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When Democracy Meets Diplomacy: The Politics of the Iran Deal

On July 14, America and five other powers signed an agreement with Iran to end the 12-year standoff over the latter’s nuclear program. To those who support rapprochement, the deal – concluded after an intense series of negotiations in Vienna – seems like a remarkable diplomatic feat. After all, the chant “Death to America” is still commonplace at Iranian Friday prayer – and it wasn’t so long ago that America declared Iran a member of the “Axis of Evil”. That the two parties could come to an agreement on a matter as sensitive as a nuclear weapons program is testament to the skill of the negotiators on both sides.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – informally, the Vienna agreement – lifts the crippling economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for the virtual termination of its suspected nuclear weapons program. If successfully implemented, it will reduce Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity below the level required to produce weapons-grade plutonium, decrease the existing stockpile of low to medium-enriched uranium by 96%, and monitor Iran’s compliance by way of an international inspection regime.

Proponents of the JCPOA point to its many potential benefits. Mitigation of the nuclear threat aside, a rapprochement with Iran has the potential to stem the tide of Sunni fundamentalism regionally and to prevent the birth of a new generation of anti-American Iranians. Already, the relief in Iran is palpable: spontaneous street parties broke out across Tehran as news of the agreement was broadcast. Many educated Iranians are sick of chanting “Death to America” if it means continued isolation and economic hardship. Sadegh Zibakalem, Professor of Political Science at the University of Tehran and a prominent Iranian public intellectual, argues that “the dome of anti-Americanism has cracked.” Although hard-liners will not be easily silenced, he believes their views will gain less and less traction as the benefits of the deal become clear.

On the other hand, the regional response to the agreement has been predictably varied. Riyadh has made an equivocal statement in support of the deal, but will be anxiously eyeing its Shia population for signs of increased Iranian influence. Benjamin Netanyahu claims America has made a “historic mistake,” reflecting Tel Aviv’s concern that Iranian economic growth will strengthen Tehran-backed terrorists in their crusade against Israel. The Israeli response is far from uniform, and perhaps says more about Netanyahu’s domestic concerns than the actual impact of the deal: a number of prominent Israeli analysts and ex-military figures have stressed the benefits of the agreement.

America’s alliances with Israel and Saudi Arabia are of significant strategic value, which is why Obama has moved to reassure both countries that rapprochement with Iran will be conditional and closely monitored. The biggest threat to the deal’s success, however, does not come from Netanyahu or King Salman, but from an obstinate American Congress.

Republicans have expressed almost unanimous contempt for the deal, variously due to loyalty to Israel, the perception of Iran as a rogue state, and the desire to deny Barack Obama any political victory before he leaves office. Republican Presidential contenders have spoken out on the issue in what appears to be a bid to out-hawk each other, with Mike Huckabee claiming controversially that the deal “will take the Israelis and march them right to the door of the oven,” and Rick Santorum (R-Pa) calling it “the worst foreign policy decision ever made by an American president.”

Obama has vowed to veto any Congressional action that obstructs the implementation of the deal. He’ll need to win over the Senate, however, to prevent the Republicans from securing the two-thirds majority needed to overturn a presidential veto. This is a tall order, especially while Ayatollah Khamenei continues to publicly proclaim his opposition to the “arrogant US” and affirm his commitment to Iran’s regional allies. Whether or not this is just hard-line rhetoric aimed at appeasing a conservative domestic constituency, it is certainly unsettling to most Americans.

The battle may be won, but the war isn’t over yet. The immediate threat of a nuclear Iran has been averted, and the door to a more constructive relationship with the Gulf power has been opened for the first time in decades. The real fight ahead lies in Congress, where the administration will have to top even its Vienna performance to successfully navigate the challenges of foreign policymaking in a democratic state.

Isabella Borshoff is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email for more information.

Image Credit: European External Action Service (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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