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Foreign Policy

The Significance of Iran Nuclear Deal

Aug 24 , 2015
  • Li Shaoxian

    VP, China Institute of Contemporary Int'l Relations

The Iranian nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Cooperation Plan of Action, is attributable to foreign policy adjustments by both the US and Iran, and the decision to meet each other half way.

Since the Iran Islamic Revolution, US-Iran relations soured and it was a consistent policy of the US to effect regime change in Iran. Congresses of successive presidencies, till President George W. Bush, routinely spent generously to assist regime change activities in Iran. The Iran nuclear issue emerged in the wake of the 2003 Iraq War, and in the following decade, the issue had become one policy driver for the US to undercut the Iranian government. In December 2003, when the US maintained a 150,000 troop presence in Iraq, Iran announced its signing of the Additional Protocol of the Treaty on the non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and willingness open its nuclear facilities to the IAEA inspectors. But it was met with dismissive response from the US, as the Whitehouse spokesman Boucher said that the signing of the Protocol was not enough to dispel the misgivings and cautions of the US on the nuclear issue, and the US urged Iran to unilaterally completely halt all uranium enrichment activities. When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took up Presidency in 2005, acknowledging that Iran’s two year suspension of its nuclear program and embrace of IAEA inspection prompted no goodwill from the wider international community, his government reactivated the nuclear activities including uranium enrichment program, thus stoking the tensions in US-Iran relations. In the years that followed, the UN Security Council passed four resolutions in support of sanctions against Iran, adding to the tensions between US and Iran, with a tangible spill-over effect across the Persian Gulf region. The saber-rattling between the US and Iran is alarming. Though multiple rounds of talks under the 6+1 framework were held before 2013, no real progress had been made because the key interlocutors refused to give any ground.

It is fair to say that talks began in real earnest in 2013. Right before that year, tightened sanctions against Iran wreaked havoc on its economy. President Rhouhani took office in August 2012, and soon after taking office he managed to rally a broad based consensus behind the effort to negotiate its way out of sanctions and isolations. At the same time, preoccupied with the “pivot to Asia”, President Obama was too overwhelmed to commit more to the Middle East, which was thrown into further disarray after 2011. A common desire for engagement resulted in a turnaround. On the sidelines of the UN Assembly held in September 2012, President Obama talked with President Rhouhani on the phone for 15 minutes, which was hailed as an icebreaker conversation. In October that year, a new round of talks took place and an importance agreement was reached, ushering in substantive negotiations on the nuclear issue between the two sides, and ultimately culminated in the signing of a deal on 14 July 2015. The deal serves the interest of both countries in that firstly, it obliges Iran to keep from developing nuclear weapon program for at least the next 10 years, and on the other hand, Iran can enjoy the right to development of nuclear program for peaceful use and the benefits of lifting of sanctions.


The conclusion of the deal is a win-win outcome and the credit should go to all parties involved. Unmistakably, the deal is of great significance in that it upholds the integrity of the international non proliferation regime, and a major power keg that loomed across the Middle East was finally tamed. For Iran, in addition to the benefits stemming from peaceful use of nuclear energy and the gradual lifting of international sanctions, its domestic and foreign policies are both on the cusp of a turn for the better. In the past 30 years, there was a negative feeding loop between the domestic and foreign policies of Iran, as a sclerotic internal system dominated by conservative ideologies dictated a rigid foreign policy outlook, which led to sanctions and isolation on an unprecedented scale imposed by Western countries. A hostile external environment fueled further pushback from within the Iranian government. The conclusion of the deal is a result of changing domestic political dynamics since 2013, and another contributing factor is a relatively relaxed international environment that induced Iran to soften its stance. In the meanwhile, for the US, this deal institutionalizes the restrains on Iran’s development of any nuclear program and keeps all the activities manageable, while at the same time addresses a simmering conflict-prone security concern. The deal will also contribute to US’ fight against the ISIS, and efforts to reshape political order in the Middle East.  As for other stakeholders, like China and European countries, their trade ties with Iran stand to grow further when the shackles of sanctions are shattered.  Rich in oil and gas resources, with a big market untapped and business opportunities to be unleashed, Iran is a magnet for other countries eager to engage commercially. As a matter of fact, ever since the talks were resumed, business delegations from Europe and the US were beating a path to Tehran.

That said, the proof is in the enforcement, which is set to be a process of progress and setbacks. First, there are dissenting voices wielding influence in both countries against the nuclear deal. The US Congress is in the process of 60-day review of the deal, and the dissenting members of the Congress are assertive, and as the election cycle is coming, the Republican leadership will only grow vocal in their criticism of the deal, positioning their public rhetoric along the bipartisan lines. Moreover, after 30 years of demonizing propaganda, there is abundant anti-Iran sentiments within the US society, therefore it is not surprising that after the deal was concluded, protesting parade took place in the US. The situation in Iran only mirrors that in the US. Hardliners dominate the airwaves, and lashed out at the deal supporters as betraying the country. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei struck an ambivalent note. Beyond the two interlocutors, other countries also challenge the deal. For instance, Israel dismissed it as a huge mistake, and claimed that the international community would have to swallow the pain eventually. As far as the enforcement mechanism is concerned, the deal will traverse a tortuous path. In the spirit of reciprocal and parallel steps taken on both sides, the deal presumably needs to run 10 years more or less, and the lack of trust will be a norm which makes the verifiable guarantee underscored by President Obama all the more indispensable. So every step of progress has to be based on the interaction of the US and Iran on a long term basis, and any deviation from either party may threaten to interrupt the process. All in all, the implementation and enforcement of the deal rests on the concerted efforts of all parties concerned. In his phone conversation with President XI Jinping, President Obama has expressly said that the US seeks China’s continued and strong support in the implementation of the deal.

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