The politics of the Iranian nuclear deal

    After over a decade of negotiations, a preliminary agreement regarding the future of Iran’s nuclear program was finally reached last Thursday, but will it be enough? The deal will place heavy limitations on Iran’s nuclear development, and in turn relieve Iran from sanctions that severely damaged the country’s economy. However, nothing is yet set in stone and many details still need to be worked out. The stakes are high, and if a definitive plan isn’t attained by June 30, the stability of the Middle East and the entire international community will be threatened.

    What’s the deal with the deal?

    Going in, the United States, Russia, France, Britain, China and Germany (the “P5+1” group) sought to impose definitive limitations on Iran’s nuclear development program. They hoped that such restrictions would prevent the Islamic Republic from producing a much-feared nuclear weapon. Iran came to the table wanting relief from the damaging U.S./E.U./U.N. sanctions that have crippled its economy. At the same time, they hoped to keep as much of the nuclear program intact as possible.

    Though nothing is final yet, the preliminary details of the negotiations seem like a win for everyone. Iran agreed to multiple limitations proposed by the P5+1, including decreasing the number active centrifuges used for uranium-enrichment, repurposing their heavily fortified nuclear facility at Fordow, reducing the size of enriched-uranium stockpiles and shutting down the heavy water reactor at Arak (which was used to create weapons-grade plutonium). The P5+1 believes these measures will extend Iran’s “breakout time” (how long it would take for the country to potentially produce a nuclear weapon) from less than three months to at least a year. However, Iran’s nuclear program won’t be eliminated completely, and the country would still be able to make developments toward producing clean nuclear energy.

    Through the deal, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will also be granted greater access to Iran’s functioning nuclear facilities, inspecting them more frequently and rigorously. When the IAEA is able to confirm that Iran is adhering to its commitments, the U.S., U.N. and E.U. nuclear-related sanctions will be suspended, giving the country much needed relief. However, if Iran at any point fails to hold up its end of the bargain, the U.S. and E.U. are able to re-impose the sanctions as they see fit. 

    What exactly are these sanctions?

    In 2002, the world discovered Iran’s secret uranium-enrichment program. Since then, the U.N., E.U. and U.S. have placed a variety of crippling sanctions on the country. The four rounds of U.N. sanctions have essentially banned all arms trade with Iran, preventing any nation from supplying Tehran with weapons and blocking all exports of Iranian arms. The E.U. placed its own sanctions as well. All trade of uranium-enrichment equipment has been limited, all transactions with Iranian financial institutions have been prohibited, and perhaps worst of all, all import, transport and purchase of Iranian oil and natural gas has been banned. Before the ban, the EU consumed 20 percent of all Iran’s fossil fuel exports, so this boycott hit Tehran hard. U.S. sanctions include a ban on all financial transactions with Iran, prohibition of all Iranian imports, and a bar on all investments in Iran, among other things. These sanctions have greatly disrupted the Iranian economy, and they played a large role in bringing Iran to the negotiating table.

    Why is the Iranian nuclear program such a big deal?

    Many countries have operational nuclear facilities, and eight are known to nuclear weapons. So why is Iran’s case any different? For 18 years, Iran ran a secret uranium enrichment program, and when the facilities were inspected in 2002, it was unclear whether the uranium was intended for use in nuclear energy, as Iran claimed, or for the development of nuclear weapons. This put the country in direct violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1970. Since 2005, six UN Security Council resolutions mandating that Iran stops enriching uranium have been passed, some imposing sanctions on the country. 

    In 2013, Iran agreed to scale back its program, but this didn’t resolve the crisis. Many nations are weary of Iran possessing a nuclear weapon, fearing the country’s intentions and a potential arms race in the already unstable Middle East. 

    Why is this deal so challenging?

    Iran and the other world powers have agreed on most aspects of the deal, there are still a few sticking points. One major snag of the negotiations is the speed with which the sanctions will be lifted once Iran fulfills its nuclear scale-back. The U.S. and its partners plan to phase out the sanctions over time, with the restriction on nuclear-technology imports lasting indefinitely.  However, Iran wants the sanctions lifted as soon as an agreement is reached, so it can quickly begin rebuilding its economy. By 2013, the country’s oil exports had fallen to less than one-third of what they were in 2011, a loss in trade that reportedly cost Iran anywhere from $4-$8 billion per month. 

    Additionally, though a deal has been reached, it still needs to be accepted by the international community and approved by all parties involved. Israel, a major U.S. partner in the Middle East, perceives any amount of Iranian nuclear capability as a threat. Iran has historically been one of Israel’s most outspoken enemies, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes that if Iran were to develop a nuclear weapon, it would directly threaten the Jewish state’s existence. On top of that, President Obama will face many challenges getting any final deal passed on Capitol Hill. Netanyahu and other Israelis have been lobbying Congress against approving any sort of agreement, and many worry the deal has become a partisan issue. Many GOP lawmakers don’t trust that Obama can establish an effective agreement, worrying that any Iranian nuclear capability poses a national security threat. Some Republican presidential hopefuls like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush have already publicly criticized the deal.

    Now what?

    A comprehensive agreement, with all i’s dotted and t’s crossed, is scheduled to be finished by June 30. Before then, negotiators will have to work through their disputes, and figure out all the technical details regarding the limitations of Iran’s nuclear program. One of the discrepancies remaining is the schedule for the relief of the sanctions on Iran. Both sides agree that the sanctions must be removed, but each has its own idea of what that will mean. The P5+1 promised to suspend all sanctions when the IAEA can confirm Iran’s scale-back, but that might not be soon enough for the economically-stunted Islamic Republic.

    Still though, some experts say that the detailed framework of the preliminary agreement has already eliminated many otherwise potential disputes, and a final deal by June 30 would be doable. If either side were to walk away from this deal, the consequences could be dire. Failure of an agreement could cause Iran to expand its nuclear program, and potentially lead to U.S. military intervention or an arms race in the already volatile Middle East. Going forward there is still plenty of uncertainty, but last week’s agreement has certainly shown that things are on the right path.


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