Pluto had its close-up. The American League prevailed in baseball’s All-Star game. Harper Lee released Go Set A Watchman—her first novel in 55 years.
News junkies had plenty to chew on last week, but it was ultimately no contest: the word that mattered most came straight out of Vienna on Tuesday, July 14, when the U.S. and Iran announced that they had reached a deal stunting Tehran’s nuclear development for at least 10 years in exchange for the lifting of oil and economic sanctions against the country. Eventually, an embargo on importing arms and ballistic missiles into Iran will also be removed.
The 109-page agreement, sealed after 20 months of negotiation, requires Iran to reduce its low enriched uranium stockpiles by 98 percent and the number of centrifuges—machines necessary to produce highly enriched uranium for a bomb—by two-thirds. The International Atomic Energy Agency is now allowed visit suspicious sites and conduct continuous surveillance at enrichment and centrifuge production facilities.
Response, not surprisingly, has been varied. President Barack Obama told expected critics in the House of Representatives: “I will remind Congress that you don't make deals like this with your friends. We negotiated arms control agreements with the Soviet Union when that nation was committed to our destruction. And those agreements ultimately made us safer.” However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—who noted offers by the U.S. to improve Israel’s security in the wake of the news—posed the following question to ABC: “If this deal is supposed to make Israel and our Arab neighbors safer, why should we be compensated with anything?”
As the world’s leaders debated the future, NYU Stories asked two of our own—Richard Gowan of the Center on International Cooperation in the Faculty of Arts and Science, and Zachary Goldman of the Center on Law and Security in the School of Law—to offer their opinions on the historic accord.
Did either side actually prevail?
Richard Gowan: You cannot be that clear-cut here. In a complicated negotiation like this one, everyone comes out with a few regrets. U.S. and European officials will be sorry that the curbs they have established on Iran's nuclear program will only stand for 10 to 15 years. They would have liked them to last for longer. Equally, the Iranians wanted to get a conventional arms embargo lifted immediately and will have to wait for five years.
Still, all sides feel that they have a deal that meets their basic needs. The next question is whether they will keep their parts of the bargain. There is a lot of mistrust, and this is evident in the text of the Vienna agreement, which contains complicated mechanisms for the U.S. and its allies to challenge the Iranians if they cheat or for Iran to complain if it feels Washington isn't playing fair too.
We will only know if this was a good deal once we see if Iran, the U.S., and other powers manage to implement it and stick to it without constant arguments and accusations of non-compliance. Ask me again in 10 years!
Was this a win for Obama on the foreign policy front?
Zachary Goldman: The Obama Administration notched a significant diplomatic accomplishment with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. But the agreement also carries with it a strategic dilemma. In order to ensure Iran adheres to the terms of the agreement, it will need to feel as though it is receiving the benefit of its bargain. This, in turn, requires private companies to make autonomous decisions to engage in trade and investment transactions with the Islamic Republic.
R.G.: President Obama has managed to get an agreement despite waning political authority at home, confrontations in the Middle East with Iran over Syria and Yemen, and deteriorating relations with both Russia and China—two big powers that are essential to guaranteeing the bargain and keeping Tehran on side. Getting over those obstacles has taken time, and Obama could still stumble, but it's a hugely impressive diplomatic performance nonetheless.
How should our Middle Eastern allies feel right now?
R.G.: Clearly Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states are all nervous—although they are stating their concerns with differing degrees of frankness. Iran will benefit economically and strategically from this agreement, and the U.S. will have to make a big investment in reassuring its regional allies that they still have its protection. This is already a big headache for the president, and you'll hear a lot about it in next year's election campaign.
Will this deal likely bring an era of economic prosperity to Iran?
Z.G.: Deterring Iran from overt or covert violations of the agreement will require a credible threat that sanctions will "snap back" into place if they violate the terms of the accord. But the possibility that sanctions will be re-imposed will likely scare off the kinds of private sector re-engagement necessary to the durability of the deal. How the Obama Administration resolves this dilemma will be one of the key determinants of whether it can convert a diplomatic coup into an enduring accomplishment.
Has this process really improved our relationship with Iran?
R.G.: It's clear that the American and Iranian negotiators forged a working relationship that would have been hard to imagine a few years ago. It is equally clear that hardliners in Washington and Tehran are still hoping to wreck that relationship. The deal is very narrowly focused on the nuclear issue, and leaves lots of questions about Iran's regional role and internal governance untouched. But neither side is going to back away lightly from something that was so hard to agree on, and does offer a rare positive opening in the Middle East a time when other factors—from the rise of the Islamic State to the war in Yemen—are so relentlessly negative.