PHOTOS: Foreign Ministers in Vienna at the announcement of nuclear deal between Iran and 5+1 Powers:

Published in partnership with The Conversation:

On Tuesday morning, Iran and the 5+1 Powers (US, Britain, France, Germany, China, and Russia) completed a comprehensive nuclear agreement after years of discussions and threats of conflict.

But how can the complexities of the 139-page document be understood, especially amid the already-charged argument between those who support and those who oppose the deal?

Here are the fundamental points:


An excellent agreement is not based on one side “winning” and the other “losing” — the starting point for those in the US who want Iran to have no nuclear program at all, and for those in Tehran who want Washington to concede an Iranian program without restrictions. It is based on each side compromising but still reaching important objectives.

For the first time, Iran gets international recognition of its enrichment of uranium for civil purposes. That legitimacy also brings the prospect of re-opened trade and investment links, vital for an economy which has been crippled by sanctions and mismanagement over the past decade.

The US, other powers, and the international community get defined limits on that enriched uranium. Put bluntly — and in defiance of the hyperbolic objections of the deal’s critics — Iran has been pushed far back from a militarized program for many years, even if it was seeking nuclear weapons. It no longer has any 20% uranium in a form which can be developed for a bomb, and even its 5% uranium is sharply reduced. Its nuclear facilities, including enrichment plants and a proposed heavy-water nuclear reactor, are under a defined, extensive system of inspections. Some of its military sites will be visited to ensure that no traces of any past quest for nuclear weapons remain. Iran will finally adhere to the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The situation will still be far from “normal” — the years of tension are too deep-set for that — but, for the first time, there is the prospect of Iran’s program being treated as part of the global challenge over nuclear proliferation, rather than a specific pariah case.


Despite the Supreme Leader’s well-established hostility towards the US, repeated in a speech only a few days ago, the biggest challenge to the deal will not come from Iran. Those who oppose the agreement will be shunted to the side, with even hardliners in the military and Parliament having to swallow any criticisms.

The reason is the Iranian economy. Without an agreement, the risk was of economic collapse, adding to years of punishment for most Iranians. It was this prospect, presented to Ayatollah Khamenei in September 2013 by President Rouhani, that brought Iran to the table for the decisive talks. And it was this prospect that ensured the compromises needed to avert breakdown of discussions.

The far bigger threat to the agreement will come from critics in the US. For weeks before today’s announcement, hardliners — not only in Congress but in “think tanks” and in media outlets such as Fox News — have been issuing doom-laden assessments, usually in complete detachment from the negotiations. They have insisted that Iran will continue to pursue the Bomb through covert activities and that it will use an agreement to spread its pernicious influence across the Middle East.

However — again, for the first time — the odds are stacked against the hardliners. President Obama’s decision to persist with the talks, despite all the pressure, has changed the political game. To break an agreement, the objectors need at least 67 of 100 Senators to override a Presidential veto.

Barring concrete evidence that Iran is “cheating”, rather than the past months of its moves towards compliance with a likely agreement, it will be hard to get that two-thirds majority. For all the media noise, the prospect of a reduction in tension rather than a return to confrontation — and even the possibility of military action — is unlikely to be welcomed by most Americans.


The agreement is not the end of the nuclear road, but only another step on the path.

Iran’s hope that all sanctions could be removed as soon as the deal was signed was turned away by the 5+1 Powers, who noted that verification of compliance was necessary for an end to restrictions. The timing of that arrangement was one of the reasons for the protracted final stage of the talks.

We are now in a phase of months for the Iranians to establish that they have drawn down stocks of enriched uranium, that they have dismantled operating centrifuges, that they are putting required limits on nuclear facilities, and that they will not pursue a “secret” program at an undisclosed site. The International Atomic Energy Agency — in a separate deal announced this morning — will verify compliance by December. It is then that the final lifting of sanctions can start.

So Iran’s oil exports, halved since 2012, will not be boosted until spring 2016 at the earliest. It will still face the challenge of attracting foreign investment for the oil and gas sector and other vital industrial areas. By the time that they have righted the economic ship, their adherence to the agreement should be well-established.


In the last weeks before the agreement, those who objected to a deal — unable to mount a challenge on the direct nuclear issues — offered this scenario: Iran would use an economic windfall of up to $100 billion in unfrozen funds to support tyranny and spread terror throughout the Middle East.

The vision is over-wrought. Iran’s first priority for released funds will be the alleviation of internal economic problems.

However, the objectors are right that conflict and the tension in the Middle East remain. In Iraq, Tehran is still an important backer of the Iraqi Government and Shia militias fighting the Islamic State. Even though the US is nominally on the same side, the suspicions of the Supreme Leader and the military will likely prevent any reconciliation, at least in the short-term. In Yemen, the Iranians will continue to give political and economic aid, if not military assistance, to the Ansar Allah (Houthi) movement who are being challenged by Saudi-led air attacks. The Islamic Republic will continue to shout loudly about Palestine and the need to defeat Israel, even if its strategy on the ground is far more limited than the rhetoric suggests.

Most importantly, there is Syria. Iran has been vital in propping up the Assad regime in the four-year conflict, and with the release of economic pressure under the nuclear agreement, it could bolster that support. For example, Damascus has been pleading for up to $6 billion in a line of credit, but Tehran has refused to give more than another $1 billion this spring.

The scenario now becomes one of President Rouhani, Foreign Minister Zarif, and their allies pushing for an “engagement” strategy to deal with these regional conflicts, including discussions with others such as the US. They are likely to be opposed by elements of the Iranian military, including the Revolutionary Guards, with the Supreme Leader weighing his options.

However, this does not bring the lesson that the nuclear deal should not have been concluded. Instead, it raises the demand that has been always been present beyond the negotiations — the US and other countries need to come up with a sensible strategy for issues from Syria to Yemen to Iraq to Palestine.


In autumn 2009, the US and its allies pressed for a renewal of nuclear talks, even as the Iranian regime was putting down the protests after the disputed Presidential elections. Despite the killing of scores of demonstrators and the detentions of thousands of others — some of whom are still held, including opposition leaders — the negotiations proceeded.

That almost-forgotten moment should be revived as a reminder that the advance on the nuclear issue has not been accompanied by justice and rights for many inside Iran. Despite his campaign promises, President Rouhani has been unable to open up political and social space. Lawyers, students, labor activists, and journalists — including foreign nationals — are still being arrested. Communications, including the Internet, are still restricted. Political activity is carefully monitored. Hardliners within the regime have even pushed back the Government by banning concerts and preventing women from attending sporting events.

The optimistic reading of the nuclear agreement is that, with most Iranians joyously backing it, President Rouhani will be strengthened to renew his campaign for political and social advances. However, this will be a heated battle, with any breakthough likely to take months or even years.