Peace in His Time: Iran Deal Likely Defers Conflict Until After Obama

The deal reached early Sunday morning in Geneva between Iran and the P+5 nations (U.S., France, Britain, China, Russia, plus Germany) on Iran’s nuclear program may not stop its progress toward a nuclear weapon, but it will likely postpone military conflict until after President Barack Obama leaves office, and it certainly cements Iran’s place as a regional power. Though not explicit, “containment” is now the U.S. policy on Iran. 

Israel denounced the deal as "very bad." The Jerusalem Post quoted an Israeli official in the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as saying: "This is a bad deal. It grants Iran exactly what it wanted - both a significant easing in sanctions and preservation of the most significant parts of its nuclear program." Finance Minister Yair Lapid said: " A diplomatic accord is certainly better than war...just not this agreement."

The agreement would reportedly ease some sanctions and provide Iran several billion dollars in relief, in return for preventing weapons-grade uranium enrichment, allowing international inspections of nuclear facilities, and preventing the completion of a new plutonium-producing reactor. Some reports also indicated that Iran would allow the removal of highly-enriched uranium and reprocessing of lower-enriched uranium.

Critics of the deal immediately pointed out that it did allowed Iran to continue enriching uranium, allowing a future “breakout” to weaponization. Current UN Security Council resolutions prevent Iran from any uranium enrichment at all. 

“Instead of rolling back Iran’s program, Tehran would be able to keep the key elements of its nuclear weapons-making capability,” said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ed Royce (R-CA).

President Obama hailed the agreement. “For the first time in nearly a decade, we have halted the progress of the Iranian nuclear program,” he said. Secretary of State John Kerry, who flew to Geneva for the conclusion of the talks, addressed the deal’s critics, implying they wanted war: “I know that there are those who will assert that this deal is imperfect,” he said. “They bear responsibility to tell people what the alternative is.”

Those critics include Israel and Saudi Arabia, the two regional powers most directly threatened by a nuclear Iran, both of which have spoken out against the terms of the deal in recent weeks, warning that the U.S. was too eager to sign any agreement at all. (Observers noted that the agreement reached in Geneva Sunday was significantly stronger than the one the U.S. was eager to sign two weeks ago until France balked.)

As if to remove doubt, President Obama said: “Ultimately, only diplomacy can bring about a durable solution to the challenge posed by Iran’s nuclear program.” Though the president had suggested a military option in the past, it was clear he had little will to exercise it. His administration undermined Israeli plans for a pre-emptive strike on Iran, though it admitted Israeli pressure had helped push Iran to the table.

The U.S. media played up the talks as a significant achievement for President Obama, calling it “historic,” with the Washington Post describing Kerry’s arrival in Geneva as a dramatic “eleventh-hour intervention.” Critics suggested that the president had been in a rush to reach a deal because of his own political struggles at home. “Amazing what WH will do to distract attention from O-care,” tweeted Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX).

Iran greeted the deal as a victory, with Iranian journalists breaking into applause as Foreign Minister Javad Zarif arrived to address them. Though Iran did not achieve an explicit recognition of its “right” to enrich uranium, it achieved much of what it wanted in the agreement. Crucially, the deal will likely take military action off the table--even for Israel, which, despite protests, is unlikely to flout the western diplomatic tide.

Though the Obama administration has explicitly rejected a policy of "containment" in the past, the Geneva deal marks the inauguration of a containment policy in all but name alone. Containment involves using means short of war to prevent an enemy state from taking actions that make war necessary. Stronger versions of the policy could include pressure for regime change. The Obama administration's version is likely to be far more passive.

In essence, the deal postpones a confrontation with Iran until it is far closer to weaponization, and protects Iran’s growing status as a regional power, after the regime was near collapse in pro-democracy protests four years ago. In a sign of that change, Iran was allowed to participate in a separate but simultaneous diplomatic meeting in Geneva on the future of Syria, after having been excluded from those talks earlier in the process. 

The deal is only a six-month agreement, and leaves many of the most important issues to be decided at the end of that period, in the hope that confidence among the parties will improve enough to make a more comprehensive deal possible. However, given that the deal could, at worst, allow Iran to become a nuclear power at a time of its choosing, the deal may just have deferred the conflict until after Obama has left office.

This post has been updated.


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