Historic Breakthrough Or Historic Mistake?

History was made last week when a deal concerning the future of Iran’s nuclear program was announced between Iran and 6 Western powers. After five days of secret talks in Geneva, the two sides revealed a deal on November 23 that has been over a year in the making.

Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (Great Britain, France, Russia, China and the United States) and Germany signed the deal. In exchange for the easing of about $7 billion in economic sanctions and a 6-month commitment not to impose additional penalties, the Western powers compelled Iran to agree to limit its nuclear program in various ways.

More specifically, the deal calls for daily invasive monitoring of Iranian nuclear sites by the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA), no net increase in Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium, the destruction of all near-weapons-grade uranium, the idling of half of Iran’s installed centrifuges and a promise not to install any new centrifuges. The deal does not achieve totaldismantlement of Iran’s nuclear program, but instead limitsits capacity to make nuclear weapons. According to former IAEA director Olli Heionen, the effect of the deal is to immobilize Iran’s nuclear program; it will now take the Iranian government two months—instead of two weeks—to produce weapons-grade uranium should they choose to do so.

The deal received mixed criticism internationally. Elias Hazrati of Etemaad, an Iranian newspaper, wrote this week, “Here in Iran, everyone is happy!” Yet while Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has received broad-based support from officials in his country, including a stamp of approval from Ayatollah Ali Khameni, President Obama has had a tougher time convincing the public that the deal was a smart move for the United States.

Opponents of the deal have been very critical of the Obama administration for halting the economic sanctions that were significantly harming the Iranian economy while at the same time allowing the country to continue to produce uranium. John Bolton at the Weekly Standardcompared the deal to the appeasement of Nazi Germany during the 1930s, saying it amounts to “Iran gain[ing] legitimacy.” The most vocal critic of the deal, however, has been Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “[It] is not a historic agreement,” he said upon hearing the news, “it is a historic mistake. Today the world became a much more dangerous place because the most dangerous regime in the world made a significant step in obtaining the most dangerous weapons in the world.”

Some opponents have conceded that there may be a bright side in the deal: the reappearance of bipartisanship. In the days since the deal has passed, Republicans and Democrats have united against Obama in opposition to the agreement. In late July, the House passed tough sanctions against Iran by a vote of 400-20. Since the Iranian deal was brokered, Sen. Chuck Schumer, New York Democrat and third highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said that he will bring the House bill to the Senate floor with the support of numerous other Democrats and the entire Republican Party. This means that bipartisan legislation on sanctions for Iran could pass both the House and Senate, but Obama could still veto because it violates the recent deal.

Supporters of the deal, meanwhile, have claimed that architect of the agreement, Secretary of State John Kerry, “appears to have gotten his fingers on the edge of something that could be historic,” as Amy Davidson argues at the New Yorker. Supporters hope that this deal will help build trust between Iran and the West and give negotiators time to reach a more comprehensive agreement. A New York Times writer argued in an editorial that regardless of opinions about the deal, “no one can seriously argue that it does not make the world safer.” After a decade of steady Iranian nuclear development and no real diplomatic progress, John Kerry “is certainly trying,” Davidson points out.

In fact, instead of Obama’s “Munich Conference of 1938,” some supporters have said that this deal can best be seen as Obama’s “Nixon goes to China” moment. In 1971, staunch anti-communist Nixon shocked the world by announcing that he would visit China, eventually leading to the opening of diplomatic relations between the two countries after decades of mutual hatred. Some supporters of the current deal hope that relations between Iran and the United States will now undergo a similar change.

Professor Michael Desch, Chair of the Department of Political Science at Notre Dame, sees parallels between these two events: “Then, as now critics complained that the US was in danger of being hoodwinked by a radical and violent regime that was playing us for a sucker,” he told the Rover. Although President Rouhani appears to be sincere in his efforts to reform Iran, critics are concerned that he is gaming the system.

Adding to Obama’s problems is the political climate in which this deal came about. Thanks to the difficulties of the Obamacare rollout, a recent CNN poll has found that 53 percent of Americans do not believe that the president is “honest and trustworthy.” Furthermore, more than three decades of icy relations have contributed to a plurality of Americans believing that Iran is “the United States’ greatest enemy in the world today.”

Another consequence of the deal is its impact on the upcoming peace conference between Syrian government and militant rebels in January of 2014. The Syrian civil war has become a proxy war between the United States and Saudi Arabia on one side, and Russia and Iran on the other. The new Iranian deal seems to imply that the United States will want Iran to sit at the table for the Syrian negotiations, which would enforce the notion of Iranian legitimacy. As Desch put it, “an opening to Iran could potentially not only contain its nuclear program, but set the stage for broader changes there as well.” If exercised correctly, the Iranian deal could help create stability throughout the whole Middle East.

If nothing else, the Iranian nuclear deal is historic because of the wayin which it was announced. At 7:55 p.m. on November 23, Michael Mann, the spokesman for the European Union Foreign Policy Office, tweeted the news, hashtags and all. The mainstream media in Europe and the United States quickly picked it up. The fact that news of this gravity was delivered through a tweet and not an official press conference speaks volumes about the changing nature of journalism.

Regardless of the long-term effects of this deal, the Washington Posts Eugene Robinson argues that it will be a “diplomatic success story.” Why? “Even if negotiations for a permanent agreement ultimately fail,” he says, “this is a bargain price for 6 months of peace.”



Louis Anthony Bruno Bertolotti is Italian (believe it or not) and from the great state of New Jersey. He is a freshman in the College of Arts and Letters. He plans to major in political science and can be contacted at lbertolo@nd.edu.

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  • Jake Wagner

    Very interesting article. I hope to see more in the future!

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