Iran’s Nuclear Agreement & the Future of the Middle East

As John Kerry, Catherine Ashton and Mohammad Javad Zarif are meeting in Vienna, it is clear these top diplomats are not simply negotiating with one another. Mr. Zarif’s boss, Iran’s moderate-leaning president, Hassan Rouhani, must sell any deal to skeptics at home and win the blessing of Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei.Mr. Kerry’s boss — Barack Obama- must do likewise with Congress and the pressure that was once bipartisan; now is more alienating for Obama and his administration.

The deadline for Iran’s nuclear agreement is fast approaching as skeptics in Washington seem too preoccupied with technical aspects of the types of centrifuges Iran might be able to keep, or the level of low-enriched uranium Iran could stockpile. The importance of these detailed technical discussions should not be undermined, however this viewpoint gravely risks missing arguably a much more important reality, that the negotiations and their outcomes are central to the future of Middle East’s political system.

This important issue is not being addressed and fully examined by critics and skeptics. And the failure to address this critical question will have lasting destructive consequences beyond regional dynamics.

If Obama’s White House is serious not just about placing what Congress views as significant yet imperfect limits on Iran’s nuclear program, but also encouraging a political dynamic that strengthens more reform-minded Iranian leaders and fosters a more cooperative Iranian foreign policy abroad, then his administration should make every reasonable effort to seal a comprehensive nuclear deal and secure Congress’s support for it despite political pushbacks. Since the alternative, which is no agreement is far worse than a mutually agreeable even if imperfect agreement.

In recent months hard-liners, regardless of their geographies have been fearing that the narrowest of openings in the nuclear talks could eventually create a flood of political change of an impactful magnitude. Policymakers in Washington should not ignore the wider political question that are at stake here.

To insist on a position that might pacify the opponents of an agreement but which would discredit Rouhani and his domestic allies would do grave damage to long-term U.S. interests in the region. Aiming for this ideal spot may be difficult but it is better than any other alternatives.

Although a collapse of negotiations might not result in an immediate political catastrophe for Rouhani and Obama, but in the medium-term and certainly long-term it will surely reinforce an alternative viewpoint that will argue that Iran’s only choice is to return to the “resistance” economy, by working with Russia, China and other small and large autocracies seeking to counter U.S. “hegemony,” and weakening the private sector in Iran altogether.

Nowadays, some in Washington pose the question, what are the other alternatives for the United States? History clearly shows that sanctions might get Iran to the negotiating table, but will not compel Iranian leaders to yield to demands they view contrary to the country’s interest. As for military action, the consensus among U.S. military leaders and strategists seems to be that any effort to significantly damage or reverse Iran’s nuclear program would require weeks or months of sustained bombing — in effect another war, the outcome of which would be far from certain. And, with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria on the march, the last thing the United States should be thinking about doing is adding to the regional turmoil.

As Rouhani has stated, the nuclear accord is doable by the deadline of November 24th “if there is good will and seriousness” despite the difficulties, or the inflexibility of a deal’s opponents. Let’s not forget that the interim agreement with Iran, reached last November, has also carried many benefits. Iran has indeed respected its commitments, including a reduction of its stockpiles of enriched uranium and a curbing of production. The deal has brought new dynamics in relations between the United States and Iran; once viewed as impossible meetings between senior officials are now near routine.

The United States and Iran need to realize it is appropriate and suitable to work as allies and certainly understandable not be friends. In fact, in the past twelve months the rapid spread of the Sunni jihadist movement that calls itself Islamic State has underscored the importance of these emergent bilateral relations. The reality today is that ISIS has been brutal, and a shared enemy whose rollback becomes immeasurably more challenging in the absence of Tehran-Washington collaboration.

It is time for Washington to accept today’s realities, that the Islamic Republic of Iran, more than 35 years after the revolution, is a serious and stable power in an highly unstable region. Although its actions and interests are perceived as often opposed to the United States and its allies, but then that is true of several countries with which United States cooperate with on a range of issues. It is undoubtedly important to realize there is a strong link between resolving the nuclear standoff and Washington’s ability to play a constructive role in a rapidly changing Middle East. A nuclear agreement will help unlock the door to new options for the United States in the region, and those options are urgently needed more than ever before.

Let’s not forget both sides have an enormous amount to lose if talks fail. Obama and Rouhani have put their legacy behind these efforts. Collapse would amount to failure for both of them. Given that the strategic and political price of failure has risen dramatically, what is most needed now from Tehran and Washington is a readiness to secure compromises that could ultimately have a positive impact on reshaping the course of Middle East politics. Therefore, if there was ever a time for bold, courageous and necessary leadership on both sides, that time is now. A deal can and must be reached for the simple reason it is far better — for everyone — than any of the alternatives.


*This piece has been submitted to PressTV for publication.