Moment that mattered: Iran agrees a nuclear deal with major world powers
On 14th July 2015, the Iranian government reached an agreement with a six-nation negotiating group that “under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons”. In return, sanctions worth billions to the country’s economy would be lifted. Just over three months later, we spoke to Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, about what the deal would mean for American-Iranian relations – and how vulnerable it might be to a reversal…
14th July 2015 (Taken from: #20)
“I was in Geneva when the deal was signed. I had been waiting near the meeting room for a long time when, at around two in the morning, I saw an Iranian journalist running down the stairs. I asked her what was happening and she said they had an agreement. I was cautious because Iranian journalists regularly reported things that turned out not to be correct and we were getting no confirmation from the Western side. Forty minutes later I emailed Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who I know from when he was at the UN, and asked if there was an agreement and he responded: ‘We have a deal.’ I was elated.
The National Iranian-American Council (NIAC) had worked hard to move the political climate in Washington DC to a point where there could be the courage and determination needed to pursue diplomacy with Iran.
It was necessary to create an intellectual space in which Iran could be rationally debated and where a lot of the false assumptions and distortions about the country could be corrected. It’s not about defending Iran; in fact, the Iranians needed to do the same thing for the US because they had so many – at times comically simplistic – distortions in their understanding of the country. If you continue to believe the other side is an intractable enemy then you can’t negotiate.
We had worked hard to create an intellectual space in which Iran could be rationally debated”
Obama couldn’t afford to spend that much political capital unless there was a chance of getting a deal that would survive the congressional process. [Senate Democrats blocked Republican efforts to kill the deal in September 2015]. So much of the Washington establishment has constantly said that a deal was impossible; if you were to believe those assumptions, the logical end point would be war.
Now, just a couple of weeks after its implementation [Parsi is here referring to the deal’s formal “adoption” by the Obama administration, which began the process of waiving US sanctions against Iran on 18th October 2015] we’re seeing the transformative potential of the Iran deal – John Kerry using his new political capital in Tehran to help get Saudi Arabia and Iran to sit down and discuss the Syrian conflict. There’s no guarantee these talks will succeed but you can guarantee they would have failed with Iran’s continued absence.
As recently as 2012 there were politicians in Washington pushing for war with Iran, but a few key things changed. Firstly, the US made clear that it would accept a limited enrichment programme in Iran. This was critical because the Iranians were not going to negotiate unless their programme was recognised. The zero-enrichment objective of the Bush administration had to be dropped. Then the Joint Plan of Action [an interim agreement made between Iran and the six world powers in Geneva in November 2013] was hugely important because back then people still didn’t think a deal was possible. Another key factor was the election of Hassan Rouhani in June 2013. White House officials told me that the Iranian election changed everything.
One thing NIAC did that had a large impact was produce a report based on interviews with members of the Iranian elite which concluded that Ayatollah Khamenei [Iran’s supreme leader] knew he could survive – if not win – a war, whereas he knew he couldn’t survive a situation in which his political base had the impression that he had capitulated to the West. His base would grow even if he lost.
This meant that you could sanction Iran and cripple its economy but you would have a greater likelihood of military confrontation than Iranian capitulation. From the US administration’s perspective this conclusion was critical. They decided to double down on diplomacy – and on several occasions Obama came out and said it’s fantasy to think the Iranians are going to capitulate. He reached this understanding through his experiences of dealing with Iran. The deal’s opponents in Congress were never in the room driving policy, so they could live in this fantasy world in which tougher sanctions bring down the regime.”
“The nuclear deal became a partisan issue in Washington, and for the Republicans it was about spoiling a victory for Obama. In some ways that helped our cause because it became more difficult for Democrats to side with the Republicans and Obama only needed 34 votes in the Senate, not a majority. Making it partisan helped the Republicans attract hawkish pro-Israel voices, which was part of their objective – they want more of the big pro-Israel donors to move to the Republicans from the Democratic side. That was more important to them than actually stopping the deal.
Several Republican nominees for president have said they would rip up the deal if elected but they’ve been saying a lot of stuff in their extraordinarily unintelligent debates and realistically everything will depend on the months before the presidential elections. If the deal is effectively implemented and the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] is saying it’s working well then it will carry an air of irreversibility. If the deal is fragile by the time the next president comes in, you have a problem.
The majority of Iranian-Americans have always been in favour of diplomacy rather than war. That majority, however, is quite silent and there’s always been a very vocal and very small minority who are gung-ho against negotiations. While Iranian-Americans are cautiously optimistic, Iranians in Iran perhaps have unrealistic expectations of the impact of the deal. One poll in the aftermath put Rouhani’s popularity at 80 percent, and there’s no way he can sustain that. He’s inevitably going to disappoint.
Khamenei is trying to find a balance, and when society pushes strongly in one direction he can’t push back or it could be costly. I don’t think Rouhani was Khamenei’s choice and I’m sure some people would have preferred to see cheating in the election [there were widespread allegations of electoral fraud when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defeated Mir-Hossein Mousavi in 2009], but if they’d cheated a second time it would have caused the collapse of the regime.
No one in the Iranian political system is omnipotent – it’s not like Saddam in Iraq – and this deal opens the way for Iran’s moderates to be decisive. The middle class is 60 percent of the population. If, as a result of the deal, sanctions are lifted and business flows to Iran, and Iran experiences growth of about five percent per year for ten years, which is not unrealistic, the middle class would be 85 percent by 2025. A country with such a large middle class is far more likely to pursue moderate policies than radical policies. There’s no guarantee, but there’s a greater likelihood.
Human rights defenders in Iran have overwhelmingly backed the deal. Without a deal they would be looking at a worse situation because the worst thing that has happened to the human rights and the pro-democracy movements has been the way the sanctions and the threat of war have undermined the middle class. They are the main actors that can push Iran in the right direction.
A full normalisation of ties between the US and Iran is a long way down the road… It would be wise to not push so hard that you get a backlash on either side”
A full normalisation of ties between the US and Iran is a long way down the road. The first step is to go from an institutionalised enmity to a truce; it’s not easy turning an enemy into a friend. There are plenty of people on the Iranian side who fear the idea that America and the West will be present in Iran again, and there are those on the US side who have a hard time reconciling with the idea of not being enemies with Iran. It would be wise to not push so hard towards normalisation that you get a backlash on either side.
I have been accused by some opponents of the deal of working for the Iranian regime, which is totally untrue. I have personal relationships with players in all of the camps: on the American side, on the Israeli side, on the Iranian side. That’s how we get our work done. You cannot push for peace and not talk to the actors.
Some have accused the Iranian negotiators of working for the CIA. These accusations are a reflection of how emotional this deal has been on all sides. When you challenge a status quo that is so ingrained, you’re going to face accusations. When Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin did the same thing he had pickets outside his home, they made posters of him wearing a Nazi uniform, and he ended up getting shot. That’s what happens when people see peace as a greater threat than war.”
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