There can be several ways of perceiving the full application of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with effect from “Implementation Day,” January 16, 2016.
One is that this was a triumph for the world’s “global policeman.” By using sanctions to make life very hard for the Islamic Republic, this narrative goes, the United States obtained a deal that prevents Iran’s leaders from realizing their aim of acquiring nuclear weapons and destroying Israel.
I can understand why the Obama administration has peddled this narrative. Domestic politics in the US have become so irrational and partisan that even the Good Guys feel they must distort the truth to win political points.
It is not a narrative I like, though. Having served on the UK’s Iran Nuclear negotiating team in 2004 and 2005, I know that in March 2005 President Hassan Rouhani and Minister Javad Zarif, then in different roles, were ready to offer a deal very similar in its essentials to the JCPOA. I infer that they consented to the JCPOA not because they felt compelled to do so by sanctions, and despite wanting the nuclear means to destroy Israel, but because they saw it as in Iran’s interest to do so.
Iran’s interest, they realized, was to overcome the setback Iran suffered in 2003 when the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iran had failed to declare some of the nuclear material in its possession, had used some of that material to test a few centrifuge machines and for material conversion experiments, and had “pursued a policy of concealment” for 18 years.
The IAEA’s findings in 2003 were a setback because they alarmed the international community, generated suspicion of Iran’s nuclear intentions, and annoyed Non-Nuclear Weapon States (NNWS) who feared that the US would use Iranian non-compliance with safeguards to deprive NNWS of the right to make peaceful use of sensitive nuclear technologies.
Rouhani and Zarif had the sense to understand (and persuade Iran’s Supreme Leader) that the way back to international acceptance lay through adhering scrupulously to their safeguards agreement with the IAEA, volunteering transparency measures and restrictions on nuclear activities, and ending the lethargic research into nuclear weapon technologies that came to their notice, reportedly, only in 2003.
True to Their Word
Another way of looking at JCPOA implementation is that it suggests that the pragmatic part of the Iranian elite can be trusted. Rouhani, Zarif, and MIT-educated Ali Akbar Salehi (vice president and chairman of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization) have been true to their word since November 24, 2013 when an interim plan of action was agreed—just as they were true to their word between October 2003, when they came to an agreement with the Ministers of France, Germany and the UK, and August 2005 when they left office, together with President Mohammad Khatami.
(When a State Department official told Congress that Iranians have deception in their DNA, she was committing an injustice, and not only doing a disservice to her employers, by implying that they were fools to imagine that any deal with Iran could be worth the proverbial paper on which it was written.)
One reason that Iran’s pragmatists can be trusted is that they are not revolutionaries. Too many of us in the West continue to imagine that Islamic Iran wants to export the 1979 revolution. This is no longer true of a majority of Iran’s elite, if it ever was. Like the USSR in the decades following 1917, the Islamic Republic is evolving away from its revolutionary roots. It is becoming a status quo regional power. Honoring international commitments and respecting international law are a logical practice for status quo powers.
Of course there is still a revolutionary element within the Iranian body politic. Rouhani and Zarif will not be around forever. The next Supreme Leader may be less wise than Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. We cannot exclude the possibility that firebrands, who care nothing for international commitments, will replace them. But the best way of guarding against this is to ensure that the Iranian people have so much to lose by electing firebrands that they continue to give their votes to pragmatists. Bad-mouthing and threatening Iran, as so many US politicians are addicted to doing, will be counter-productive.
The End of a Cycle
Yet another way of looking at JCPOA implementation is that it marks the end of a 25-year cycle during which state nuclear proliferation has been very high on the agendas of Western Intelligence agencies and foreign ministries. In January 1991, the UN Security Council was three months away from demanding the dismantlement of Iraq’s nuclear weapon program. There were concerns about Iran’s contacts with the A.Q. Khan network in the mid-1980s, when the Iraqi program got underway. North Korea was two years away from trying to conceal from the IAEA that it had acquired plutonium by secretly reprocessing spent nuclear fuel. Later in the 1990s, concerns about Libya, and later still Syria, would emerge.
Now only North Korea continues to be a cause for (acute) concern. International diplomatic action has resolved the Iraqi, Iranian, and Libyan cases. An Israeli raid has dispelled concern about Syria.
For those of us who remember the fear in the wake of India’s 1974 nuclear test that by 2000 at least 20 states would possess nuclear weapons, this limiting of nuclear proliferation is something to celebrate. It is due largely to diplomatic action, the effectiveness of IAEA safeguards, and the perception of many parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that their security lies in doing without nuclear weapons if others are ready to do the same.
Two big tasks still lie ahead. One is to persuade DPRK leaders that, having amply demonstrated their possession of a nuclear deterrent, they can afford to switch resources from making nuclear weapons to developing the North Korean economy.
The other is conceptual in nature. It is to identify a non-nuclear basis for the strategic balance of fear that has helped to keep the peace among major powers since 1945. Britain’s Ministry of Defence recently published a study, the Future Operating Environment 2035, which suggests that non-nuclear weapon systems may soon be capable of causing sufficient destruction of strategic assets to serve as strategic deterrents.
But I’m straying from the theme of JCPOA entry into force. I want to invite readers to acknowledge a genuine diplomatic achievement and give credit to Presidents Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani, to Secretary of State John Kerry, and to Minister Javad Zarif—without forgetting that they got by with a little help from their friends (and subordinates), notably their Russian colleagues.