After numerous delays, the presidents of the United States and Iran announced that the P-5 plus 1 nations (the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany) were able to conclude a nuclear agreement, 20 months in the making, that places verifiable limits on Iran's nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of international economic sanctions. But the agreement is about far more than curbing Iran's nuclear ambition. It creates the conditions for a thaw in Iran's economic relations with the west and a resultant dramatic restructuring of power and influence in the Middle East at a time when that region finds itself mired in sectarian conflict and the United States is looking for a path to military disentanglement.
For better or for worse, Iran is a major player in the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. The recently concluded nuclear agreement clears the way for Tehran to play an even larger regional role than it does currently. It is this expansion of Iranian influence that is at the heart of support for, and opposition to, a nuclear agreement.
The nuclear agreement is, in many ways, but a sideshow to the larger issue of regional politics. Despite being heralded as a new start, this agreement, with some exceptions, simply returns Iran to the status it enjoyed in 2005, prior to the dissolution of an earlier agreement intended to bring Iran's nuclear program under international monitoring. That accord, known as the "Tehran Agreement," traded Iran's acceptance of enhanced nuclear inspections under the Additional Protocol of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for the world's acceptance of Iran's inalienable right to develop, research, produce and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
But at that time, the United States insisted that a temporary freeze on Iran's enrichment activities, intended to allow the IAEA to establish a baseline for the conduct of enhanced inspections, instead become permanent, and Iran balked. The United States responded by transferring the Iranian nuclear portfolio from the IAEA to the Security Council, leading to the imposition of economic sanctions designed to compel Iran into compliance with the dictate of America. The current agreement brings Iran and the international community back from both the sanctions and the American insistence that Iran cease its enrichment activities, completing what amounts to a decade-long diplomatic journey to nowhere.
The issue of "possible military dimensions," or PMD, to Iran's nuclear program, introduced by the United States back in 2005 for the purpose of sabotaging the "Tehran Agreement," had long been a sticking point in the negotiations with Iran, sowing doubt and mistrust and creating the conditions for politically unacceptable intrusive inspections of sensitive Iranian military facilities. Having initiated the PMD controversy, the United States found itself mired in a problem of its own making as it sought to conclude this current agreement. In the end, the Obama administration simply transferred the PMD issue to the IAEA and Iran, who concluded a side agreement designed to finalize the matter by December 15 of this year.
The inspection regime being implemented under this agreement is comprehensive, intrusive, technical in scope, apolitical and entirely reasonable. It is also virtually the same inspection regime Iran had agreed to back in 2004. There are new inspection provisions covering centrifuge manufacture and storage, and uranium mining and processing. While these inspections fall outside the framework of the nonproliferation treaty which governs IAEA inspections, they are logical and reasonable measures and the international community would do well by having them incorporated into an updated Additional Protocol applicable to all non-nuclear weapon nations seeking to enrich uranium.
This anti-climactic resolution of what once was seen as the core issue preventing a nuclear agreement underscores the artifice used by the United States and others to define Iran's nuclear program. Arms control wonks and politicians have spent countless hours debating the impact of this agreement on the so-called "breakout" window, the time it would ostensibly take Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon once it began converting its stocks of low enriched uranium to levels usable in a nuclear device. This window, said by some to be as little as two months today, will be, according to the Obama administration, expanded to a year, giving the international community time to respond to any Iranian violation of the recently concluded accord. But like the PMD issue, the "breakout window" is pure politicized fiction, predicated on a combination of assumptions involving Iran's nuclear intentions that are not mirrored by fact.
Iran's nuclear program was used by the United States as an excuse to contain Iran economically and, by extension, politically and militarily. When the decision was made, back in 2005, to sabotage the "Tehran Agreement" over the issue of PMDs, the United States was actively engaged in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that were built on policies of regime change and nation building, and policy makers in Washington, DC, had visions of creating the conditions for the same inside Iran.
Reality has sunk in, and with it the need to engage with Iran so that the United States can responsibly extricate itself from more than a decade of conflict in that region. By resolving the issue of Iran's nuclear program, both real and imagined, the Obama administration is able to cut a political Gordion Knot it inherited from the Bush administration, freeing this administration to engage in meaningful diplomacy with, and about, Iran. In the end, the debates that will take place in Congress -- and elsewhere -- about the nuclear agreement will be less about Iran's nuclear program and more about how the west will deal with the reality of a Middle East redefined by Iran's resurgent economic and military power. It is a debate long overdue, and one that can hopefully proceed in a responsible fashion now that the myth of an Iranian nuclear threat has been debunked.