The agreement in Vienna eclipses Soviet treaties, as well as past attempts to remove weapons from Libya and North Korea.
Forget SALT, START, China, Libya and North Korea. Barack Obama’s agreement with Iran over its nuclear aspirations is like nothing the U.S. has ever seen before.
Years of negotiations rose to dramatic heights in Vienna on Tuesday, yielding an almost 100-page document forged from tense talks between Iran and the U.S., China, France, Germany, Russia and the U.K. Under the agreement, the Islamic Republic will be allowed to operate a limited version of its nuclear program in exchange for assurances that international inspectors will be able to verify for at least 10 years that it is not producing enough material for an atomic bomb. Iran will continue to adhere to a U.N. arms embargo for five more years and will get billions of dollars in relief as international sanctions against it begin to lift.
Supporters and critics of the agreement consider it historic.
“North Korea and Iran have been the top two nuclear proliferation threats that people point to, and we have just effectively closed off one of those from acquiring nuclear weapons. It’s a big deal,” says Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, which advocates against nuclear weapons. “The stakes are clearly high here – the reason why we spent nearly two years trying to negotiate this agreement.”
The announcement is far from a traditional nuclear agreement like those that defined Cold War levels of nuclear arsenals between great powers. Multiple incarnations of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty or the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty pitted the U.S. against the Soviet Union, and later Russia, in a mutually agreed upon reduction of arms. Tuesday’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, however, serves as a political agreement much more like a nonproliferation treaty, involving a complex web of international negotiators seeking to impose their vision of a safer Iranian nuclear program.
“The U.S.-Soviet talks took place in an environment of mistrust and competition, but also one where both were undoubtedly superpowers,” says Emily Chorley with IHS Jane's defense analysis firm. “The ability to negotiate between seven parties, some with considerable pressure from regional allies, is a major feat, particularly in an atmosphere of such distrust.”
The content of the negotiations is also unprecedented. Previous attempts to limit rogue states from building up nukes – successfully in Libya in 2003, unsuccessfully in North Korea in 1994 and 2006 – were largely focused on eliminating all nuclear materials and facilities from those countries. Mere weeks after reaching a deal with Libya, U.S. cargo planes began flying out much of the country's nuclear infrastructure. Shortly after reaching international deals with North Korea, officials there revealed they had lied and continued producing nuclear materials clandestinely.
The Iran deal, however, allows Tehran – under the leadership of President Hassan Rouhani – to keep some nuclear facilities operating at a lowered and verified level for at least 15 years, after which time it may be able to greatly shrink the “breakout time,” or time it takes to develop nuclear materials suitable for weapons.
“It’s a big point,” says Matthew Kroenig, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and professor at Georgetown University who specializes in nuclear nonproliferation. Tuesday’s deal marks the first time the U.S. has been willing to compromise on allowing a country it considers dangerous to continue enrichment reprocessing at lower levels, he says.
That comes with serious risks.
“There is an argument to be made this deal will slow, and manage, Iran’s introduction to the nuclear club,” Kroenig says.
Prior nuclear negotiations have not included monitoring and verifying requirements as advanced as Tuesday's agreement – lessons likely learned from the North Korean failure. But Iran may still be able to get to a point in 15 years when it can develop nuclear materials for a bomb before the U.S. would be able to stop it. That would likely force Israel to reveal the nuclear stockpile it’s generally considered to have, and make it virtually impossible for other U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey to justify not having their own nuclear arsenals.
Much of the immediate outcome will focus on how Tuesday’s agreement appears to each country’s people and political leaders. Security negotiations in the past have long forced U.S. leaders to sit down with potential enemies such as China, with which then-President Richard Nixon infamously reopened relations in the 1970s.
America has a particularly complicated history with Iran. The CIA helped orchestrate the overthrow of the government in the 1950s and installed the shah. Under his rule, the U.S. actually encouraged the Iranian government to begin developing a nuclear program. That changed during the 1979 revolution, whose aging leaders are now struggling to maintain control of a young and educated country that yearns for greater international involvement, while also waging proxy warfare in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.
Peter Kuznik, a professor at American University and director of its Nuclear Studies Institute, says the positive negotiations with Iran have the potential to strengthen the country's moderates and improve international relations.
“Anything along those lines that strengthens Rouhani’s hand, strengthens secular forces, and strengthens pro-peace forces in Iran is a very good step,” he says.
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