AIF Blog

On the Iran Nuclear Deal

Sep 11, 2015
The Iran nuclear deal has been a political hot potato that, despite heavy Republican opposition in the US Congress, is headed toward becoming a reality. During the 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival — after world powers negotiated the deal but before the political drama unfolded in the United States — discussion focused on the merits and drawbacks of the agreement as well as how it could shape the region. 
And there was some discussion of the politics of the deal.
Nicholas Burns, who served under multiple administrations in the US Foreign Service, pointed out in a session about the Iran deal that it all started during George W. Bush’s presidency. In 2006, Bush and then secretary of state Condoleezza Rice promoted the idea of engaging with Iran rather than going to war with the country, said Burns, and led efforts to put together the coalition of world powers that ended up negotiating the deal.
“I’ve always thought of this as President Obama taking the baton cleanly from President Bush,” he said. “I think there's a Democratic-Republican base over the last ten years that’s been wanting to engage Iran. And I think that's been forgotten in our highly partisan environment.”
Former CIA director David Petraeus, a retired general who among other roles commanded coalition forces in Iraq and was Bush’s choice to lead US Central Command, was asked about the deal during the Afternoon of Conversation. Although he expressed concerns about it, he said he saw “many desirable features” in the agreement, including significantly reducing Iran’s enriched uranium and its capability to produce plutonium, which are necessary to make a nuclear weapon.
Asked about the consequences of not having a deal, Petraeus said that “then Iran presumably goes back to enriching more uranium … and it continues on the path presumably to more and more on the threshold of a nuclear weapon.”
Military confrontation would then be “inevitable” in that case, he added.
In a session the following day, Petraeus and fellow panelists focused on the impact the nuclear deal would have on Iran and the turbulent Middle Eastern region. Iran is a country with a huge dichotomy between its largely educated and relatively progressive populace (including President Hassan Rouhani) and its deeply conservative religious leadership, represented by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei but also including some of the country’s armed forces.
Panelist Karim Sadjapour, a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, likened Iran’s hardline forces to North Korea and its society to South Korea. “If this deal happens and it helps to reintegrate Iran politically into the global economy, it will empower those moderate forces in Iran and politically weaken those hardline forces,” he said.
Panelists agreed that lifting sanctions on Iran, one of the components of the deal, could have a tremendous impact on Iran’s economy, which has suffered due to inflation, lack of imports, and lower oil prices. And that would enable its largely moderate society to thrive, and eventually, perhaps sustain more stable moderate political leadership.
Politically and militarily, Iran and the United States have had a lot in common, most recently the threat of ISIS, but in order for foreign policy relations to continue between the two, “Iran has to decide if it’s a nation or a cause,” said Sadjapour. “As long as it sees itself as a revolutionary cause in opposition to the United States and Israel’s existence, I think at most we will have tactical cooperation, but it's not going to turn into something more strategic and enduring.”
Alliances in the Middle East are made even more complicated by the continuing upheaval in the region and Iran’s role in it.
“Iran is both the arsonist and the fire brigade in the Middle East,” said Sadjapour, noting its support of Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad and involvement in the Sunni-Shia wars throughout the region. “It’s an open question if partnering with Shia radicals to kill Sunni radicals creates more Sunni radicals than it eliminates,” he added. 
In this excerpt from the Afternoon of Conversation, Petraeus gives his expert insight on the prospective Iran nuclear deal and what could happen whether or not it goes through.
Watch the entire session, Iran: How the Deal Could Shape the Middle East, here
Read a political perspective on the Iran deal in this Los Angeles Times op-ed piece by AIF speaker Mickey Edwards, vice president and director of the Rodel Fellowships in Public Leadership at the Aspen Institute and former Republican congressman serving Oklahoma's 5th congressional district.
By Catherine Lutz, Guest Blogger