Monday, November 25, 2013

Agreeing to agree: Iran’s pact with the future

AFTER MORE than a generation of multilateral vilification in high places, the Iranian Republic and nations around the world are bringing down the wall between them in a triumph of realpolitik, and reality.

Over the weekend, Iran reached agreement with western powers to begin the ending of its nuclear development program, effectively dismantling the nuclear fear-leverage program that isolated Iran as a nation and made that country a whipping boy and global boogeyman for more than 30 years.

While it’s understood that the devil is in the details, the thrust of the interim six-month agreement sends a genial warning to a waiting world: Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. Don’t superimpose the actions of the old Iranian regime onto a new Iranian government eager to shake off its old image under Ahmadinejad and the earlier era of the “Great Satan.”

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The weekend deal hammered out in Geneva on Saturday and Sunday was the culmination of months of numerous back-channel meetings between Iran and the United States, discussions that were apparently equal measures of John Foster Dulles and Tom Clancy. “The deal was in part the result of months of secret talks held with Iran in such out-of-the-way places as Oman, with U.S. officials using military planes, side entrances and service elevators to avoid giving the game away,” Reuters reported Saturday.

“Today, the United States – together with our close allies and partners – took an important first step toward a comprehensive solution that addresses our concerns with the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear program,” President Obama said Saturday from the White House.

“While today's announcement is just a first step, it achieves a great deal. For the first time in nearly a decade, we have halted the progress of the Iranian nuclear program, and key parts of the program will be rolled back.”

UNDER THE Geneva deal, over the next six months, Iran agrees to stop enrichment above a 5 percent threshold, neutralize its current stockpiles of uranium at 20 percent enrichment levels, halt progress on enhancing its uranium enrichment capacity, shut down the centrifuges and provide inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency with access to all enrichment sites in Iran.

In exchange, the United States and the so-called P5+1 (the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union) agree to offer Tehran sanctions relief amounting to about $7 billion, including access to about $4.2 billion in oil sales, new access to aircraft and automobile parts; a resumption in trading in precious metals on the world market; as well as agreeing to impose no new sanctions against Iran; and a negotiation of a final agreement if the current deal holds.

Secretary of State John Kerry, invoking the Reagan-era maxim of “trust but verify,” put a spin on it for CNN’s “State of the Union” program Sunday. It was his way of playing down the fears of those in Israel and, for that matter, those in Washington.

“Verification is the key,” he said, “and President Obama and I have said since the beginning, we’re not just gonna verify, or trust and verify, we’re gonna verify and verify and verify. We have to know to a certainty so that Israel, Gulf states, ourselves, nobody can be deceived by what is taking place.”

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was aggressively unmoved. “Israel has many friends and allies,” he said Sunday in a televised address. “But when they’re mistaken, it’s my obligation to speak up clearly and openly, and say so. It’s my solemn responsibility to protect and defend the one and only Jewish state.”

In remarks quoted by The Associated Press, Netanyahu told his Cabinet that “[w]hat was reached last night in Geneva is not a historic agreement, it is a historic mistake. Today the world became a much more dangerous place because the most dangerous regime in the world made a significant step in obtaining the most dangerous weapons in the world.”

Netanyahu had fellow (and predictable) naysayers in the United States. On Fox News Sunday, Tennessee GOP Sen. Bob Corker sought to overlay his fears about one country onto fears about another. “My greatest concern ... is the North Korean issue: You begin relieving sanctions, you end up basically with no deal.” Corker, who called Saturday’s agreement “big on announcements, short on substance,” conflated Iran’s prospective nuke capability with that of North Korea, which withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003, and conducted its first underground nuclear test in 2006.

“From [Iran’s] perspective, they do view this administration as weak,” said Corker, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “And I think from their standpoint, they see this as their window of opportunity to negotiate with an administration that has shown that it really doesn't have a lot of the intestinal fortitude that other administrations have had. They've seen that in Syria, and it's been a learning experience for them.”

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SEN. CORKER’S “intestinal fortitude” cheap shot has to confront an inconvenient truth: No one in the George W. Bush administration had the guts to even attempt such an agreement with Iran; the Iranian Republic was of course part of Bush’s “axis of evil”; that comment, uttered in a 2002 State of the Union address, was a clear indication of how far Washington was not willing to go to engage in dialogue with Tehran.

Bush 43 let another chance slip by in 2003, when the United States rejected an overture by Iran to discuss a comprehensive agreement on Iranian nuclear ambitions. "At the time, the Iranians were not spinning centrifuges, they were not enriching uranium," said Flynt Leverett, a senior National Security Council director, to The Washington Post in June 2006.

Richard N. Haass, the head of policy planning at the State Department in 2003, told The Post: “To use an oil analogy, we could have drilled a dry hole. But I didn't see what we had to lose.”

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But concern about the new deal didn’t just break along the usual partisan political lines. Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin, also on the Foreign Relations Committee and also a guest on “Fox News Sunday,” said there was worry "as to whether Iran will live up to even these commitments, and this is the first step. ... I think Congress will be watching this very closely. We will not stand by and let this be the final deal.”

The problem for the skeptics, in condemning the agreement, is to identify what steps they would consider progress on the issue of a nuclear-tipped Iran. The distrust that’s been metastasizing over the last 30-plus years — from the United States’ perspective, certainly since the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 — couldn’t possibly be overcome with one grand, all-or-nothing accord. And if such a sweeping accord had been announced on Sunday, it would’ve been met with exactly the same automatic skepticism that Netanyahu, Corker, Cardin and others are expressing right now.

Likewise, the weight of Israel’s objections to the deal relies on viewing Iran through the old looking glass: as a country under the control of the notoriously inflexible Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who called for Israel’s destruction, developed missiles capable of hitting Israel, and backing militant groups similarly sworn to destroy Israel. Israel is basing its new positions on old Iranian policies, and Israel can’t afford the luxury of willful myopia.

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THE JUNE election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani — himself a former nuclear negotiator — appeared to indicate that Iran’s nearly 77 million citizens (half under the age of 35) were ready to turn the page. It’s that Iranian move toward geopolitical practicality, and the months of effort by the United States and others to make that move possible, that now forces Israel to give peace a chance, whether it wants to or not.

"Israel doesn't have legitimacy right now ... to conduct an independent military option against Iranian installations," said Yoel Guzansky, a former Israeli National Security Council staff member and monitor of the Iranian nuclear program.

“How can Israel, after the entire international community sat with Iran, shook hands with Iran and signed an agreement, operate independently?” Guzansky told The Associated Press. “It will be seen as someone who sabotages 10 years of trying to get Iran to the table and trying to get a deal.”

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At some level it must have occurred to the Iranian leadership over the last few weeks that they were crossing the Rubicon (or the Persian Gulf) in agreeing to the terms of this pact. To violate an agreement they helped to create, Iran’s leaders would run the risk of arousing not only the ire of the international community (Israel and the United States first among equals) but also the outrage of its own citizens desperate to get their economy back on anything close to normal.

Tehran wouldn’t have to look that far to see how problematic that can be. Iran’s leaders must have considered the ongoing unrest in Egypt, worsened at least in part by the continuing struggles of its people to survive a cratering economy — struggles whose stage is now the turbulent Egyptian street. Tehran doesn’t need that, and the Iranian negotiators in Geneva knew it.

Vali Nasr, a scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, recognizes the stakes for Tehran as well. For Nasr, the deal reached this weekend was a concession that the Iranian people couldn’t indefinitely endure the status quo of crippling sanctions and the resulting economic impact on the ground — including a 35 percent unemployment rate and a 45 percent inflation rate.

“The realization was you can tolerate that situation for some time, but you cannot tolerate it forever without really degrading the foundations of your country,” Nasr told MSNBC on Sunday. “They need to get back into the global economy, and the only way to do that is through a deal with the United States and its allies on its nuclear program.”

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DEMOCRATIC REP. Adam Schiff, on the House Intelligence Committee, agrees: “The reality is you can’t compare this interim agreement to an ideal agreement. You’re never going to get an ideal agreement,” he said Sunday on MSNBC. “We have to measure this agreement by reality, by what we could obtain and by the alternative, which is that Iran marches forward over the next six months and enriches [more uranium]. It’s always easier to say ‘no.’ The responsible thing is to see whether diplomacy can work.”

For his part, President Obama called Netanyahu, doing what he could to assuage the concerns of Israel. "The President underscored that the United States will remain firm in our commitment to Israel, which has good reason to be skeptical about Iran’s intentions," the White House wrote, as reported in The Huffington Post.

And Kerry made the rounds of the Sunday gasbag programs, countering the critics of the agreement. “The deal is the beginning and first step,” he said on ABC's “This Week.” “It leads us into the negotiation – so that we guarantee that while we are negotiating for the dismantling, while we are negotiating for the tougher positions, they will not grow their program and their capacity to threaten Israel. Israel will actually gain a larger breathing space in terms of the breakout capacity of Iran. It’s just clear.”

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On CBS' “Face The Nation,” Kerry said a certain amount of skepticism wasn’t just expected but well-deserved.

“What we've done is lock components of their program in place and actually roll some of them backwards,” he said. “The result of that is, by destroying their 20 percent uranium stock, by limiting their 3.5 percent stock, by limiting the centrifuges that can be constructed and where they go, by having intrusive inspection of a number of facilities we've never been in before ... it now opens the door to our going into the larger, more comprehensive arrangement by which Iran will have to prove that its program is really peaceful.”

In short: This is necessarily a process, rather than an event. Instant gratificationists will be disappointed by that fact alone. So be it. For the first time in a long time, one of the thorniest challenges of world diplomacy may well be on its way to being resolved. We’re on the road to changing a situation many no doubt thought would ever change, and it’s right to be, finally, on that journey.

No matter how long it is or where it leads, every road starts somewhere.

Image credits: Mohammad Javad Zarif and John Kerry: Reuters/Carolyn Kaster. Kerry in Geneva: via The Huffington Post. Hassan Rouhani: Getty Images.

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