Iranian-American journalist, author, and commentator Hooman Majd joins Asia Times Online contributor Kaveh L Afrasiabi to discuss the weekend international interim deal over Iran's nuclear program and the prospects for a workable final agreement that won't be derailed along the way.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi: You followed the negotiations closely from Geneva. What do you think was the secret of success at the last round?
Hooman Majd: I would say there was a genuine willingness, even eagerness, to get the agreement done now, by both Iran and the US, which led the "5 +1" pack. Both sides faced enormous pressure to deliver something after 3 rounds of negotiations; Obama, having gone out on a limb with Congress, needed to get
an agreement before new sanctions which he understood would potentially derail any talks, and Iran needed an agreement before the Rouhani administration's honeymoon is up. While in some ways Rouhani and Zarif could be strengthened, not weakened, by the lack of an agreement (certainly the hardliners would have had to praise them for their "resistance"), they had more to gain by coming home with one, as long as the Islamic system supported it. And of course, we must factor in the role of secret negotiations between US and Iran that transpired during the past few weeks and was apparently effective in narrowing the gaps between the two sides.
KA: Iran has billed the agreement as a "win-win." Do you agree?
HM: Yes, I would. I can't see how this is a lose for either side (and we need only concern ourselves with the US on the P5+1 side). Obama achieves a foreign policy win by at a minimum slowing down the face paced development of Iran's nuclear program (and every poll has shown that Americans are in favor of a diplomatic solution to the issue), and Iran gains, temporarily to be sure, some economic relief while being able to still not just have a peaceful program, but keep it functioning at a relatively advanced level. The European companies are now poised to re-engage with Iran, and Russia benefits by a relaxation of tensions at its eastern borders. It certainly gives time to all sides to work on a longer term agreement without the threat of more sanctions or economic instability on Iran's side, or military intervention on the part of the US or Israel. It should be remembered that this is a temporary solution, not a permanent one, so in the short term I don't see how it could be anything but a win-win.
KA: It appears that the deal has gotten off to a rocky start in light of the disagreement between US and Iran on the thorny issue of Iran's right to enrich uranium. What is your take on this matter?
HM: I think too much is made of this issue. For Iran, having some recognition was critical given the hardliners' demands, and the same is true in reverse for the US. So I think the language that was agreed on - and it appeared that much of the holdup in Geneva was over language - allows both sides to claim through the relatively ambiguous language that they scored their point. I doubt that either side didn't recognize that they would both be claiming they got what they wanted in the deal.
KA: According to the US hawks, this represents an "appeasement" of Iran. Can they derail the deal?
HM: The hawks can derail the deal if they can find a way to impose more sanctions on Iran during the term of the deal - that explicitly obligates the US government to refrain from imposing new sanctions. Iran won an important concession in having that clause, and Foreign Minister Zarif was clear, after he returned to his hotel from the press conference announcing the agreement, that any new sanctions would nullify the deal since the US would then have broken their side of the agreement. I'm not an expert on the US Congress, so I am not sure if Obama has the ability to prevent, or veto new sanctions imposed by Congress (since the line-item veto is no longer an option in bills). Regardless, it certainly isn't appeasement of Iran - and to compare it to Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler, as some like to, is ridiculous. What has Iran really gained, and how is Iran remotely comparable to Nazi Germany?
KA: The deal is supposed to culminate in a final agreement. What are the prospects, and challenges, for such an eventuality?
HM: I think the final agreement will be much more difficult to negotiate. Of course if all goes well with abiding by the interim agreement, then that should be incentive to get a final deal agreed upon, but there will be greater complications to navigate than wording and semantics. I will be optimistic and say the prospects are good, given that the ice between the US and Iran has been broken, but the challenge will be to find a way to satisfy both sides - a "win-win" again - except that this time any accusations of appeasement by the US or weakness on Iran's side will be far harder to deflect, since the excuse that this is a first step will be gone. The final deal, and it will have to be one where all sanctions are lifted but Iran's sovereignty in making decisions about its program isn't breached, by nature will be difficult.
KA: Do you think this deal has broader political implications and if so what are they?
HM: Yes - I think the broader political implications are on both sides. On the US, the idea of talking to Iran is the new normal - remember when the neo-cons used to say "We don't talk to evil"? Without undue exaggeration, it can still be said this is a watershed moment in the history of relations between the US and Iran-certainly in the public sphere. So there are implications for American relations with Iran, but also for US-Arab relations and US-Israeli relations. On Iran's side, a sort of watershed moment, too. Many believed the day would not come when a US president spoke to an Iranian one, or that an Iranian foreign minister would take the world's stage with the US Secretary of State, so many taboos, real or imagined, have been broken. It's hard to see how it doesn't have great political significance for Iran, and implications beyond a simple four page agreement over nuclear activity.
KA: Finally, in terms of the implication of this deal for the Rouhani administration, can you elaborate?
HM: I have to think this is a big victory for Rouhani, and that it has been supported by the Supreme Leader is significant. Sanctions relief is good, and important for the economy and the ordinary people who seem happy to hear about some easing of sanctions, but it speaks more to Rouhani's ability to deliver on his promises. As such, and with his continued popularity, he will probably be able to push other parts of his agenda now, with less pushback from the hardliners, and his honeymoon has certainly be extended well beyond the traditional 100 days. Stability of the system has always been paramount for the Islamic Republic, and how can anyone argue that this six-month agreement doesn't contribute to stability, even if one doesn't agree with all the points?
Hooman Majd is a writer and journalist based in New York. He has written for numerous publications, and is the author of (New York Times bestseller) The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, and The Ayatollahs' Democracy. His new book, The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay, was published in the US and the UK this month.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For further biographical details, clickhere. Afrasiabi is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction (2007), Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and Looking for Rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations CreateSpace (November 12, 2011).
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