x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

For now, the Iran deal is the best outcome for everyone

It is not perfect, but the current agreement is better than the alternative of continuing sanctions on Teheran.

It has been so long since anyone has achieved a major diplomatic success in the Middle East that everyone has forgotten what a win looks like – each side leaves the table with less than they had hoped for.

The Iranian nuclear deal is the best result anyone in the region could have reasonably aimed for.

Many have already started saying it is a bad deal. Why? Because the deal offered Iran sanctions relief and did not get enough for it. The Gulf countries have been worried that this kind of deal would not meet the minimum they required to be safe. But they were hoping for more than Iran could be expected to give away. So the negotiators aimed for the next best thing.

The current deal pauses Iran’s nuclear programme by suspending enrichment to 20 per cent, preventing it from expanding its stockpile of 3.5 per cent enriched uranium and from working on additional centrifuges and facilities.

The deal rolls some of the programme back: Iran must convert or dilute its stockpiles of 20 per cent enriched uranium, dramatically increasing the timeline for use of the material for weapons manufacture. It also allows for unprecedented intrusive monitoring of its entire programme.

The region and international community’s goal was to stop the Iranian nuclear weapons programme. This agreement makes it impossible for the Iranians to make any further progress toward making a nuclear weapon in the next six months. No deal would have meant no suspension and therefore no chance of stopping the programme.

What’s more, the deal is reversible.

Iran cannot be prevented from getting nuclear weapons if that is what it wants. Air strikes will only kick the can further down the road. In other words, there are no plausible military options that will stop the programme, only delay it.

A diplomatic solution, if possible, has always had a better chance of providing a long-term resolution. The only realistic way to stop the programme is for the Iranians to choose to do it themselves. They must feel they have more to gain from engagement with the international community than resistance to it. Air strikes would not do that.

Air strikes would not neutralise Iran’s programme. They would derail future negotiations, giving Iran the excuse it needs to pull out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and go for the bomb. It would drive the nuclear programme further underground, making it harder and costlier to attack. But a deal makes this less likely.

Strikes will now look less appealing to Tel Aviv because the chances of American support for it are close to zero. This is good for the region. No military action also means a more stable region. If air strikes occurred, the Gulf and the wider region would be the focus of Iranian retaliation.

Opponents of a deal say we should keep up pressure on Iran via sanctions – increase them, not make a deal. But it is unclear how no deal and more sanctions will curb Iran’s nuclear programme. In fact, sanctions alone would not stop the programme.

The point of any sanctions not intended to impede the actual conduct of the nuclear programme was – and is – to put pressure on Tehran to make a deal. They are a bargaining chip. This deal is the best result we could have reasonably expected those sanctions to provide.

But suspending the Iranian programme is not the only benefit.

If the last 15 years have shown us anything, it is that you cannot change much in the region without Iran being involved. But until now, the precondition for any contact with Iran has been a sense of forward motion on the nuclear issue.

With nuclear negotiations progressing, it is at least an open question as to what other issues on which Iran can be engaged. For example, the less Iran feels at odds with the United States (and the West more broadly), the less it is likely to attempt to frustrate US interests in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

Last but not least, this deal will help strengthen President Hassan Rouhani. He is the only moderate president with any real power Iran has had since the 1979 revolution, and this deal will give him more. It is exactly the kind of win he can turn into political capital to pursue his more moderate objectives both at home and abroad.

Of course, the deal is not perfect. It has not erased all reasonable worries about Iran, and the next phase – agreeing to a final deal on the programme – will be much harder. But if there is no agreement, Iran will continue its programme unabated. The deal restricts much of Iran’s programme and can be reversed if the terms are not respected.

The region must recognise that the deal goes way beyond what anybody could reasonably have hoped for. To paraphrase the US secretary of state, John Kerry, those who are dissatisfied with this deal have a duty to suggest a better idea.

Dina Esfandiary is research associate in the non-proliferation and disarmament programme at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London

On Twitter: DEsfandiary