US Secretary of State John Kerry, in a marathon session with the House Foreign Affairs Committee that lasted more than three hours, made a compelling case for the Iran nuclear deal, achieved after negotiations that culminated in Vienna, Austria only a few weeks back.
"If Congress rejects this, Iran goes back to its enrichment. The Ayatollah will not come back to the table...the sanctions regime completely falls apart," Mr Kerry said amidst a barrage of questions fielded to him and the US Energy Secretary Dr Ernest Moniz. A common theme of the questions were on the loopholes on the Iran deal which will in one way or form be a by-product of the arrangement. These loopholes include security and terrorism concerns, the war with ISIS, the Iranian ability to purchase modern weapons from Russia and so on.
"[I]t is important to accept that many of the questions raised are about other aspects of Iran's relations with the global order, and not just the nuclear deal."
There is no denying that the deal is not ideal, and this fact was reiterated by almost everyone in the US administration, from President Barack Obama to his negotiators who were in direct consultations with the Iranians for much of the last 365 days. However, even amidst these negotiations, the mountain of distrust has remained visible between Tehran and Washington. Even after the agreement, the Ayatollah's account on Twitter posted provocative imagery in response to American threats that all sanctions would come back to effect (and perhaps more) if Iran moves away from the agreed Joint Plan of Action (JPA).
US president has said he could knock out Iran's military. We welcome no war, nor do we initiate any war, but.. pic.twitter.com/D4Co7fVuVg— Khamenei.ir (@khamenei_ir) July 25, 2015
However, most of these verbal manoeuvres from both Iran and the US are a calculated waltz meant only to a certain extent for each other, but more so to maintain political dominance and to keep their respective domestic agendas intact, meaning ultra-conservatives for Rouhani and Republicans for the Obama administration. While observing this, it is also important to remember that the domestic political demands and intricacies of Iran are much more complex and often require grandiose chest thumping from powerful ultra-conservative clerics, who had their political and ideological stance in Iran elevated by many notches under the rule of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Here is where we come across an important juncture which gives the Western diplomacy impetus to get a deal with Iran. The fact that Hassan Rouhani is the President of Iran is a major reason why the US and its European partners pushed so hard for such a deal to be in place now, and backed it up with a "now or never" rhetoric.
Understanding the tenures of Rouhani and Ahmadinejad is important to understand the nuclear deal itself. Ahmadinejad's victory came from a rural voter base, mostly living outside Tehran's relatively modern and middle-class upbringing. Ahmadinejad, an ultra-conservative himself, played the anti-US card to the hilt, which gained him even more support from his voter base which, again, resided mostly outside the politics and economics of Tehran. The crackdown on protestors in the Iranian capital under Ahmadinejad was proof of this existing political and representative clash of ideas in Iranian society, and this was again in play later on when Rouhani won his elections, largely on the merit of promising to end the international sanctions that had caused widespread economic misery and leaving a big, young, well-educated population without jobs and financial security.
"The agreement significantly diminishes Iran's capability of the amount of nuclear fuel it can keep for the next 15 years. Other than this, Tehran will have to cut its stockpiles of uranium by 98%..."
On the back of the above socio-political opening in Iran, it was indeed the ideal time for US to target the country's nuclear program and bring it under tight IAEA and United Nations scrutiny. The fact that even the Ayatollah gave his backing to the negotiations, while continuing to call America the "big Satan", tells a story in itself. Now, many of the questions being raised on the Iran deal are genuine and will indeed need answers. However, it is important to accept that many of the questions raised are about other aspects of Iran's relations with the global order, and not just the nuclear deal.
It is difficult to raise enough doubt as of now on the deal that complete control on Iran's actions has been achieved. However, it is safe to say that over the next decade and more enough scrutiny can be applied on Iran to make sure it is unable to put together a nuclear weapon which by all means, if it did, would be catastrophic for the region, specifically since Israel maintains a hypocritical silence on its own status relating to nuclear weapons while being subjected to very little pressure on the same by the West.
Nonetheless, it is imperative to understand why this nuclear deal is important and how it will suppress any Iranian misadventure to procure a weapon. The first and most important point to recognise is that Iran is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which by its very nature does not allow Iran to make nuclear weapons. The Western powers used Iran's acceptance of the NPT clauses as the basis of passing resolutions in the United Nations which then implemented stringent financial sanctions on the country that severely affected its economy and polity (even India which has good relations with Iran voted in favour of the sanctions in 2009). Western diplomats widely believe these sanctions forced the Ayatollah to agree on the prospects of talks while Tehran widely denies this.
Beyond the NPT, the JPA also offers a tight hold over Iran's development of its nuclear program. The agreement significantly diminishes Iran's capability of the amount of nuclear fuel it can keep for the next 15 years. Other than this, Tehran will have to cut its stockpiles of uranium by 98% which as a consequence would require it to reduce the number of its centrifuges by two-thirds. Moreover, as part of the deal's details, Iran's "breakout time", meaning the amount of time it would take the country's nuclear program to enrich enough nuclear fuel to make one bomb is now going to be more than one year. So, in simple words, with this deal it will take Iran more than one year to somehow evade all of the prying eyes to get enough weapons grade fuel for one weapon.
"In essence, Iran will not be able to buy tactical weaponry the day after the deal is implemented, as many fear."
The above mentioned "breakout time" to make weapons will somehow have to evade the eyes of the IAEA inspectors, who as per the deal, will have 24/7 access to Iran's nuclear sites. The shortcoming here is that Iran has managed to wiggle in a clause that will require IAEA getting permission for visiting facilities such as Nantaz and Fordow, offering reasons why they deem an inspection is needed (this has a 24 day breakout period of its own). This is perhaps one clause where we will definitely see friction in the implementation of the deal between Iran and the P5+1. One of the biggest criticisms on the deal is that the US was unable to secure an "anywhere, anytime" inspection deal. Nonetheless, IAEA's mandate would be solid as they will install electronic sensors and technology to monitor the nuclear program while having full access to the entire supply chain.
Any failures of Iran to comply with these would be seen as an immediate violation and could bring back the sanctions regime which themselves would not be immediately lifted, but in phases as Iran complies with the JPA over time. In essence, Iran will not be able to buy tactical weaponry the day after the deal is implemented, as many fear. "Clearing nuclear test material is not like flushing drugs down the toilet," said Mr Moniz (entire video of Kerry, Moniz and Lew's testimony here).
The by-product politics of the Iran deal, as mentioned by columnist S Mubashir Noor in his Huffington Post piece "Why The Iran-P5+1 Nuclear Deal Doesn't Add up" such as Iran's role in promoting terror outfits such as Hezabollah, Hamas, its funding of the civil war in Yemen and paying to keep Bashar al-Assad's government afloat in Syria are indeed areas of concern. However, the JPA needs to be seen as first and foremost to what it is meant for -- clamping down on an Iranian nuclear weapon. A conventional arms race in the region has been taking place for many years, and is nothing new; the idea of it being escalated to nuclear is what the immediate agenda is about. The success of JPA will open more doors for negotiations with Iran and others over the plethora of problems plaguing the region such as ISIS, instead of keeping Iran under global isolation which was not solving any purpose for anyone.