was one refrain: the US and Iran will not reach an agreement.
All that suddenly changed on Nov. 24 when Iran and world powers known as the P5+1 signed a “first-phase” agreement in Geneva, Switzerland. The excitement over that historic deal has now been overshadowed by the inherent struggles of implementation, but at least part of the solution might be in recent history.
The “first step”
I was among a considerable ensemble of the world’s news media struggling to keep my eyes open at around 2am in the lobby of Geneva’s InterContinental Hotel — where Iran and most of the P5+1 delegates including the United States were staying — almost an hour before the agreement was announced. I had covered the preceding two rounds and watched the number of media members grow each time. Even if Geneva is among the world’s most expensive cities and a direct flight from DC is about 8 hours, deal or no deal, the news world sensed that something momentous was about to happen and the growing waves of journalists sent to the cool, sleepy city was the perfect prelude.
Of course, had the US and Iran not participated in Oman-hosted secret bilateral talks in 2011-12 to establish whether higher-level direct talks were even feasible and carried on more seriously through 2013, the “Joint Plan of Action” hardly seems possible. The P5+1 (the U.S., Britain, France, China and Russia plus Germany) have always emphasized their unity, but it’s an open secret that this accord was really about the US and Iran and that this achievement marks the beginning of a new era of US-Iran relations, no matter how cautious both sides can be in acknowledging it.
Without knowledge of the US-Iran backchannel, the earliest sign of a new dynamic between the adversaries was displayed in New York in September 2013 at the 67th session of the UN General Assembly. In what seemed like a reciprocal move, President Barack Obama announced that he had appointed his Secretary of State John Kerry to oversee nuclear negotiations with Iran. (One month earlier, Iran’s newly inaugurated President Hassan Rouhani had appointed his Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif — a Western-educated academic and diplomat — to oversee Iran’s side.)
While Iran seemed to purposefully evade a meeting between Obama and Rouhani in New York, the brief phone call between the two Presidents not long before Rouhani headed home would be the highest-level interaction between Iran and the US in 34 years.
But it was the 30-minute private meeting between Zarif and Kerry that set the events of today in motion. Immediately following that meeting, Zarif provided an impromptu report of what had transpired to a large audience at an Asia Society/CFR hosted-talk featuring Rouhani. Zarif’s report was controlled, but he was clearly excited about something. Asked by the moderator for a reaction, Rouhani, who had not yet been debriefed about the meeting was collected: “You asked for the first step. They took it,” he said.
Realism and flexibility
At US briefings preceding the deal that seemed like a dream (or nightmare in the case of Benjamin Netanyahu), two issues were constantly discussed: direct talks with Iran and sanctions. But after the “bilateral Rubicon” had been passed as one senior US official put it in October, the focus was almost completely on sanctions. By November, the US response to Congress pushing through more sanctions was unprecedented: new sanctions “would be harmful to…and undermine” the negotiations, according to one senior US official speaking not for attribution on Nov. 6.
The irony was hard to ignore: the very same government that had been lobbying the world to impose sanctions on Iran for years was now facing its own lawmakers in trying to convince them to hold off on more.
This was a necessary development following the US decision to finally achieve a mutually acceptable deal with Iran, but it would not have been possible without the US accepting that Iran’s government is willing to risk everything to keep its program; that military action would be counterproductive; diplomacy is the most effective way to keep Iran’s program peaceful; a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue is good for Israel too; and US flexibility in breaking with what had become a beloved US talking point: sanctions are good.
Iranian flexibility was much easier after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was no longer President and the rise of Rouhani made way for pragmatic officials and policies. “Iran needs a President that US officials can afford to be photographed with,” one former senior US official told me shortly before Rouhani’s election. Rouhani would not only fit that role, he also ushered in a nuclear negotiating team of PhD-armed English-speakers who have been educated in the West and were well aware that if they did not bring home positive results soon, their government would lose its upper hand to hardliners.
With its new administration, Iran has also become realistic about what it can demand in negotiations. While maintaining Iran’s official position that all sanctions against it are illegal, Majid Takht-e Ravanchi, a Deputy Foreign Minister on the negotiating team, said on Oct. 27 that Iran could accept a gradual removal of sanctions. “…[T]he opposite side can take steps to remove anti-Iran sanctions, even if sanctions removed in the first stages would not be so significant,” he told the “Iranian Diplomacy” website. Just a few years earlier it was considered taboo to even admit that sanctions were harming Iran’s economy, so this was clear shift.
That shift had the blessing of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei who told an audience of Revolutionary Guards on Sept. 17 (shortly before the UNGA) that he was “not opposed to diplomacy” while advocating “heroic flexibility.” Saying he wasn’t against diplomacy was not new for the Ayatollah, even if he has been suspicious of and decried the US and the West for most of his life. But urging flexibility with one’s opponent to some of the most hardened and stalwart members of Iranian society was new. So too would be the messages of support that Khamenei would issue for the diplomats, who he called “children of the revolution,” during the talks. “With great effort they are engaged in a difficult mission,” he said on Nov. 3 shortly before the second round of Geneva talks, stressing that “no one should weaken them, insult them or comprise them” (a message to domestic critics).
The right team
The conditions for the Nov. 24 deal could not have been put it into place without the right leadership. Far from the uninhibited and combative Ahmadinejad, Rouhani campaigned on a platform of “moderation” and “cooperation” and although he only took the reigns in August, Iran has already made significant gains in improving its public image.
Nowhere has this be done more actively than on the nuclear front. From Facebook, to Twitter, to YouTube to granting frequent interviews to just about all major US and other international news networks, Iran’s message has been clear: our nuclear program is peaceful and we are prepared to prove that if the unfair sanctions regime is reduced.
Iran’s head negotiator, Javad Zarif — who has been doubted in Iran time and again for his strong ties to the West — couldn’t be more different than his predecessor. Saeed Jalili is an Iran-Iraq war veteran and conservative politician who lost to Rouhani in the presidential election; he and his deputies spoke through a translator, which seriously slowed down the talks. But the perfect-English speaking Zarif is recognized in Washington for the pivotal role he played in establishing Afghanistan’s post-Taliban government in 2001 as well as his crucial efforts in securing the freedom of US hostages held in Lebanon. He has also recently been mostly applauded at home for achieving what everyone else couldn’t: sanctions relief with the conditional promise of more.
Zarif and his two lead Deputy Foreign Ministers — Majid Takht-e Ravanchi and Abbas Araqchi — act like they mean business and were quickly regarded as a breath of fresh air by the US and other P5+1 members. These diplomats have already shown that they are clever enough to successfully navigate through turbulent international and domestic political waters and will be doing everything they can to maintain the trust and support they gained after securing the Nov. 24 deal.
On the US side, President Obama needs a foreign policy win and appointing Kerry to oversee negotiations with Iran was the clearest indication that he was looking to fulfill his 2009 momentous pledge to “move forward” with the Islamic Republic. It was Kerry’s decision to fly to Geneva that signaled a deal could be signed during the second round of talks and his arrival during the third round that was integral to the Nov. 24 achievement. While there have been serious hiccups in the negotiations that will endure throughout coming months, both Kerry and Zarif have shown that when they are directly involved, things can get done. It is their direction of their deputies (whose long hours of hard and essential work cannot be overstated), and the clear decree they have been provided by their Presidents that is driving this process.
If it were up to Kerry and Zarif alone, Iran’s nuclear program would become much less controversial far sooner, but as we are seeing, domestic politics are posing as much of a threat to the Joint Plan of Action as the difficult logistics of implementation. While Iran soon rejoined talks after walking out on a Dec. 13 technical session after the US blacklisted Iranian individuals and banks in a preplanned move, its actions will be more drastic if the US Congress pushes through new sanctions, which the Obama administration has said it could veto.
“The entire deal is dead. We do not like to negotiate under duress,” said Zarif on Dec. 7 when asked by TIME how Iran would respond to new sanctions. “My parliament can also adopt various legislation that can go into effect if negotiations fail. But if we start doing that, I don’t think that we will be getting anywhere,” he added.
Indeed, Iranian hardliners opposing rapprochement with the West will pounce on anything to prove that the Nov. 24 accord was a bad deal for Iran and that the Rouhani government is incompetent. They seek to regain the power they enjoyed during the glory years of the Ahmadinejad administration before factional fighting led to their loss in the presidential election. If they achieve the upper hand in Iranian politics again, Iran’s nuclear program, which progressed under Ahmadinejad and saw “no big change” during the first three months of Rouhani, is virtually guaranteed to significantly advance.
“The Nov. 24 agreement is complex and operates on several different levels,” said Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association.
“There are a number of different sequencing and interpretation issues that the two sides need be on the same page about…but even if there are further delays, I have confidence they can be worked through,” he said
“It’s very much in Iran’s interest to begin implementation so it can get limited sanctions relief and begin talks for the final phase of the agreement as soon as possible…it’s also in the P5+1’s interest to pause Iran’s contentious nuclear activities including enriching uranium to 20 percent,” he said.
In addition to the direction of Iran’s nuclear program, the quality of life for more than 75 million Iranians depends on the successful resolution of this issue. If Rouhani can deliver on his campaign promise to settle Iran’s nuclear file, he will have greater leverage to push for other promises such as a less securitized political environment and the release of political prisoners — and with the nuclear issue resolved, Iranians would have more room to push him in that direction. Perhaps most importantly, successfully implementing the final phase of this deal removes the threat of another catastrophic war in the Middle East and makes way for regional cooperation between the US and Iran. The doubters, detractors and cynics will persist, but the stakes have never been higher and for the first time in 35 years, the US and Iranian Presidents are in the same court.