From fragile to final: how to ensure the Iran deal stays on track

The nuclear agreement reached in Vienna on 14 July 2015 between Iran and the P5+1/E3+3 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) is a significant diplomatic achievement and a testament to the possibilities that principled and patient diplomacy hold for resolving even the most intractable international conundrums. Negotiated outcomes by nature are imperfect. But both sides have protected their core interests and rightfully can claim victory – a precondition for any sustainable solution.

If implemented, the agreement could put an end to a prolonged and multidimensional standoff; effectively block overt and clandestine pathways to nuclear militarisation; set a positive precedent for the non-proliferation regime; provide the Iranian people with economic relief; and offer a path for normalising Iran’s relationship with the international community.

But this achievement is not final. It is fragile, as forces against it are formidable. If the parties are to secure and sustain the agreement and parlay its positive momentum into a calming of regional tensions, they should take the following considerations into account:

Beware the hard sell

Preserving the spirit that enabled the deal will be essential for implementing it. If past is prologue, nothing would undermine momentum more than crowing about one side’s achievements at the expense of its counterparts. Given the opposing imperatives in Iran and the US, dissonance in the parties’ victory narratives is inevitable, but both sides should refrain from escalatory rhetoric that could provide ammunition for the accord’s critics in Tehran, Washington and elsewhere.

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Both the US Congress and Iranian parliament will review the agreement. Any rejection or unilateral attempt to alter the multilateral accord will not bring about a stronger deal but rather torpedo both this agreement and the multilateral process that produced it. Once the domestic approval processes are complete the UN Security Council should endorse the accord to trigger its implementation.

Immaculate implementation is critical

Implementing a complex multi-year agreement is no mean feat. Iran will have to physically reconfigure its nuclear program – a process with which it has no experience – and resolve its longstanding issues with the International Atomic Energy Agency within a few months. The US and EU will have to provide tangible sanctions relief, which will require restructuring a complex mechanism that extends deep into global commerce. There will be inevitable hitches and unpredictable consequences on both sides, even with the best of faith.

There could be further complications should either side treat implementation as a mere technical or bureaucratic exercise, relegated to lower-level bureaucrats lacking the requisite stature or knowledge. Both sides should appoint coordinators specifically dedicated to this task.

Regional engagement is crucial

The regional consequences of the agreement are unclear. Indeed, in the short term at least, it is likely to reinforce the sense in regional capitals that Iran’s star is ascending, which could exacerbate the clashes along regional fault-lines.

More broadly, both Iran and the West might be tempted to take provocative measures to demonstrate to domestic hardliners and regional partners that their fundamental concerns have not changed. To diminish possible negative repercussions, the same countries who championed the nuclear accord should – in cooperation with other regional partners – engage Iran in dialogue over issues of common interest, such as stability in Afghanistan and Iraq and ending the bloodshed in Syria and Yemen.

For its part, Tehran should take concrete steps to convince its neighbours that, even as it rehabilitates itself politically and economically, it does not seek dominance in the region writ large.

Ali Vaez is the International Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst on Iran. Prior to that post, he headed the Iran project at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, DC, focusing on Iran’s nuclear and missile programs.

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