19 January 2016

Keep up the diplomatic momentum with Iran

Ariane Tabatabai

Ariane Tabatabai

Ariane Tabatabai is a visiting assistant professor in the Security Studies Program at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, and a former associate in the Belfer Center's...


As soon as Implementation Day, a major milestone in the Iranian nuclear deal, occurred over the weekend, Tehran began to receive sanctions relief in exchange for curbing its nuclear capabilities under the historic Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) reached last summer. Iranian media have overwhelmingly applauded what they describe as the dawn of a new era for the country, which will finally be granted a chance to recover from more than a decade of intense political and economic isolation.

But before Iranians, Americans, or anyone else becomes too sanguine about a smooth future for the nuclear deal, they should take a lesson from the flurry of geopolitical issues that surrounded the arrival of Implementation Day. Last week, the United States and Iran stopped an encounter between the former’s military and the latter’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from escalating into crisis. Implementation Day also coincided with a prisoner swap between Tehran and Washington, the culmination of a separate, often secret, 14-month negotiation process. The successful resolution of these two events reminds us how important it will be to sustain the nuclear deal and the diplomatic process it created.

Iran welcomes lifted restrictions. Implementation Day came earlier than many expected: The last two months were busy for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, which had to take a number of steps to meet the nuclear deal’s requirements. Iran shipped nearly its entire stockpile of low-enriched uranium to Russia in December, reducing the amount it possessed from nearly 10,000 kilograms to 300, and removed the core of the plutonium-producing Heavy Water Reactor at Arak. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verified these measures, which terminated the provisions in the six UN Security Council resolutions on the Iranian nuclear program that, among other things, imposed heavy trade and financial restrictions against Iran. The verification also caused EU and US measures temporarily lifting nuclear-related sanctions to go into effect. (The lifting of these sanctions will become permanent if Tehran is fully compliant with the JCPOA on Transition Day, about seven years from now.) As a result, roughly $100 billion in Iranian assets were unfrozen, and the country can now sell oil and resume normal financial activities.

The wider context. We didn’t get to this point just because everyone took the steps laid out in the JCPOA, though. As Iran and the world powers were getting ready for Implementation Day, a little island in the Persian Gulf dominated the headlines. On the evening of US President Barack Obama’s last State of the Union speech, as he proudly discussed US leadership in reaching the nuclear deal, news broke that two US Marine Corps boats had been seized by the paramilitary IRGC. The boats and their 10 crew were captured in Iranian waters close to Farsi Island, an IRGC base. As Republican presidential candidates began to criticize Obama for his weakness and failure to mention the incident, threatening once more to repeal the JCPOA, Iran released the Marines.

While brief, the incident highlighted the importance of the diplomatic channel between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, which was established and strengthened over the course of nuclear negotiations. These statesmen met in the wake of last week’s maritime incident, enabling the two countries to find a quick solution to what could have become a serious crisis. And, despite both sides maintaining the official position that the Kerry-Zarif channel is used only to discuss the JCPOA, it has also been helpful in allowing Tehran and Washington to discuss regional issues. On Saturday, the same day the IAEA declared the nuclear deal’s initial conditions met, Iran confirmed that it was releasing four jailed Iranian-Americans in a prisoner swap. Kerry and Zarif were essential to seeing that agreement to fruition, too.

Sustainable relations. Over the coming years, under the terms of the nuclear agreement, Tehran is required to ratify and implement the Additional Protocol to its Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement. If it remains in full compliance with the JCPOA, the lifting of sanctions will become permanent, and once confidence is established in the peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program, it will be treated like all other non-nuclear weapon states under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

To make sure those goals are fulfilled, it is more crucial than ever to begin thinking about sustaining a diplomatic channel as strong as the current one—even after a new president takes office in the United States in January 2017, and in the face of the possibility that Rouhani may not be re-elected to a second and final four-year term in the summer of 2017. The next US secretary of state is unlikely to have the same amount of experience and rapport with his or her Iranian counterpart. Without a sustained discussion between Iran and the United States, small events are more likely to escalate into broad crises that derail the hard-won new nuclear balance.

The risk of a derailment is particularly acute given that the current governments of both Iran and the United States continue to face domestic opponents who would prefer to increase tensions between the two countries. Indeed, while Tehran has substantially rolled back its nuclear activities, presidential candidates in the United States continue to denounce the deal as a bad one for America. Likewise, while Iran is now on the right track for political and economic normalization, hardliners in the country don’t want to see the deal sustained. These domestic power struggles are likely to translate into more measures aimed at directly or indirectly stalling the process established by the deal.

The events of the past few weeks highlight the importance of a sustained diplomatic process, not just to deal with potential crises in the nuclear realm, but also to help prevent broader political and strategic crises that affect nuclear issues. The Kerry-Zarif channel has been tremendously helpful in preventing incidents and avoiding escalation since the nuclear deal was finalized on July 14, 2015. As we get closer to the end of Rouhani’s first term and Obama’s presidency, it’s increasingly important to think about how to sustain a similar channel. To that end, Washington may need to develop a new support system to facilitate the transition between administrations on both official and more informal levels. Since most of the candidates vying to be the next US president, including Democratic contender Hillary Clinton, are more hawkish on Iran than the current administration, now is the moment to try to foster a lasting diplomatic connection.