The Wider Implications of the Iran Deal
BRUSSELS—In 1815, the Congress of Vienna created a new European order that would shape the continent’s power dynamics for a century. Prince de Talleyrand, then France’s foreign minister, said that for the negotiations to go well, “everyone needs to leave unhappy, and having had to make sacrifices. It is from these partial sacrifices that must come to life the agreement of all, the greater good.”
Two hundred years later, another agreement was reached in Vienna, this time with Iran on the peaceful nature of its nuclear program. Like its predecessor, the agreement has the potential to shape the regional order — this time in the Middle East — for years to come. In its unique construct, the deal reaches far beyond nuclear non-proliferation, and opens the way for a profound reshuffling of regional and global dynamics. No wonder so many hate it.
Like the Congress of Vienna, the partial sacrifices that resulted in a successful agreement on Iran have been immediately criticized. Political hurdles to the deal’s implementation are already beginning to arise on all sides. In the United States, especially, negotiators’ compromises have triggered inflammatory statements. Beyond the promise of better days, Iran too must be prepared for new internal power struggles amid more openness and rapprochement with the West. Concluding the deal might actually not have been the hardest part.
The agreement effectively brings Iran back into the international fold. No matter when exactly sanctions are lifted, Iran can now be treated by all as a possible international partner. The leaders of Europe, the United States, Russia, and China have also signaled that they recognize Iran’s potential regional role. In addition, the agreement consecrates the regionalization of global affairs, which could lead to a reevaluation of global partnerships and alliances, including for the United States and the European Union.
The format and the structure of the negotiations have also most likely propelled Americans and Europeans in a new era of global governance. The six powers that gathered around the table to deal with Iran have shown the world that they can agree on a common challenge, despite existing tensions or frictions between them. Each played a key role, at key moments, and it is remarkable that neither the Ukrainian crisis, nor the thirst for Iran’s natural resources, nor lingering individual interests, derailed the talks.
Moreover, the European Union might have found its optimum role in foreign affairs. Despite ongoing debates about the future of its external action, the European Union’s mandate as a facilitator of the Iran talks could be applied to other circumstances. The Iran deal is a wonderful example of the EU effectively engaging in the promotion of peace, prosperity, and stability beyond its borders, as long as such actions have the full commitment of key member states — in this case, France, Britain, and Germany. And while the direct participation of the United States in the talks proved to be indispensable, it is the transatlantic dynamic as a whole that kept the possibility of a deal alive throughout the negotiations.
Finally, the agreement opens the door to the normalization of relations between Iran and the United States. While the Obama administration has been careful in signaling that the deal does not equate to normalization, it is becoming harder to believe that normalization is not now within the realm of possibility.
It is impossible to know if Iran will respect its commitments to ensure that its nuclear program is exclusively peaceful. But at this stage, only a few days after the popular celebration of the deal on the streets of Tehran, it seems unlikely that Iran will renege on an agreement it so dearly wanted, and that seems to have the blessings of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The question now is less whether Iran will violate the agreement, but more how other countries are willing to deal with it, and adjust their policies and strategies accordingly. The constant refrain of Iran as a threat is no longer a sufficient excuse to not seek compromises.
In the end, it all comes down to the fact that Iran has 15 years to convince the world that it can be trusted. At the same time, it might all hinge on the international community’s — and especially on transatlantic partners’ — willingness to place their trust in Tehran.
Guillaume Xavier-Bender is a transatlantic fellow in the Brussels office of The German Marshall Fund of the United States. Follow him at @GuillaumeXB.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.