The nuclear deal with Iran takes effect on Sunday, setting in motion a series of events that will put President Obama’s diplomatic gamble to the test.
Iran is months away from putting in place the limits on its nuclear program that would trigger relief from economic sanctions, and an international inspection regime is only just beginning.
“We are moving now to the implementation stage, and it is essential that we will maintain our vigilance, our unity of approach and our common purpose,” Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryNew York Knicks owner gave 0K to pro-Trump group A bold, common sense UN move for the Trump administration Former Obama officials say Netanyahu turned down secret peace deal: AP MORE said in a speech at Indiana University this week.
“Now, the Middle East remains a deeply troubled place, but every problem in the region would be made much worse if countries were to move towards nuclear weapons.”
Whether the diplomatic effort will succeed is an open question.
Critics note that Iran has shown no willingness to change its behavior after reaching the deal, even staging a ballistic missile test that the United States on Friday called a breach of international sanctions.
In the coming months, the onus will be on Iran to fulfill its end of the nuclear bargain. The country has agreed to shut off thousands of centrifuges, drastically reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium and remove the core out of the Arak heavy water reactor and fill it with concrete.
The U.S. and Europe, meanwhile, will begin issuing draft regulations and sanctions waivers that will loom over the Iranian economy. Those waivers won’t go into full effect for months, until the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) declares that Iran has met its initial obligations.
“It’s a purely symbolic thing for the Iranian domestic audience so they can say, ‘Look how prepared the U.S. and the E.U. are to lift sanctions,” said James Acton, a director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s nuclear policy program. “But as I say, those waivers are contingent on the implementation.”
Due to the multiple complex hurdles for Iran, United Nations inspectors might not certify that it has met its obligations until next summer, according to analysts.
However, Iran might be under pressure to speed the process up, so that sanctions are lifted by the time parliamentary elections are held on Feb. 26.
“The Iranians are strongly motivated to complete the nuclear-related steps so that sanctions relief is provided,” said Gary Samore, the executive director for research at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a former White House arms control coordinator.
“[President Hassan] Rouhani in particular wants to get it done as quickly as possible before the Feb 2015 Majlis elections,” he added, referring to Iran’s legislature.
All the while, the situation in the broader Middle East grows more tumultuous.
Some analysts may have initially hoped that the agreement with Iran would lead to a rapprochement between Washington and Tehran. But hopes for warmer ties have dissipated, with Iran increasingly ratcheting up its rhetoric against the West.
"We negotiated with the U.S. on the nuclear issue for specific reasons,” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in September. “[The Americans] behaved well in the talks, but we didn't and we won't allow negotiation with the Americans on other issues.”
One week ago, Iran test-fired a ballistic missile with a range long enough to reach archenemy Israel, in what the Obama administration has called a violation of a U.N. resolution. However, officials insist the launch was outside the scope of the nuclear agreement.
Additionally, the mounting crisis in Syria has given Tehran a window to step in to assist the regime of Bashar al-Assad, its neighbor and ally. This week, Iran reportedly launched a major offensive by deploying troops in Syria to prop up Assad.
That development puts Iran right alongside Russia in a Syrian crisis that many have worried is devolving into a proxy war with Iran and Russia on one side and U.S.-backed rebels on the other.
“Since the [nuclear] agreement, the Iranians seem to be going out of their way to emphasize that they preclude a broader agreement,” Samore said.
There are more points of conflict to come.
By Dec. 15, the IAEA is scheduled to release a report on its review of the possible past military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program. Iran supplied all the requested information for that report just this week.
The process has generated outrage on Capitol Hill, since inspectors, citing longstanding IAEA policy, have declined to give lawmakers copies of agreements about how they would search Iranian facilities. That led to some allegations that Iran would effectively be allowed to inspect itself, though multiple nuclear analysts have rejected that characterization.
Because of Iran’s perceived stonewalling, that new report isn’t likely to calm any nerves.
“It’s highly likely that that report is going to say, ‘Well, we don’t know,’ ” said Patrick Clawson, the director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East policy. “The IAEA is extremely cautious about offering judgments and Iran’s been very parsimonious with information.”
“That’s good enough for the agreement to go ahead,” he added, “but I expect that there’s going to be some outraged statements from people on the Hill … about ‘How dare we put this agreement into effect when this issue has not been completely resolved.’
“But it’s very unlikely that the IAEA will be able to completely resolve that issue.”