The Iran nuclear deal's test of motives

The temporary agreement on Iran's nuclear program is merely an initial test of good intentions on both sides. For Iran, it will ultimately be a test of whether it wants to be a player for peace.

AP Photo/Iranian Presidency Office
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, right, shakes hands with Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said during an arrival ceremony in Tehran, Iran. Qaboos was a player in the start of informal discussions between Washington and Tehran.

At the heart of any negotiation is a search for each party’s real motives. The temporary agreement announced Sunday between Iran and six world powers is designed to do just that – go beyond words, smiles, and handshakes to discover underlying intent.

In the deal, Iran has six months to start demonstrating whether it is willing to roll back its nuclear program to a point that indicates a peaceful purpose. And by lifting a few economic sanctions, the West and other nations can show they will welcome Iran as player for peace in the Middle East – once it ends any threat of developing a military nuclear capability.

Testing Iran’s motives in its nuclear program is really a test of whether the Islamic republic will give up its goal of dominating both the Middle East and much of the Muslim world by threat of force. For the next six months, its compliance in allowing intrusive inspections, in suspending its enhanced enrichment of uranium, and in not making the Arak plutonium reactor operational, will begin to reveal whether the 1979 Iranian Revolution may be coming to an end.

This deal is designed to buy time and build trust for a grander, permanent agreement. Given Iran’s past perfidy in similar talks, Israel and other skeptics are right to worry that Iran will not comply this time. They also believe Iran is merely maneuvering for time in case a war-weary US lessens its role in the Middle East.

But President Obama and other Western leaders are also right to test Iran’s motives under a well-constructed agreement. Their approach is far better than the stark alternative of a war provoked by an Israeli or US-Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Iran has far more to prove than simply reveal a peaceful nuclear intent. Its continuing actions in Syria, Iraq, Gaza, Lebanon, and elsewhere suggest a lingering revolutionary fervor to advance its influence by military means and to brandish its Shiite brand of Islam over rival Sunnis, especially in Saudi Arabia.

At the same time, Iran is struggling under tougher sanctions and is more aware of its growing isolation. Its revolution has not gone beyond its borders. Its young people remain restless after a 2009 popular revolt against a rigged election; they are inspired by the spirit of the 2011 Arab Spring and dispirited by high unemployment.

Last June’s surprise election of a new president, Hassan Rouhani, may have added to a possible shift in motives by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his closest confidants. The ruling clerics may be worried enough now about their survival that they are willing to give up dangerous foreign adventurism.

Yet motives on both sides are not only personal but national. In both Tehran and Washington, various leaders will debate the merits and potential pitfalls of this temporary agreement, or the one that might come after it.

In a mid-November poll, nearly two-thirds of Americans support a nuclear deal with Iran. That indicates a popular will for peace that is reflected by reports within Iran. Each nation is coming to terms with each other after decades of estrangement, marked by occasional violence.

For now, however, actions speak louder than words and this temporary agreement is designed to evoke verifiable action by each side. Once initial trust is gained, the deal can allow a deeper search for motives. An openness in revealing intent is half way to achieving a peaceful outcome.

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