The Fact of the Iran Deal is More Important Than its Terms
On Sunday morning in Geneva, representatives of Iran and the P5+1 (US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany) agreed an interim agreement tailored to ensure the peaceful application of Iran’s nuclear programme. The agreement, a first step towards a more comprehensive deal in six months, states that Iran will freeze certain enrichment programmes, dilute stocks of uranium, and submit to daily inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. In return they will receive access to certain frozen overseas accounts, and some sanctions will be relaxed – a deal worth about $7 billion to Iran.
It is difficult to see the actual terms of the deal as being much more than symbolic. $7 billion sounds like a substantial amount of money, but the US spends almost twice that on its military every week. Similarly, Iran’s concessions will stop them from being able to produce a bomb for the time being, and hinder their efforts to a small extent after that, but really nothing significant is changing. Fortunately, this is unimportant. The real significance of the nuclear agreement is the fact that it exists at all.
To see the deal’s true importance, we must place it within its historical context. The history of the United States and Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution is a catalogue of crises, suspicion and opposition. The 1979 hostage crisis, the US support of Saddam Hussein in the Iraq-Iran war, the American shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655, and the Iranian funding of Hezbollah have all contributed to the highly adversarial atmosphere between the two nations. After 9/11 it seemed as if rapprochement may be possible, but both sides soon returned to their usual rhetoric – highlighted best by George W. Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’ speech, which linked Iran with Iraq and North Korea as enemies of freedom.
Bush’s speech was no anomaly. This sort of aggressive tone has been the norm in both countries over the past three decades. The US is famously often referred to as ‘The Great Satan’ in Iran, while American newspapers, magazines and journals often carry urgent calls for an invasion. Just last month, major Republican donor Sheldon Adelson advocated dropping nuclear bombs on the Iranian desert as a ‘warning’. In 2007, John McCain was even filmed singing about bombing the country.
It is not this sort of belligerence that has been the real problem, however, but a total lack of communication. The United States discovered the importance of reliable communication links with an enemy in the 1960s, when the Cuban missile crisis led to the installation of the Moscow-Washington hotline or ‘red telephone’. Unfortunately they have not been able to apply this lesson to their Iranian situation. The history of miscommunication between the two nations since they broke off diplomatic relations in 1980 would be funny if it were not so worrying. David Crist’s book ‘The Twilight War’ speaks of the Iranian government ignoring letters from Ronald Reagan because they thought they were fake, Mohammed Khatami sneaking out of a side door at the UN to avoid Bill Clinton, and George H. W. Bush spending half an hour on the phone to a hoaxster pretending to be then-president Hashemi Rafsanjani.
It is with this historical context that we can see the truly vital thing to come out of these negotiations – Iran and the United States are talking. When John Kerry met his opposite number Javad Zarif in September, it was the first official face-to-face meeting between high-level officials the two nations had shared in more than 30 years. This was followed up by a phone call between Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. And now they have agreed upon a deal together. It may be temporary, it may be limited, but it is something that Iran and the US have spoken about and agreed upon. And that in itself is remarkable.
As significant as it is, however, we should not get too carried away. The interim deal is a momentous step, but it is still just the first one. John Kerry, even while celebrating the signing of the deal, made sure to point out this fact, saying that the next step ‘will be even more difficult, and we need to be honest about it. But it will also be even more consequential‘. The signing of the joint plan of action is in essence a show of good faith from both sides. The job now is to put together a permanent agreement, win over the hardliners in both countries, and reassure Israel and Saudi Arabia. It took them 34 years to make the first step. For the second, they have six months. It is a big ask, and there is no guarantee of success, but the reward could be the end of this US-Iranian cold war, and a more peaceful Middle East.