Iran nuclear deal: boost for reformers or formal arrangement?

Today the U.N. unanimously adopted the historic agreement between Iran and the six world powers, we spoke with two experts.

With the U.N. unanimously adopting the historic agreement between Iran and the six world powers, we spoke with two experts on ResearchGate to get their reactions. What does the nuclear deal mean for Iran and the rest of the world?

Ali Ahmad is a lecturer and researcher in Energy and Nuclear Policy at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Ahmad has discussed the Middle East and nuclear policy in depth with appearances in The Guardian and Al Jazeera America.

Pejman Abdolmohammadi is a Visiting Resident Research Fellow at the London School of Economics’ (LSE) Middle East Center. Abdolmohammadi has written extensively on Iran including appearances on the Persian BBC and the Washington Post.

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini and Iran's Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif  (R) attend at press conference of the nuclear talks in Vienna, Austria on July 14, 2015. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini and Iran's Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) attend at press conference of the nuclear talks in Vienna, Austria on July 14, 2015.

ResearchGate: What was your initial reaction to the deal?

Ali Ahmad: It’s a win-win deal for all the involved parties: Iran has now gained the international community’s acceptance of its nuclear energy program and managed to reach an agreement on a roadmap to lift sanctions that has crippled its economy. On the other hand, the P5+1 succeeded in hugely restricting Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapon, if it chooses to do so, for a significant period of time.

RG: Nancy Gallagher, University of Maryland, called JCPOA a “diplomatic masterpiece” what is your feeling regarding the specifics of the deal?

Ahmad: Freezing uranium enrichment beyond the level used for making nuclear fuel for power and research reactors, limiting uranium stockpiles to a very small quantity and redesigning  the Arak reactor, coupled with a rigorous inspection regime, represent a strong case to be supportive of this deal. Moreover, this deal will be perceived by many as a triumph for the global non-proliferation regime, however, it also showcased the weaknesses in the current system. For this deal to go through, Iran had to accept several measures that go beyond the demands of the non-proliferation treaty.

RG: The plan has already proved to be a chief talking point in the US. With Republican presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham calling Obama “dangerously naïve” and that he would “not honor the deal” if elected. What is your opinion on these comments?

Pejman Abdolmohammadi: In my opinion on the economic, military, security and political fronts, the Islamic Republic of Iran is much more interested in maintaining the status quo and avoiding any major changes to its current global alliance with Russia and China. Tehran still considers the US and the other Western states as a potential threat to its own security and stability. Therefore, the Iranian approach towards its Western counterpart, particularly during these nuclear talks, is driven by short term pragmatism. Therefore I think that Obama's policy actually has been "naïve".

To use a football metaphor, this first long match has ended in a tie. However, there will be a return match, which will probably not be played by the same people. On the American front, it is not yet clear whether, in the post-Obama period, the Republicans or Democrats will take power next and what their stance will be. While, on the Iranian side, I predict that the Islamic Republic’s system, being a peculiar hybrid regime, will adopt a new strategy, likely more conservative and closer to the predominant group of the Pasdaran, that might weaken Rouhani’s government, depriving it of its current diplomatic team.

RG: How do you see the deal affecting the US political landscape and the upcoming elections?

Abdolmohammadi: Certainly the deal influences the U.S. Political landscape. If Obama would be able to guarantee a new balance of power in the Middle East during the next months, the democrats could gain some more points. Otherwise, if, as actually is already happening, the U.S. Strategic allies such as Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey and even Pakistan start to feel threatened with the new US - Iran deal, it would certainly give more points to the republicans and likely also to those part of democrats who are close to Hillary Clinton.

RG: Why do you think Iran has accepted this deal? Is it purely economic? 

Ahmad: Economics is certainly one of the factors that brought Iran to the negotiation table. It should be noted, however, that sanctions against Iran did not actually stop or slow down the nuclear program. Sanctions mostly affected the Iranian people and Iranian businesses. Besides lifting sanctions, Iran will regain around 100 billion USD of frozen assets, which is not insignificant. What I think has been instrumental in persuading Iran to accept the JCPOA is gaining the recognition for its right to develop peaceful nuclear power program and the fact that the restrictions will be applied within a well-defined timeframe — remember that the US initial position was to completely roll-back Iran’s nuclear program.

RG: What does this mean for the Iranian people and the Middle East more generally?

Ahmad: The deal is certainly a boost for the reformists in Iran, led by President Rouhani, and it comes at a great timing before the parliamentary elections next year. Iranians will relish having normalized relations with the west as this would facilitate scientific, cultural and business exchange. I have witnessed a couple of cases where Iranian students were denied visas to study abroad and I hope things will become easier for those who aspire to study or work in the US or in Europe.

As for the Middle East, Iran is already a regional superpower and the deal will further strengthen its position with regards to the many regional files it is involved with across the region. Some countries in the region distrust Iran and believe that it is heading towards developing a nuclear weapon regardless of what the P5+1 group thinks. These countries would likely now to demand similar treatment in terms of establishing indigenous nuclear programs, inducing further security concerns.

RG: Do you foresee any problems with the deal developing in the future?

Abdolmohammadi: Yes I foresee some problems in the future. This nuclear deal should not be overestimated because, it will not structurally change the current regional balance of power. The Islamic Republic of Iran is both a strategic and geopolitical ally of China and Russia, Washington’s main competitors, and it is not interested in becoming an ally of the West.

RG: Any additional comments?

Abdolmohammadi: In my opinion the nuclear deal will most likely only be a formal arrangement. I say ‘formal’ because, based on the current situation, the possibility of reaching an agreement that will definitively solve the Iranian nuclear issue doesn’t exist. The nuclear deal represents, above all, a strategic political choice rather than a historical compromise between Tehran and Washington. In fact, contrary to what many analysts and lobbyists have been stating in the last two years, this would only represent a short term achievement. Such a significant and symbolic success would be a victory for both, American and Iranian, presidents. President Obama’s legacy would be solidified and Rouhani’s political position and legitimacy in Iran would benefit. An agreement would help paint Rouhani as a ‘savior,’ a president who brought some relief from economic pressures caused by sanctions and re-opened the Iranian economy to international trade.

Photo courtesy of European External Action Service