The Foreign Service Journal - October 2017

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | OCTOBER 2017 27 The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the Iran nuclear deal is known, represents a true milestone in nonproliferation. It effectively removes Iran’s capability to create a nuclear weapon, and puts Tehran under a kind of nuclear house arrest for a decade, after which the extraordinary restrictions are to revert to the more normal limits of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the International Atomic Energy Agency protocols. Crit- ics generally focus on the JCPOA’s sunset provisions, ignoring or disregarding the fact that Iran has formally accepted— in perpetuity —the Additional Protocols of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the most rigorous levels of inspection applied to nuclear-capable nations. In addition, Iran itself wrote into the preamble of the agree- ment that “under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.” This unprecedented commit- ment was repeated in the United Nations Security Council docu- ment that was signed by all permanent members of the Security Council, giving force of international law to the agreement. The agreement was vociferously opposed by Israel, its power- ful friends in the United States, and Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Gulf states who feared a budding relationship between the United States and Iran. The United States had accepted the role as the Persian Gulf enforcer of Iranian containment during the Bill Clinton presidency, and regional states were alarmed to see the Obama administration backing away from that commitment. Presented to Congress as an executive agreement rather than a formal treaty, the accord barely survived a Republican effort to reject it, and presidential candidate Donald Trump denounced it as the “worst deal ever negotiated.” Yet even though he promised to tear up the agreement on his first day in office, President Trump has twice now certified (as the president is obliged to do every 90 days) that Tehran is keeping its end of the bargain. At the same time, the presi- dent and several prominent members of his administration regularly complain that Iran is not living up to the spirit of the agreement. Republican and Democratic members of Congress have written new bills imposing additional sanctions on Iran, which the president has signed, leading Iran to charge that the United States is not in compliance with the letter of the JCPOA. Pros- pects for the agreement’s survival are still in doubt, but the lon- ger it continues to operate, the more likely it is to be sustained. What has been lost for now, however, is the possibility of building on the positive momentum of the negotiating pro- cess. In the course of the prolonged, intensive negotiations, a significant group of American diplomats and officials became acquainted with their counterparts in Iran. This was a huge departure from the past, when officials of both countries were forbidden even to exchange pleasantries at official functions. The JCPOA was never intended to solve all the problems between Iran and the United States, but it was no secret that the leaders of both countries quietly hoped that the experience of direct contact would expand the range of discussion to include other issues, such as Syria, Yemen, Iraq or Afghanistan, where Tehran and Washington have overlapping interests. The 2016 election in the United States put an end to those hopes, at least for the time being. Some Modest Observations The United States and Iran have a complicated and, since the Islamic Revolution, mostly hostile history. Both countries, however, are key players in the Persian Gulf and the wider Middle East. Every U.S. president since Jimmy Carter has found a reason to try to work with Iran in some fashion, usually with only limited or very temporary success. We are in a new era, and anyone who wishes to venture firm predictions about where the bilateral relationship goes from here is far bolder than I. But after a career of dealing with U.S.-Iran relations, there are a few mod- est observations that I might offer: • Iran is a major power in the Persian Gulf region, and any U.S. strategy must deal with it. As a general rule, lack of contact makes our policy more difficult and prone to error. • Our national interests will converge with Iran on some issues, and cooperation on those issues is not only feasible, but desirable. • On those issues where we will never agree, we should con- sider carefully the nature and level of resources that we wish to devote to their pursuit. War is expensive and unpredictable. • Opponents of the Islamic Republic have confidently been predicting its demise literally from the first weeks of its existence. Greet such arguments with skepticism. • When Iran’s system does change, it will do so at the hands of its own people. When we try to speed or manipulate that pro- cess, the effect is often to smother or thwart it. • Our allies in the region have their own interests in relation to Iran. Their interests are not always the same as ours, and we should know the difference. • If the JCPOA is preserved and implemented fairly, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon. Withdrawal by the United States would remove the nuclear constraints and put us at odds with our closest allies. Consider the consequences. n