Oct. 18 was "adoption day" for the nuclear deal with Iran — formally, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). We are still far from full implementation of the agreement. This will occur only when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has certified that Iran has met its initial requirements under the JCPOA and when other parties grant sanctions relief as specified in the agreement. Both the United States and the European Union have begun laying the groundwork for lifting sanctions, though relief will not occur until IAEA certification has occurred. Tehran's task will be harder. It needs to decommission over 10,000 centrifuges, ship 98 percent of its enriched uranium out of the country, and reengineer a nuclear reactor so that it cannot produce weapons-grade plutonium. Iran has suggested that it could accomplish these tasks by the end of this year. It might well take longer.
Even if the accord is fully implemented, it could still fail. Were the IAEA at any point to certify that Iran is in significant noncompliance with the JCPOA, the United States would almost certainly reimpose sanctions, pressure the EU to do so as well and invoke the deal's "snap back" mechanism to reinstate United Nations sanctions. This scenario is possible, though unlikely, and not because the Iranian government is particularly honest or solicitous of international agreements. It is simply in Iran's economic interest to see sanctions lifted and stay lifted.
There is also the possibility that the United States might renege on the agreement. The U.S. Congress has not repealed existing nuclear sanctions against Iran. Relief will be done by executive action. This means that the next president could, theoretically, reimpose U.S. sanctions immediately upon his or her inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017. On the Democratic side, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonAttorney indicted on charge of lying to FBI as part of Durham investigation Durham seeking indictment of lawyer with ties to Democrats: reports Paul Ryan researched narcissistic personality disorder after Trump win: book MORE has endorsed the agreement; so has her chief opponent, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBriahna Joy Gray: Push toward major social spending amid pandemic was 'short-lived' Sanders 'disappointed' in House panel's vote on drug prices Manchin keeps Washington guessing on what he wants MORE (I-Vt.). Republicans vying for their party's nomination are a different matter. All the major GOP candidates have been critical — many harshly so — of the deal. Most have stopped short of promising to abrogate it. As a practical matter, abrogation — absent an egregious violation of the deal by Iran — will put the United States at odds with its allies in the EU. Moreover, it would hand a major propaganda victory to the government in Tehran. The bottom line: The next U.S. president, whatever his or her views of the deal, will likely stop short of immediately repudiating it.
He or she could, however, support additional congressional sanctions on Iran for other reasons, whether for its human rights policies, its patronage of Hezbollah or its support for the Assad government in Syria. Iran might construe such a step as a violation of the JCPOA and resume its now-prohibited nuclear activities. But such a step would almost certainly lead to the re-imposition of EU and UN sanctions — precisely the outcome a new Republican president would presumably desire. And it would raise, substantially, the likelihood of a U.S. military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Iran's options, in other words, are poor should the next U.S. president seek additional sanctions against Tehran. This reflects, at root, the asymmetry of power between the two countries: The United States remains the strongest state in the world, with an immense capacity for force projection and with important allies in the Middle East and elsewhere; Iran, in contrast, is a largely isolated, middling regional power.
But let us, for the moment, assume that the deal holds. What does it hold for the future?
A major source of U.S.-Iranian tension and regional instability — Tehran's nuclear program — will have been dramatically curtailed. The possibility of further nuclear proliferation in the Middle East will diminish. The likelihood of a U.S. military strike against Iran will be sharply reduced.
Moreover, the United States and Iran could — with a stress on could — use the JCPOA as a springboard for less contentious bilateral relations and closer cooperation in Iraq and elsewhere. But any such progress will almost certainly be slow and fitful. For the present, cooperation will remain informal, ad hoc and largely back-channel.
We need to recall that there are important political actors in the United States and Iran who simply oppose further U.S.-Iranian detente on any plausible terms. In the United States, this includes essentially the entire Republican Party as well as some influential Democrats. (U.S. public opinion on the deal is, unsurprisingly, sharply divided along partisan lines.) There are also important lobbying groups — notably the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) — which can be expected to oppose vigorously any movement toward closer relations between Tehran and Washington. Even the Obama administration — after expending huge political capital on simply striking a narrow nuclear agreement with Iran — shows little appetite for anything approaching normalization of relations. In Iran, those opposing detente include Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and powerful conservative forces. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is the odd man out. He clearly does want much improved U.S.-Iranian relations, though even he has admitted that achieving this goal will be a slow and arduous process.
Moreover, a number of our key allies in the region are also highly suspicious — to put it mildly — of closer U.S.-Iranian relations. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who vociferously opposed the nuclear deal, sees U.S. rapprochement with Iran, rightly or wrongly, as a threat to Israel's security; he would almost certainly prefer a U.S. military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. The Gulf Arabs, though they begrudgingly endorsed the agreement, are uneasy with the prospect of closer U.S.-Iranian relations. Saudi Arabia, which views Iran as an implacable regional rival, is already fighting a nasty proxy war with Tehran in Syria. Riyadh fears that U.S.-Iranian detente could undermine Washington's long-term security commitment to Saudi Arabia and reduce the kingdom's influence in the Persian Gulf.
Any U.S. administration wishing to improve relations with Iran will have to find a way to do so without alienating traditional U.S. allies. This may be possible, but it will not be easy. And it is not without its own risks. Placating allies may lead us into supporting actions that may actually undermine our interests in the region. A case in point is our logistical and other support for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. That support is driven, at least in part, by our desire to reassure a nervous Riyadh of our continued commitment to the U.S.-Saudi special relationship. Nonetheless, the Obama administration is clearly uneasy about the intervention, rightly fearing that it will create further opportunities for al Qaeda in that war-torn country.
Not least, real differences still divide Iran and the United States. Tehran's traditional support for Hezbollah — long designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. government — is a major and perhaps insuperable barrier to normalization. Moreover, the JCPOA itself may indirectly create conflict between the United States and Iran. Sanctions relief will provide the Iranian government with substantial new financial resources. Critics of the nuclear deal have — with some truth — suggested that Iran might use these resources to pursue more aggressive regional policies. Were Tehran to do so — perhaps by substantially increasing its already significant support for the Assad government — achieving closer U.S.-Iranian relations will be much more difficult.
As I have argued before, the nuclear agreement, though imperfect, is nonetheless in our national interest. But its future is uncertain. And, even if it does endure, the JCPOA is merely a first, though significant, step in improving U.S. Iranian relations.
Barnes is the Bonner Means Baker Research Fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy.