Despite warnings that the first-step nuclear deal with Iran is a “historic mistake,” it is safe to say that the sky is not falling. In fact, at the halfway mark of the implementation of the Joint Plan of Action, it is clear that Iran is upholding its commitments — and is actually ahead of schedule in eliminating its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium.
Progress toward a final deal also continues. On May 13 in Vienna, political directors from Iran and the members of the United Nations Security Council will meet for a possible seven- to 10-day marathon session where they will begin drafting the text of a final agreement. And despite the relative quiet surrounding the talks, it appears that the sides are finding common ground on some of the most difficult issues.
For example, recent reports indicate that Iran has proposed altering the design of the Arak heavy water reactor to greatly reduce its potential plutonium output, a major potential concession. Former Gen. David Petraeus now even puts the odds of striking a deal above 50 percent, potentially within three months from now.
With all of this positive momentum toward a final deal, the skeptics’ continued warnings and calls for ever-increasing pressure look increasingly out of place. As a result, it is worth reevaluating the cynicism surrounding the negotiations and putting forward new conclusions based upon the diplomatic track record.
Iran Responds to Flexibility, Not Pressure
The threat of increasing sanctions, backed by a threat of military action, has been a constant over the past decade. Therefore, assuming that Iran finally gave in to the pressure is a somewhat dubious assertion. However, the diplomatic equation has changed recently in several significant ways, including a political opening in Iran following the election of President Hassan Rouhani, a pause on new unilateral U.S. sanctions that provided space for negotiations and newfound negotiating flexibility from the Obama administration.
This latter point deserves additional consideration. The Obama administration made two key concessions in the JPOA that were far more significant than the limited, reversible and largely symbolic sanctions relief that has been provided.
First, the Obama administration abandoned the unrealistic and unattainable “zero enrichment” demand by agreeing that Iran would be able to maintain a “mutually defined enrichment program,” upon the conclusion of the diplomatic process.
Second, it agreed that a final nuclear deal would result in the lifting of all UN, multilateral and national “nuclear-related sanctions.” With a concrete view of an acceptable end game, Iran was able to agree to significant concessions in the JPOA — such as eliminating its 20 percent enrichment. This newfound flexibility was likely far more responsible for diplomatic progress than finding the appropriate level of economic punishment. As a result, calls for additional pressure should be ignored.
The U.S. Could Be Less Likely to Uphold a Final Deal Than Iran
The International Atomic Energy Agency has confirmed in monthly reports and recent statements that Iran is implementing the terms it agreed upon in the JPOA — all despite the failure of Iran hawks to pass new sanctions.
This has left opponents of diplomacy grasping for straws. A rumored oil-for-goods deal between Russia and Iran would not be an Iranian violation of the nuclear deal, as some have claimed, because Iran is under no obligation to self-enforce unilateral U.S. sanctions.