Agreement with Iran: The Future

Thomas Graham, Jr. (Special Representative of the President for Arms Control, Nonproliferation and Disarmament, 1994-1997)


After the signing of the Agreement in Geneva between the Permanent Five of the United Nations Security Council, the United States, France, Russia and China plus Germany (P-5+1) and Iran in July there was an outburst of twitter messages in many cities, not least in Teheran. One message from a young Iranian woman to her boyfriend read: “What this Agreement means to me is good-bye falafel and hello McDonald’s.” Perhaps this comment is not entirely frivolous as Thomas Friedman, the New York Times correspondent once said—in 1996—that “No two countries with a McDonald’s will ever go to war.”

This highly complex Agreement designed to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon—which Iran easily could do today should it so decide—is almost certain to come into force as planned. It has been approved 15-0 with the United States voting in the affirmative—which was all that was required to bring it into force. But two nations decided to submit their participation in the Agreement to a vote in their national legislatures. The U.S. Congress did not take action to prevent the President from lifting sanctions related to Iran’s program, the U.S. obligation under the Agreement, therefore the U.S. will participate. The Iranian Parliament has yet to vote but this vote is expected soon and it is anticipated to be positive. As a result the Agreement will come into full force in the latter half of October. But what then?

First a comment about Iran, its people and its government. The Iranian people represent the most pro-American populace—except for Israel—in the Middle East. They are overwhelmingly middle class, many wear blue jeans, are the most Internet connected in that part of the world, and a large number have relatives in Los Angeles or elsewhere in the United States. They come from an ancient and rich culture; a medieval poet, Rumi, is perhaps the most popular poet in the United States. And Iran has many of the same enemies as the U.S., Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS. On the other hand the Iranian government has many times acted against U.S. interests, has often done things of which the American people strongly disapprove, and many of the key players who were there in the past are still there. But of course Iran’s behavior is no reason not to make an Agreement with Iran. We don’t need an agreement of this type with Canada, but we did need one with the former Soviet Union.

But what will this Agreement bring? Will Iran remain in compliance? Will this Agreement have an effect in other areas? Will it lead to improved business and cultural relations with Iran? Will it be a cold peace like the Israel-Egypt Treaty or will it lead to more than that?

First, as to compliance, only time will tell. If the Iranians cheat on the Agreement the sanctions will return. And we will know promptly if any cheating takes place given the unprecedented, comprehensive verification system that will be in place under the Agreement. The Iranians would appear to have little motivation to violate the Agreement. Their primary objective is to rebuild their economy devastated by sanctions. This Agreement takes away the sanctions which will only return if there is a violation of the Agreement. And there never was any alternative to this Agreement. The P-5+1 ambassadors in the United States made clear that, if Congress prevented the U.S. from participating in the Agreement, international sanctions would collapse; an unconstrained Iran would ramp up its nuclear program; and there would be no prospect of getting Iran back to the negotiating table.

Second, as to business relations, Europe, Russia and China all see rich trading profits in Iran and want to begin trading right away. A German trade delegation of 100 prominent business leaders has already been to Teheran with the French following suit with a delegation of 80 prominent French businessmen. American business has been quite slow for now but that should not, and probably will not, remain the case for long. American goods are much in demand in Iran.

Third, cultural relations: approximately two million Iranians live in the United States who will want to visit relations in Iran and vice-versa. There will likely be a boom in tourism and full scale American business participation should not be far behind.

So will this Agreement do what it is supposed to do and prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon for 15 years or more? The odds are very good. But will it lead to other things such as improved business and cultural relations? The Iranian government says no; the U.S. government is not positive either. But time will tell; the signs are good. And in the long run will it lead to improved political relations? Much less clear but if the above areas become and remain positive, this cannot be ruled out.

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