What is the Iran deal and why is it controversial?

The Iran deal (or more formally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) is a deal on the nuclear programme of Iran signed in Vienna on the 14th July 2015. It was signed by the 5 Permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany, the European Union and Iran. It requires Iran to eliminate 100% of its medium enriched uranium, 98% of its low enriched uranium and ⅔ of its centrifuges. In return America will return roughly $100 billion of frozen assets to the Iranian regime, but will continue some sanctions against Iran on the grounds of human rights. The provisions on uranium will last 10 years and those on plutonium will last 15 years. After this time period Iran will be free to pursue a potential military nuclear programme, unless another deal is reached in that time. In short this deal allows Iran to keep a small nuclear programme for civilian energy purposes, while (hopefully ensuring) it never attains a nuclear weapon.

This agreement is controversial. In Washington the entire congressional GOP and all 15 candidates running for President are against the deal. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also opposes the deal, and in Iran several anti-west hardliners oppose the deal.

Those supporting the deal include the Pope, most of the American public including the majority of American Jews, most of the Democratic Party and of course the other parties to the deal, including Russia and China. Contrary to possible expectations, the Gulf Cooperation council have voiced support for the deal following a visit from John Kerry. Obama has gone so far as to claim every country in the world supports the Iran deal except Israel.

While it may seem initially the Iran deal will pass and be implemented without any problems, the Republicans in America and the hard-liners in Iran may well have enough influence to undermine or end the deal entirely.

The Republicans in Washington oppose the deal, arguing Obama is appeasing Iran much in the way Chamberlain appeased Hitler, and that the 2015 deal will be viewed by history as some kind of 1938 Munich deal. The deal, they argue, relies too much on trusting Iran and that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) who are tasked with inspecting Iranian nuclear facilities, will be obstructed by the Iranian government in their work. Thus what the deal in effect means is giving Iran $100 billion to fund nuclear research and secret enrichment. They also argue that Iran will use some of the $100 billion in unfrozen assets to fund terror groups, making the Middle East less safe in the process. Additionally Iran is a close ally of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, who has been denounced by the US as a tyrant who uses chemical weapons. American policy, until very recently, has been committed to ousting Assad from power, but Iran’s new windfall from unfrozen assets will no doubt be used to prop up Assad- weakening the US position. Furthermore concerns have also been raised by Ted Cruz about the deal not resolving Tehran’s detention of US journalist Jason Rezaian, who has been held by Iran for more than a year.

Breakout times are of large concern to opponents of the deal. A breakout time is the time it will take Iran to get a nuclear weapon once they declared it was their intention to do so. Before negotiations began the time was 2 months, now it is 6 months and upon full implementation of the deal it will be 1 year. However, as noted this only applies for 10 years. Opponents of the deal fear that after 10 years the breakout time would be much less than 2 months, if Iran secretly attains the facilities it need during the time this deal is in place and there are few sanctions upon the country. Again, this is based on the assumption that the inspectors at the IAEA are obstructed by the Iranian government.

The Iran hardliners argue against the deal from the other point of view. They argue that too much has been given to the west and that Iran should not have to surrender its nuclear facilities. There is also concern over “snapback sanctions” which is a clause in the deal arguing that the US, should it wish, can reimpose sanctions on Iran at the slightest suspicion of it violating the terms of the agreement.

Supporters of the deal see this as a victory, a way of bringing peace to the Middle East through diplomacy, while ensuring there is not a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Key evidence to support their claim is the history of the alternative strategy- the strategy the congressional GOP wish to return to. When George Bush in 2008 announced he wanted Iran to get rid of all its centrifuges, Iran had 123. Now they have 19,000- but thanks to the deal they will deactivate 13,000. While of course complete elimination has not been achieved, opponents of the deal have not set out a clear vision for how they would do things differently to George Bush, short of course of war.

So what can opponents of the deal do? In Washington, Obama should have been defeated instantly on the deal. The constitution of the United States says “[The President] shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur”. With all 54 Senate Republicans opposing the deal, it would be impossible for the Senate to ratify this treaty. To get around this hurdle, Obama has labelled the deal an “executive agreement”, meaning that the legislature needs to be proactive in defeating the deal. An attempt on Thursday 17th September to pass a disapproval resolution only gained 56 votes, 4 short of the 60 needed to get it to Obama’s desk. The deal’s opponents are now relying on getting a Republican in the White House, preferably Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, both of whom have promised to terminate the deal within a few hours of their inauguration in January 2017 (Another candidate who promised to do so, Scott Walker, dropped out of the race on the 21st of September). Other candidates, like Jeb Bush and Rand Paul, while opposed to the deal, have not committed to instantly revoking it.

Iran’s hardliners also look like they are to be defeated. The only way they couldn’t be is if Iran’s supreme leader vetoes the deal. Terms of the deal ensure that Iran is the last to ratify, meaning that the entire deal, peace in the Middle East, could be undone by 1 man even after the long struggle in Washington and Vienna to get this deal passed. Such is the nature of international diplomacy.

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