Iran Won the Vienna Accords by Agreeing to Stop What It Never Was Doing

A different version of this article was originally published by New America Media.

Iran has won the diplomatic struggle over its nuclear program in Vienna. Its success was not due to United States negotiators' fecklessness as Republican critics and Prime Minister Netanyahu have been quick to assert. Iran was able to win because it was very easy for it to bluff, by giving up activities in which it had never engaged and never intended to engage.

On the other side of the negotiating table, the United States had already abandoned its Bush-era goal of effecting regime change in Iran, making its negotiating position considerably weaker. Moreover, the talks were tightly constrained by the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which guaranteed Iran and all other 190 signatories to the treaty the "inalienable right" to peaceful nuclear development, providing this development is carried out for peaceful purposes.

Many lies have been told about the Iranian nuclear program that have made the negotiations difficult:

1. Iran's nuclear program was carried out in secret. In fact, the program is more than 40 years old and was instigated by the United States. The United States provided Iran with its first research reactor.

2. Iran had or has or will have a nuclear weapons program. There is no evidence anywhere that such a program exists or ever existed as verified by the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Iran's leaders have regularly denounced nuclear weapons as un-Islamic.

3. Enrichment of uranium was tantamount to a nuclear weapons program. In fact, there are nineteen other non-nuclear weapons' signatories to the NPT enrich uranium just as Iran is doing. Several of these uranium enriching nations had or have stated that they might have a nuclear weapons program in the future. None of them have ever been targeted by the United States or other nuclear weapons' states, cementing Iran's contention that they were being specially targeted not for their nuclear activities, but just because they were "Iran." Given the Bush-era declaration that the United States wanted regime change in Iran and was using the nuclear weapons issue to garner American public support, this was highly plausible.

4. Iran might plan some kind of clandestine program to "race" to a bomb. This fantasy never seems to die. The fact is that Iran has no infrastructure to weaponize fissile material, produce a bomb or develop a delivery system for such a bomb. It has taken Iran years to produce enough low-enriched uranium (less than 5%) to produce even one bomb. That uranium would have to be enriched to a 95% level and even if Iran could somehow construct a bomb in short order, it would have to be tested, and then there would be no bomb. Additionally, any such activity would be immediately detected by IAEA inspectors.

The talks were further inhibited by people who insisted on attaching all kinds of extraneous issues that fell outside of the purview of the talks. Chief among these was an embargo on conventional arms sales to Iran, which had nothing to do with the nuclear question. Other issues included some kind of guarantee of release of political prisoners, recognition of Israel and withdrawal of support for the Assad regime in Syria--all utterly irrelevant to the talks themselves. No matter what Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, Lindsay Graham or Prime Minister Netanyahu said, these issues were off the table completely.

Iran thus had an enormous space in which to negotiate. It was already guaranteed to have its nuclear program preserved by virtue of the NPT. The idea of dismantling its nuclear capacity completely would have impacted all the other NPT signatories and created havoc in the world of arms control.

The NPT also protected Iran in terms of inspections. The "Additional Protocol" to the NPT, which Iran observed voluntarily during the Bush administration allows for expanded inspections of non-nuclear sites. It has been widely adopted by signatories to the treaty, but Iran withdrew when the Bush administration refused to engage in discussions with Iran on their nuclear program. Adopting the Additional Protocol was part of the Lausanne Framework for the current Vienna talks, which the United States and Iran agreed to. The Additional Protocol allows a nation under inspection 24 days to allow inspectors into the questioned facility. Since this is a universally recognized feature of the NPT, affecting hundreds of other nations, it could not be modified in Vienna. People who are upset at the 24 day window are ignorant of the NPT and the manner in which it is universally implemented.

It was patently easy for Iran to give up a nuclear weapons program that never existed, and that it never intended to implement. As a bargaining position this is unassailable as one's counterpart at the table insists and insists on something that has no value. It is then possible to give way on such an empty demand to extract other concessions. Such a move is in effect a bluff, and the United States, saddled by the Bush-era assertion that Iran was building a bomb, could never backtrack on this without extreme embarrassment.

On the Iranian side, the Tehran leadership has benefited considerably over the years from enmity with the United States. Every failure in economic and social policy has been blamed in the United States, and official hostility toward the United States has shored up those in power for decades by making the United States into the symbolic "Great Satan." Giving up this domestic political advantage was going to be very difficult, but it could be done if the population could be brought to see the accords as a sacrifice. This was another bluff, but a bluff directed at the Iranian public. Jubilation in the streets in Iran after the accords were announced shows that this was a very good move. By giving up their advantage in attacking the United States, Iran's leaders actually increased their popularity.

The sanctions actually helped Iran in many ways. Far from being "crippling," they forced Iran to become self-reliant in nearly every conventional industrial and commercial activity as well as agriculture. To be sure, Iran could not have lived under the sanctions indefinitely. The lack of access to the international banking system was debilitating, but there is no question that Iran's internal economy was strong enough to continue for many years under these restrictions. Iran's GDP growth as measured by the IMF and the World Bank was 3% last year, and its poverty rate was lower than the United States. Thousands of investors have now assailed brokers for the Tehran Stock Exchange looking for opportunities to invest. Look for an Iran ETF (Exchange Traded Fund) very soon.

I recently returned on June 21 from a three-week trip throughout Iran and the incredible development of industrial infrastructure there as well as the plentiful agricultural supplies were evident everywhere.'
Thousands of foreign investors were ubiquitous even in provincial towns salivating at the opportunities that would emerge at a successful conclusion of the accords. One German industrialist said: "I had no idea how rich and developed Iran was. We will not have to build anything here. We just want to expand the industrial activities that already exist and increase marketing efforts. We will all make a great deal of money."

Not well known is the fact that Iran has now become nearly self-sufficient in conventional arms manufacture. In fact, Iran is an arms exporter. In the final Vienna accords, a bargain was struck to maintain an embargo on conventional arms trade. This was another bluff. Iran doesn't really need to import much in the way of arms, but by putting up a big show of resistance, the negotiators created a bargaining chip that really didn't exist. American commentators like Charles Krauthammer, fulminating about the fact that the conventional arms embargo was not made permanent have made themselves look ridiculous over an issue that simply doesn't exist.

There was a whole raft of extraneous issues offered by U.S. legislators creating oceans of press ink and hours of media commentary surrounding the talks. The release of prominent Iranian-American journalists now held in Iranian prisons along with an almost certain CIA operative who has disappeared, recognition of Israel, withdrawal of support for President Assad of Syria, and anything else Republicans and a few Democrats could dream up. These issues were never on the table to begin with because they had nothing to do with Iran's nuclear program, with the NPT, with the Additional Protocol or the United Nations sanctions--the issues that formed the framework of the Vienna accords, and which had already been agreed upon in outline in March in Lausanne. President Obama clearly pointed this out in his long press conference following the announcement of the accords, but this statement of raw fact has not stopped the attacks of those who were apparently not listening, or found the truth about the matter inconvenient for their demagoguery.

The United States would have done better had it actually known something about Iran, or had become realistic about its hyped-up rhetoric about the danger of Iran's nuclear program before heading into these negotiations. The Bush-era sanctions against Iran created a false crisis and an utterly unnecessary sanctions regime. The resolution of this situation will certainly be good for the world, but Americans should be clear that this was a crisis of our own making, and most of the energy our negotiating team expended in the last 18 months was directed at saving face and backtracking from the mistakes of the Bush-era hyped-up crisis that never really existed.

William O. Beeman is Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. He has lived and conducted research in Iran for over 40 years and speaks fluent Persian. His 2008 book, The "Great Satan" vs. the "Mad Mullahs": How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other, shows how the current nuclear crisis arose. He traveled throughout Iran for three weeks in June, 2015 just before the Vienna accords were announced.