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Five Things to Watch for in the Wake of Iran Nuclear Deal

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Here are five things to look out for in the coming days, as we all assess the text of the agreement and reactions to it.

Whether you’re about to break open the champagne or don sack cloth over the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal, you may have questions about the agreement. Here are five things to look out for in the coming days, as we all assess the text of the agreement and reactions to it:

1. Are U.S. and Iranian negotiators and the leaders who empowered them reading the agreement the same way? Even though both sides have agreed to the same words, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Washington and Teheran are on the same page. We encountered this problem with the Lausanne framework released in April; Iran and the U.S. had talking points on some key issues, such as when sanctions would be lifted, and it resulted in more than a few problems. This accord is supposed to be the final deal. If the creative ambiguity required to produce it is too creative (read: ambiguous), it could lead to the sort of destructive ambiguity that blows things up. Watch for areas of disagreement in how each side discusses the agreement publicly.

2. How were the sensitive issues resolved? More than a few diplomats have talked about a “draft” in describing the putative accord in recent days. A final agreement should lay to rest the sensitive issues that led to three extensions of the negotiations. Have the Iranians agreed to anywhere, anytime inspections? What specific limits have been placed on research and development of advanced centrifuges? What process has been designated to establish the baseline for past military aspects of Iran’s nuclear program (the “military dimensions” issue)? Iran’s demand to terminate the U.N. Security Council embargo on importing arms led to a last-minute standoff. These are some of the key issues that Congress and opponents of a deal will be scrutinizing. Whether the answers are good or bad, the agreement should provide them clearly.

3. Spin starts now. Focus will shift abruptly from negotiating the accord to selling it. Washington is expected to make the case that the agreement is tough and single-purposed: that it will constrain for decades–and maybe even eliminate–Iran’s capacity to produce nuclear weapons. Secretary of State John Kerry once used the word “forever.” Tehran will maintain that it preserved its principles and that there have been no serious constraints on its nuclear options. Because Iran says it was never interested in developing a nuclear weapon, this should be an easy sell, particularly amid the euphoria that millions of Iranians will experience over sanctions relief.

The spin game gets complicated only if Washington and Tehran start to contradict each other over specifics in the accord. The other pitfall is if the U.S. finds itself in the unenviable position of functioning as Iran’s lawyer. When it came to the Lausanne framework, the administration said that it was defending the agreement, not Iran; but this breaks down if Iran publicly disputes the U.S. interpretation and Washington is forced to try to reconcile the gaps. Even under the best circumstances, we would see a verbal gymnastics meet.

4. What’s different about Iran’s behavior? President Barack Obama has said that it doesn’t matter whether Iran’s behavior changes at home or abroad. Curtailing its nuclear weapons’ aspirations will make Iran a less dangerous rival. But Iran’s repressiveness and human rights violations, as well as its expansionist designs in the region and support for some very bad actors–among them, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad; Hezbollah; some Shiite militias in Iraq–isn’t an irrelevant footnote. And it’s likely to affect not only the congressional and public debate in the U.S. but also allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel that fear a rising Iran. Watch for signs that Iran is toughening its behavior to demonstrate that it has no intention of becoming a U.S. pawn, let alone ally; alternatively (and much less likely), Iran may effect a more cooperative image to gain more support from the Europeans and the international community. What Iran does with the four Americans it is detaining will be an early test.

5. Negotiating and concluding this agreement is only the beginning of a rough and long road for the U.S. This isn’t some sort of transformative peace treaty punctuated by heroic acts of statesmanship and likeable characters who trust and admire each other. The cast of characters here includes a suspicious Congress; angry allies, particularly Israel; a polarizing president; and a repressive Iranian regime still holding four Americans without justification. This accord still needs to pass through a congressional debate; conflicting interpretations of key issues; and a long process of implementation likely filled with many bumps of varying sizes. Washington is usually quiet in August. Not this summer.

About the Author

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Aaron David Miller

Global Fellow
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The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more