So We Have a Deal with Iran. Now What?
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool
So We Have a Deal with Iran. Now What?
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool
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The lifting of economic sanctions and the phasing out of arms embargoes demanded by Iran have been agreed to, coupled with the curbing of the development of Iran's nuclear infrastructure, and the verification measures at nuclear sites, as required by the P5+1. That is, at least for as long as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action announced today in Vienna holds. The agreement alas does not require Iran to abjure from its calls for the destruction of the United States and Israel, but U.S. sanctions against Iran related to terrorism and human rights violations will continue.

Beyond the nitty-gritty technical aspects, the deal carries major, possibly enduring, implications.

Despite U.S. sanctions beginning in 1987, plus UN sanctions that started in 2006, Iran's economy ranks 29th in the world. Its scientists "domesticated" the technology for nuclear power at an "industrial scale," President Hassan Rouhani bragged to the UN General Assembly in 2013. Enrichment capacity increased exponentially, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote euphorically while the latest talks were ongoing, for "at the outset of this crisis Iran had less than 200 centrifuges; today, it has 20,000." U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter admitted candidly in April that while bombs "would set back the Iranian nuclear program for some period of time, the military action is reversible." So a deal seemed like the "best option by far" to U.S. President Barack Obama and other world leaders.

The handwringing about whether the deal is a good one - and for whom - and about whether it can be implemented over the long term is nevertheless understandable. Iran could indeed cheat, and it's a valid question whether the United States could actually reimpose sanctions or destroy suspicious nuclear sites if enactment breaks down. In the long run, a nuclear Iran may well be inevitable - for such capability meets that country's international ambitions.

Hope and opposition

Nonetheless there is worldwide relief as well that Iran has agreed to freeze its quest for atomic power. Rejecting this deal will therefore prove difficult for the U.S. Congress and the Iranian Majles, despite both legislatures having enacted oversight legislation - legislation that both countries' presidents could override. Indeed, the Obama and Rouhani administrations are hard at work undercutting the accord's opponents at home and abroad. Consequently even resistance to the agreement by the leaders of U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, who are foes of Iran, is not likely to prevail.

Saudi Arabia also fears that Iran could eventually regain the favored place by America's side that it enjoyed before 1979. Even though most Iranian politicians would eschew such an alliance, they revel in the notion of Iran returning to regional supremacy. For Washington, playing a pro-Iran card could help bring the Saudi monarchy more into line with U.S. anti-terrorism policies and Middle East peace plans. Certainly as Iran's economy jumpstarts, it will surpass that of Saudi Arabia as the largest and most diverse in the region - providing Tehran with new resources to counterbalance Riyadh's Wahhabist expansionism. A stalemate between those Shiite and Sunni rivals would be beneficial to the Middle East and to the world.

Sure and potential winners

Foreign investors will encounter cash-strapped Iranian state agencies eager to accept funds and technology to jump-start the exploitation of oil (Iran has the world's fourth-largest proven reserves), gas (second-largest proven reserves), and rare earth minerals (7 percent of the world's proven reserves). After years of sluggish contributions to the world's energy supply chain, Iran could swiftly emerge as the principal consistent provider of power for the European Union and for China. After all, unlike other Middle Eastern suppliers such as Saudi Arabia, Iran does not face the threat of Islamic fundamentalists throwing its society into turmoil and, in so doing, dragging fuel-hungry nations into recession. More problematic is an intention, articulated by Ali Akbar Salehi, who heads Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, to export "enriched uranium and heavy water" to other countries for civilian uses.

Even the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which by augmenting its military mandate has become the major industrial conglomerate in Iran, valued at over $150 billion, could reap signifiant fiscal benefits from associating with Western corporations. Such partnerships would enhance the IRGC's clout, not only within Iran but far beyond as well - perhaps even turning it into a multinational company. The IRGC's ability to act as a worldwide agent of terrorism may increase - not just from cash generated through additional commerce, but also by misusing billions of dollars that will be released to Iran under the nuclear freeze deal. Yet, as it becomes more dependent on international investment and partnerships, the IRGC's officers and conscripts could prudently choose cooperation over hostility, affluence over nukes.

Due to decades of pent-up consumer demand, post-sanctions Iran will become a major emerging market for foreign exporters catering to luxury markets such as high fashion, fast cars, and the latest techniques in cosmetic surgery. Foreign suppliers will find lucrative sales markets in the hitherto moribund pharmaceutical, information technology, and aviation sectors (aircraft average age is 35 years and airport equipment dates from the 1970s). Educational collaborations will spring up with American and European universities - as currently seen in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia - catering to Iran's talented and discontent youth.

There is the potential too for another, equally important, change. Liberally-oriented Iranians, especially those under the age of 30 who have no memories of the 1979 revolution and its anti-Western sentiments, hope that increased contact with the United States and European Union will propel social and political change away from theocracy and totalitarianism. Iranians tried hard in 2009 to transform their government into a more democratic, less religiously governed one. As sanctions decline and interactions mount, it will become increasingly difficult for the regime to stifle the flow of people, ideas, and information or to shape those flows which are meant to sustain theocracy. Indeed, even as he pushes for a nuclear deal abroad, President Rouhani speaks publically about the need for personal and civic freedoms at home, tweeting today that he expects "our youth to dream again for a brighter future."

The nuclear accord is a triumph as well for Presidents Obama and Rouhani, both of whom staked their political prestige on it. Rouhani will surely seek to push through economic, social, and political reforms in the wake of this agreement to cement his re-election in 2017. Obama may attempt to buttress his own legacy by building upon the agreement. Rouhani has called on Obama to work with Iran in solving regional issues such the quashing the Islamic State and ending the Syrian civil war - and the U.S. president could take up those offers, despite the chagrin of others.

President Obama might even be tempted to duplicate his Cuba diplomatic venture by seeking to reestablish full relations with Iran. Former two-time president and current Expediency Council chairman Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani recently asserted "it is not impossible for the U.S. embassy in Tehran to reopen, although such an action would depend on both sides' conduct." Let's remember that, speaking at Cairo in June 2009, President Obama pointedly declared: "I have made it clear to Iran's leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward."

(AP photo)