Early this week, it was announced that an interim deal was reached on Iran’s nuclear program, brokered the United States and its P5+1 partners. To learn more about this agreement, we speak to CIGI Senior Fellow Bessma Momani.
CIGI: Why has this deal been called a historic mistake by Israel’s Prime Minister?
Bessma Momani: The Israeli government’s position is to play the “bad cop” in this deal and to try to get the most out of Iran. I think the Israeli government calculated that if it were to endorse the deal then the Iranians would be getting away with more concession than necessary; if they could be the consistent critic then they have one very loud and influential power against the deal, and therefore the Iranians will be more on their toes, so to speak. I do think that there are elements of the Israeli public — including Israeli President Shimon Peres — who actually welcomed the deal. There are some doves in the wider Israeli government that are supportive, but Israel’s hawks, which includes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will find no deal that Iran ever signs to be useful. It’s in their domestic political and regional interest to always vilify Iran, which is ultimately short sighted since the alternative to a nuclear deal treaty is basically all out conflict. And when it comes to conflict, the Israelis can start but can’t finish a war with Iran. That they would need US support to get all of the dispersed underground facilities has already been talked about in the intelligence community.
CIGI: Should the world be skeptical of this deal?
Momani: Well I think that the deal, which puts a six-month interim agreement in place to ensure that Iran is fulfilling its obligations, is inherently skeptical in the sense that it is about trust and verification. But this agreement is more intrusive than any other and it probably sees more concessions taken by the Iranians then by the West. The fact that there is the potential for daily International Atomic Energy Agency inspections is far beyond what any other Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty member has ever signed on to. This is an enormous intrusion into sovereignty, while putting the onus on Iran to be the party that meets its terms. The deal doesn’t release all of the economic sanctions. There are still many hundreds of billions of dollars and assets that are frozen, so it is pretty modest. Iran is getting US$7 billion of their own frozen assets, of a purported $100billion, and when they lose US$5 billion a month in sanctions. The Canadian government, like Israel’s, perhaps thinks that being skeptical makes them a needed critical voice in the international community. But on the merits of the agreement alone, I think it’s a good deal, especially if it means progress instead of bombing, which potentially causes an explosion of regional chaos.
CIGI: We see Israel and Saudi Arabia take somewhat of a similar stance on this. How might this deal change dynamics in the Middle East?
Momani: Israel and Saudi Arabia’s position on this deal is more about shared strategic interests and not an alliance per se. Saudi Arabia has been very suspicious of Iran’s attempt to influence the Arab region. It doesn’t have a problem with Iran’s nuclear program, it’s objection to the deal is based on its perception that a deal will divert attention away from the Iranian regime’s infiltrating parts of Shia minority communities within Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and even parts of Hamas, which is not a Shia organization, but has been reported to be influenced by arms and logistical support by Iran. Israel and Saudi Arabia are both using their own private channels to influence the United States, where they both have a lot of sway in Congress and business communities. But I don’t think we’re going to see outward Israeli-Saudi cooperation. The Saudis are still very much in favour of a two-state solution with the Palestinians and their right to self-determination, so I don’t see them in any way conceding to the Israelis publicly or behind the scenes just to counter the rise of Iran.
CIGI: What will this deal’s impact on sanctions mean for the Iranian people? Will they see a major impact?
Momani: It’s too premature to see real change on the ground. Again, the US$7 billion that have been released is a drop in the bucket of what the Iranian government needs to fill its fiscal shortfalls. Some humanitarian supplies will be opened up, which will be really useful, since, for example, cancer medicine has been in short supply. Some airplane parts will be freed from the sanctions regime to allow many of Iran’s old fleet of commercial planes to be repaired. Iran will also be allowed to sell petro chemicals but not crude oil, the later is the most important economic income for the Iranians. The deal won’t release swift code international banking sanctions, which have been very hard for Iranian business people dealing with the international financial community. There is still going to be a lot of hardship, but I think that the Iranian people are very happy about this, perhaps naively hoping the deal will open up a whole new avenue of improved relations. They are optimistic and they have waited long enough. I think they’re willing to wait a bit longer to see what might materialize after six months.
CIGI: From US President Barack Obama’s perspective, what does this deal mean? Does it signify a check in the box and case closed?
Momani: The Iran file is getting closer to being closed and it is definitely success for President Obama to tout. Let’s not forget that when he first came to power, Obama went to Cairo and made that very important speech. He also issued a “Happy New Year” message to the Iranian people very early on in his administration. These efforts were all in the hopes of seeing a warming of relations in some way. And speaking directly to the Iranian people, I think, was one of his key ways to stop the Bush-era rhetoric of claiming that Iran was a member of the axis of evil, which turned off a lot of Iranians. President Obama was very much welcomed and received by many Iranian people for those kinds of gestures and I think we’ll see more of that to come. So, this is a success for him in every respect. He got a deal that was tougher than any other deal put before it, and I think it does cater to the base of the Democrat party, which wants to see less overt war and more multilateral negotiations through the P5+1. He has achieved just that.