One year on, Obama's Iran nuclear deal still hangs in the balance

One year hasn't been enough to change anyone's mind about the Iran nuclear deal. Support and opposition are largely unmoved.

Frank Franklin II/AP/File
In this April 22 file photo, Secretary of State John Kerry (l.) speaks to the media with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in New York.

Like the opening to Cuba, the Iran nuclear deal is a landmark initiative that President Obama wants to safeguard, not just as part of his legacy of engagement with adversaries but also as established United States foreign policy.

Yet at its one-year anniversary Thursday, the deal resulting from the first serious and sustained diplomacy between the US and Iran in nearly four decades remains controversial – and faces an uncertain future.

The nuclear deal has achieved its two main objectives, many regional and nonproliferation experts say. It has verifiably reversed Iran’s march toward the ability to produce a nuclear weapon, and it has prevented a new US war in the Middle East that at times during the past decade seemed near.

But the deal still faces stiff opposition in the US and in Iran,and could yet be jettisoned – if not during Mr. Obama’s tenure, then after the key electoral processes in both countries during the coming year.

“In terms of nonproliferation, Year 1 [of the deal] has been good,” says Karim Sadjadpour, Iran analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “But I’m not as optimistic as others that this is going to reach its 10-year anniversary.”

Iran has complied with its obligations under the deal to step back from the threshold of being able to make a nuclear weapon. It has reduced its stockpile of nuclear materials that could have served as fuel for a bomb, and has dismantled nuclear infrastructure, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog.

But forces in Iran and in the US are pressing for adjustments to the accord that could spell its demise, Mr. Sadjadpour says.

Opposition in both countries

Some opponents in Congress appear to be waiting for Obama to leave office to pounce with new legislation, but others are not: a House vote on several pieces of Iran-related legislation is conspicuously scheduled for the one-year anniversary Thursday.

In Iran, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei warns that US noncompliance could lead Iran to alter course.

“The speeches of the supreme leader don’t sound like he’s preparing the Iranian people for a deal that lasts 10 years,” Sadjadpour says.

He notes that only months into the accord, Mr. Khamenei summoned a group of Persian poets and encouraged them to write poetry on the theme of “We delivered on the nuclear deal, but America hasn’t delivered on its end.”

In the US, there are few signs that a year of implementation has swayed either opponents or supporters to think differently.

This week, a group of 75 national security leaders released a letter to Obama extolling the deal’s accomplishments and called for using the landmark opening to expand engagement with Iran. Many of the prominent signers were supporters from the outset.

At the same time, dozens of pieces of legislation in Congress suggest unwavering opposition.

“There are 35 pieces of Iran-related legislation in Congress right now – that’s an enormous pushback,” says Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington and a critic of the deal. “The opposition is as intense and as focused as it was last summer.”

The main reason for that, he says, is that members of Congress see that Iran has been emboldened to act even more aggressively, undertaking controversial ballistic missile testing, for example.

“Yes, the Iranians have given up some nuclear technology and infrastructure – all of which they could easily reconstitute,” Mr. Dubowitz says. “But at the same time they’ve been very smart about doing things to impede the administration from pushing back against Iran’s malign activities.”

In a sign of some movement, a group of Democratic senators who supported the deal announced Thursday that they support Senate action aimed to “strengthen” the deal and counter Iran’s “aggressive” behavior. 

The White House says the nuclear deal and Iran’s provocative regional activities are separate issues. Meanwhile, steps that opponents call “concessions” to Iran are simply part of the deal, the administration says. These include the release of billions of dollars in frozen assets to Iran, Iran’s return as a crucial source of oil for Europe, and the recent Boeing-Airbus deal to sell commercial aircraft and airliner parts to Iran.

Has Obama made the deal irreversible?

Dubowitz says Obama’s actions – coupled with the administration’s reluctance to use non-nuclear sanctions out of fear of the deal’s collapse – will make Iran’s return to global financial and commercial markets irreversible.

“The steps we’re seeing now could very well paralyze Iran policy in the next administration,” he says. “A President Clinton or a President Trump will find out soon enough that she or he won’t have the flexibility to use instruments of coercion to respond either to cheating [on the nuclear deal] or to non-nuclear Iranian behavior.”

Others have the opposite concern: that the departure of the deal’s major protagonists could lead to its demise.

John Kerry “has done more than any secretary of State” to promote a return to normal relations with Iran, the Carnegie Endowment’s George Perkovich says.

“What could end up happening is that the thing crumbles because of the loss of the administration folks who were focused on this,” he says.

Or, as Sadjadpour puts it: No new president is going care as much “about the Obama foreign policy legacy.”

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