A former CIA analyst and senior director at the US National Security Council, Flynt Leverett has been an advocate of dialogue between Washington and Tehran for several years now. Currently a professor of international affairs at Penn State University, he is co-author, along with his wife Hillary Mann Leverett, of Going to Tehran: Why America Must Accept the Islamic Republic of Iran. In interviews to Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, he presents his initial assessment of Tuesday’s landmark nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (i.e. the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany).
What the deal contains
I would emphasise three main sets of commitments. On the Iranian side, of course, there are a number of commitments spelled out relatively early on in the agreement—159 pages with the annexes. But there is a set of commitments that Iran undertakes regarding certain limits on its nuclear activities that will address nonproliferation concerns that the United States and some other countries have had. As an analyst, I have personally never been persuaded that Iran was seeking to build a nuclear weapon, but for those who are concerned about that possibility or that risk, I think this is a very good deal from a nonproliferation standpoint.
At the same time, in terms of nuclear commitments, I think Iran has achieved something very significant here, which is basically a recognition of the reality that states have a right to a peaceful use of civil nuclear technology in all respects. This is not a right that is granted by the Non-Proliferation Treaty; it is a sovereign right that’s recognised by the treaty. From an Iranian perspective, the United States and the Security Council tried for years to deny Iran that right. And now, without Iran having sacrificed it, the international community is recognising that right, and I think that’s an important step on the nonproliferation front, as well.
The second big set of commitments concerns sanctions relief. In return for Iran accepting these limits on its nuclear capabilities, all international sanctions authorised by the United Nations Security Council are going to be removed. European Union sanctions against Iran will be terminated. And the United States will, the language says, cease implementing its secondary sanctions, the sanctions that it threatens to impose on third countries that do business with Iran. The United States will stop implementing those sanctions, although they are likely to stay authorised in American law for some period of years. The president, President Obama, basically will waive the implementation of those sanctions. So I think that’s another second set of commitments.
And then there’s a third set of commitments related to implementing this deal. And basically, the agreement sets up processes, committees, commissions that will oversee the implementation of this deal. There’s a special committee set up to deal with the issue of inspections, with the International Atomic Energy Agency asked to visit a nonnuclear site that it doesn’t regularly inspect, and Iran is uncomfortable about that happening. There is now a committee process laid out which will, you know, review why does the IAEA want to come to this site, what is the basis for their concern, what are Iran’s concerns about letting the agency in, and, you know, will weigh those and ultimately adjudicate or arbitrate those kinds of situations, if they arrive. And that’s actually the first time that this has been done.
On Obama vs Congress
Both houses of Congress will have 60 days to review the agreement… I think it is quite possible, if not likely, that a simple majority of members in each house will vote a so-called resolution of disapproval in regard to the agreement. At that point, President Obama has said that he would veto those resolutions of disapproval. And at this point, the White House seems pretty confident that they have the votes, at least in the Senate, and perhaps in the House, as well, to sustain President Obama’s veto. So, they are confident that … it will ultimately get through the congressional review process and will go into effect.
But obviously, during the next—you know, the 60 days following a conclusion of an agreement, the Israelis, the Saudis, their friends and allies in the American political system, others who don’t want to see this agreement go forward are going to be working very hard, trying to turn public opinion against the deal and trying to build congressional support to maximize the vote against the deal.
Public opinion polls would show that Americans are open to supporting this deal, but one of the things I really worry about is that President Obama himself has not really made the strategic case for why doing this deal and for why building a different kind of relationship with Iran is so strongly in America’s interest. He either talks about this as a kind of narrow arms control agreement, but Iran is still this very bad actor, or he talks about it in terms of it being an opportunity for Iran to rejoin the international community, as he puts it. This is not the way to sell this deal to Americans. Americans understand that what the United States has been doing in the Middle East for the last decade and a half has actually been profoundly against American interests. It’s also been very damaging to Middle Easterners. But it has been profoundly damaging to America’s position in this critical part of the world and globally. President Obama has a chance here to begin to turn that around and put U.S. policy toward the Middle East on a more different and more productive trajectory, but he is going to have to make the strategic case—spend the political capital necessary to make the strategic case.
Impact on wider Middle east
My wife and I have been arguing for years, both inside the U.S. government when we served there and in the years since we left government, that the United States, for its own interests, needs to come to terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Relying overly much on partnerships with Israel and Saudi Arabia is increasingly dysfunctional for the U.S. position in the region. It is breeding jihadi terrorism across the region. It is enabling open-ended Israeli occupation of Arab populations. All of that is ultimately bad for the United States. The only way the United States can recover from the many tragic mistakes it has made in this part of the world in recent years, and put itself on a more positive trajectory, is by coming to terms with Iran. Iran is a rising regional power. It is a legitimate political order for most Iranians who live inside their country. We need to come to terms with that reality. .. If you look at the constituencies that Iran supports in these various arenas, we may want to label them terrorists, but the reality is, these are unavoidable constituencies in their societies with real and legitimate grievances. And what Iran does more than anything else is to help these communities organize in various ways to press their grievances more effectively. That’s why Iran’s influence is rising.
If we want to be serious about conflict resolution in Syria, not about funding, working with the Saudis to fund jihadi militants that end up coalescing into either al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, if we want to get serious about conflict resolution in Syria, we need to be talking with and working in a serious way with Iran. If we want to get serious about conflict resolution in Iraq and dealing with the Islamic State in a serious and effective way, we need to stop just letting the Saudis and helping the Saudis fund the jihadi militants that create these groups, and we need to work with Iran to devise a regional strategy to contain that threat.
It is an extremely unpopular thing to say in the United States. My wife and I have paid various kinds of personal and professional prices for making this argument over the years. But the reality is, if the United States is going to have a more effective foreign policy in the Middle East—and, frankly, a more humane and constructive foreign policy in the Middle East—rapprochement with the Islamic Republic of Iran is essential to that end.