Iran and six nations led by the United States reached a historic agreement on July 14, 2015, that will limit Tehran's nuclear capacity for more than a decade in return for lifting international economic sanctions. Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Philip Gordon assesses the deal's implications for U.S.-Iran relations and Iran's role in the international community.
AMOS: Good afternoon. I am with National Public Radio. This is a Council on Foreign Relations on the record media conference call.
I'm going to now introduce the speakers. We are going to talk for about 20 minutes, and then we're going to open the floor for questions. Our first and at the moment our only guest is Dr. Philip Gordon. He the special assistant to the president and White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa and the Gulf regions from 2013 to 2015.
Ray Takeyh, who we hope will join us, he is testifying as we speak in Congress on the nuclear deal. He is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and did a similar job at the State Department.
So, let me just set the scene for what we're talking about, as if no one knows. This morning, we all woke up to a historic shift in Middle East politics, years of work intensely over the past 20 months.
We just—we got a landmark nuclear agreement, which was aimed at reining in Iran's nuclear program.
The deal isn't welcomed in all quarters. We are already hearing pushback. But we're going to talk about some of those details today and we're going to start with Phil. It's a 100-page agreement. Have you read all of it, and can you tell us what your impressions are of the deal?
GORDON: Sure, thanks Deborah.
And hello to everyone on the call.
It's actually a 159-page agreement and the words are pretty small. So I think everybody who is forming judgment should take care to understand that you know, we all have to read it very carefully in the coming days and weeks. It's very complicated. There are detailed annexes to everything. So I am happy to share my initial understanding of these detailed arrangements based on reading of the text today.
And I think you're right to introduce Deborah this sort of cautionary note that—that we should all take the time to really fully understand what has been agreed here before reaching final conclusions about it.
So yes, the shorter answer to your question is I have read the joint comprehensive plan of action.
AMOS: Can you—can you tell us why was it so difficult at the end? Where were the sticking points?
GORDON: It was so difficult at the end, because there have, from the very start, been some really, really difficult issues for both sides. And that is why this deadline of June 30 was actually you know, the fourth deadline. Just remember, the interim—so-called interim agreement, the joint plan of action that halted Iran's program in the first place was in November 2013. And we said at that time it lasts for six months, and we're going to try to negotiate a comprehensive one in six months. Of course, in six months it wasn't the initial way, that was the first deadline, so extended it to the summer. The issues remained really hard in the summer, and we didn't meet the deadline of the summer of 2014, and so extended it again to November, the year anniversary of the joint plan of action, and then yet again to March of this year.
When we made much more progress, negotiators got to the point where it was possible to have a framework, the Lausanne framework that I'm sure listeners are familiar with. But even then, there were some issues that couldn't be resolved that had to do with, and just to give you a brief summary, the timing of sanctions relief, and the core deal was restrictions on Iran's nuclear program for sanctions relief, but when exactly would that sanctions relief begin? The Iranians had to be up front, and you heard the supreme leader on that repeatedly in the endgame, whereas the U.S. and partners' position was no, they only get sanctions relief when they've actually done some of these nuclear steps.
It was really hard to solve the problem of sanctions snapback, the circumstances in which sanctions would be reimposed. Again, the Iranians didn't want to be vulnerable to one country like the United States saying, "We think you're violating it, they go back into place."
But at the same time, the U.S. and its partners didn't want say Russia to be able to veto snapback if there was a violation.
Research and development was a thorny issue. P5+1 looking for restrictions, Iran wanting to preserve its scientific achievements. This issue of possible military dimensions, the work we would do to weaponize fissile material with the P5+1 needing answers about what Iran may have done in the past.
So I mean, these are some of the really, really hard issues. And you know, what I had been saying since the end of March is that all of the issues like the ones I just mentioned that were impossible to resolve on March 28, 29, and 30, were going to be just as hard on June 28, 29, and 30.
And that turned out to be the case, which is why we didn't meet the end of the June deadline, and we—the four negotiators ended up spending 18 days because these issues were so hard, before they finally got a deal done last night.
AMOS: And so what do you think changed in terms of both sides to be able to get over the final hump?
GORDON: You know, I think you know, you can only put off a deadline so many times, and one of the ways we managed to put off the previous deadline. You know, the deadlines in some ways were artificial. They were the two sides saying, "OK. You know, we want an agreement by this date."
And then if a deadline is artificial, it's easy to blow through it. But it was also the case that there was only so much patience in the U.S. Congress which in the past had threatened to impose new sanctions if there wasn't a comprehensive deal in place. Last spring, President Obama asked Congress for a few more months. He said, "I'm not asking for an indefinite extension of the interim agreement, but give me a few months to see if I can get this thing negotiated."
And then he bought a few more months after you know, the Lausanne framework was reached, because we showed that we had made real progress, but you know at a certain point the credibility of just a few more months goes and there was a real chance that without a comprehensive deal, Congress would test new sanctions, Iran would pull out not only of the talks but of the interim agreement, and you'd have a really problematic situation.
So in this endgame, it wasn't a given because these issues were really hard for most sides, but it turned out that in this final push, they were actually able to close those remaining gaps.
AMOS: And you know when you watched the sort of rhetoric outside of the specific negotiations, Khamenei, in some ways, the supreme leader was able to keep control of his hardliners almost better than the president was able to with his. It's a different system of course, much more chaotic in the United States.
Do you think it shows that Iran wanted that agreement and was willing to go those extra miles?
GORDON: You know, I think you know, ultimately, what we saw all along, which is why we came back to the table. They did want an agreement.
In a sense, our policy has worked. You know, we managed to put on very significant sanctions and rally the world to those sanctions, and—and they didn't work until we'd had international sanctions, with the view that this would be troubling enough for Iran and problematic enough for Iran that it might be willing to accept significant constraints in order to get them lifted.
So in that sense, you know, I think we started to find out already I would say last spring when Iran really started to make concessions on issues that it had previously said it wouldn't and couldn't, like the number of centrifuges and what it can do with its heavy water reactor and the process for inspection. That was a sign that the Iranian negotiators at least wanted a deal. It was always an open question whether the supreme leader could swallow such compromises, and that we weren't going to know until the very end. And practically, you know, we still don't know because they have to obviously implement it.
But yeah, I do think it shows that Iran wanted a deal, but I think it's also important to understand, and I say this to those who say, you know, why didn't you get a better deal, Iran wanted a deal, but not at all costs.
And you know, that's the answer to the question, well why didn't the P5+1 insist on, for example, zero centrifuges, you know, no enrichment or indefinite duration. Iran didn't want a deal to the point that it was willing to accept outcomes like that and insisting on outcomes like that, would likely have led to no deal, which meant, you know, Iran steadily progressing towards a nuclear weapons capability, as it has been doing over the past 10 years.
So you know, it was possible to close those gaps, but like in any negotiation, it ultimately require a compromise.
AMOS: I'm sure that there will be lots of questions about the details, but I'd like to just go broad for—for a minute. And the regional reaction has been mixed to say the least. The Gulf has been unhappy, but not uniformly so. But there's been plenty of analysts who say that if you don't have some parallel diplomatic track in the region, that a nuclear deal, an international one, will exacerbate tensions in the Middle East.
And I wondered if you thought that there was a chance for a process like that or not.
GORDON: I think ultimately, I mean, you can look at that either way. If you're concerned about the regional dynamic, you can say as some do, you know, don't do a nuclear deal with Iran. Keep the pressure on and keep the sanctions on. Or you can say because you're so worried about the regional dynamic, you have to find a way to first of all stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. That's the most important thing.
Because with a nuclear deterrent, they could do even more damage in the region, but also start to develop a process whereby you could at least conceivably down the road start building on that agreement and working on some of the diplomatic political tensions.
And ultimately, yes, I think that's going to be necessary, you know, whether we like it or not, Iran is a major player in the region, they influence in Iraq whether we like it or not because they're there and there's a Shia majority and they have their militia, and they are involved in the rest of the region, you know, not least Syria.
So, ultimately I think Iran will have to be part of a diplomatic addressing of the regional challenges, which doesn't mean that anybody can or should let down their guards, and you know, there needs to be a containment policy of those destabilizing activities in the meantime. But I think being concerned about Iran's role in the region doesn't or shouldn't lead you not to support a nuclear agreement which—which is a necessary prerequisite for dealing with it.
AMOS: But the nuclear agreement has been striking in that it's been so singularly focused. Nothing about regional concerns has been part of this deal. And that's been part of its success, that it kept the P5 together, plus one. No one had to think about their positions on wider regional issues.
So how do you get from this very narrow diplomatic breakthrough to something that you know, calms the region while Iran is wildly celebrating in the streets?
I think it—it had to be narrow, and it made sense to be narrow. Again, everybody knows, everybody should know that ultimately, we need you know, solutions on the geopolitical and diplomatic issues. But to make that a prerequisite for a nuclear deal would likely have prevented the nuclear deal.
So there are a lot of people who were saying, you know, especially towards the end, don't do this deal unless and until it includes stopping Iran's support for terrorism, changing its adversarial relationship with Israel, getting it, stopping what it's doing in Syria or Yemen. And those are all admirable ends. And U.S. policy goals and regional goals.
But what didn't make sense was the idea that you could take this agreement and remember, the only reason we got these sanctions out in the first place was to deal with Iran's nuclear program. There was never going to be a global—it was hard enough even on the nuclear program. There was never going to be a global agreement to impose comprehensive sanctions on Iran and an oil embargo over Iran's foreign policy.
And so the idea of you know, in the eleventh hour, saying all right, the nuclear—hard-nosed nuclear agreement, compromise on both sides. We seem to have gotten them to back off their nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. The idea of then coming in in the endgame and saying but by the way, there's no deal unless Iran stops supporting terrorism, changes its foreign policy in the region, stops intervening in Syria, recognizes Israel, that—you know, again, those are all admirable goals, but there's no way Iran would have agreed to them. And that means you would get the worst of both worlds. You would get—you wouldn't get the diplomatic containment, but you wouldn't get a nuclear agreement either.
So that's why they had to be two separate things, and why the deal has to be sanctions relief for nuclear steps, and we'll have to address the other issues separately. But at least this way, we're doing that while Iran is not moving towards a nuclear weapons capability.
AMOS: You know, it is—it was a very funny tweet yesterday. We are all banned from saying "and now the hard part begins," but it does.
AMOS: And the question is. Are there actors that—who could derail this deal at this point?
And you know, it's not wrong—I wouldn't say "now the hard part begins," because it's been plenty hard from the beginning.
But you know, nobody should believe that this 159 pages that we have received resolves the issue.
Because first, you know, Iran has to take all of these steps. I can predict right now there will be disputes on the degree to which it has done so. And there will be disputes over inspections and verification and how Iran answers the questions about its past nuclear work, and Iran will do other unhelpful things in the region and all of that will stimulate calls for new sanctions and you know, so no one should imagine that you know, this sort of takes the Iran issue away.
What it does though is buy a considerable chunk of time where we don't have to worry about what would be an even more urgent and destabilizing issue, which is Iran really coming up to the brink of or crossing the threshold to a nuclear weapons capability.
And that's again something I mean, you can tell by the way I'm talking about this, I support this deal, I think it—while inevitably imperfect, as any such agreement would be, there are things that you know, we would all rather have.
I think it is a very positive step because no one has really been able to answer the question, "If you don't do a deal like this now and Iran were to continue on the path it's been on for a decade, how do you stop it from getting all too close to a nuclear weapons capability or crossing that threshold?"
And ultimately, the answer to that question becomes using military force to stop it from doing so, and that in and of itself would not only not set back Iran nearly as long as this agreement will do if it's implemented as—as it needs to be, but it would have, obviously, all sorts of other negative consequences for us and for the region.
AMOS: What is the first thing that we will see that we know concretely that there has been a deal?
GORDON: Well, I mean already now, this 159 pages is an agreement between the P5+1 and Iran. And that is, you know, and that's different from Lausanne where each side put out its own fact sheet and you just sort of had to take our word for it that the fundamentals were in place. This is now a comprehensive agreement in black and white. And it's being shipped to the U.S. Congress for review, as it should be, and it's going to be sent to the UN Security Council for a vote and endorsement by the UN.
So the agreement now exists. It has yet to be ratified all around, and Congress will have its 60 days to review it, and you know, could take a vote. And so it—it is not off the ground yet, and it hasn't—and it won't be implemented until that happens in the UN Security Council resolution is passed, but when those things happens and it actually exists, then the clock starts ticking and actual things start to be done like reducing the number of centrifuges and allowing inspectors in and converting the heavy water reactor at Arak and reducing the stockpile, those things that we call the nuclear steps, are what we said all along would have to happen before there could be sanctions relief.
And that was another, you know, going back to your first question, the issue that delayed this for so long, the Iranians really wanted some sanctions relief on day one, not day one after implementation, but day one after agreement. And that is something that the P5+1 held a firm line on. And so there won't be sanctions relief until the IAEA can say, "Yep, Iran has now reduced the number of centrifuges at Natanz, you know, to 5,060 in Fordow to 1,050." And they're not using uranium and so on.
AMOS: I'm going to turn this—open this to the reporters who are on the call.
And I have to make an announcement that Ray Takeyh will not be making it back to this call, too.
We have about 50 minutes and I'm going to open the floor.
OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, at this time, the floor is now open for your questions.
If you would like to ask an audio question, you may do so now by pressing star, one on your touchtone phone. If at any time your question has been answered or you need to remove yourself from the question queue, press star, two.
Again, to ask a question, please press star, one now.
Our first question comes from Warren Stroebel with Reuters.
QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me all right?
QUESTION: Great. Thanks for doing the call.
Phil, I wanted to ask you whether there is anything the Obama administration should or could do to mollify concerns in Israel and Saudi Arabia, or to compensate those countries in some way. And I'm thinking, you know, specific sorts of security enhancements or specific steps to take on Iran's malign influence in the region.
And this is a quick follow on to that. Ash Carter is headed out to Israel next week. The White House announced this—is he sort of going to be the punching bag? I mean, he's got a—a tough—tough diplomatic assignment, obviously.
I mean, you know, already the administration has obviously been focused on the concerns of its friends and partners in the region. Israel, some of the Gulf states, and has been making its case, briefing them, being transparent, and I think that process needs to continue.
There needs to be an intensive explanation of what is in the deal and why we think it achieves our goal, but also a degree of reassurance that—that this is not what many of them fear, which is a blanket reconciliation with Iran that overlooks the threat that they all feel from Iran in the region.
And so you know, you used the word compensate. I'm not sure that's the right word, because—in fact, I don't like that word, because it implies this is not in your interests, and our friends in the region, and how can we compensate you for something that is against your interests when I think the administration believes and I believe that it is in their interest, this is a collective goal to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapons capability, and in that sense, a huge achievement.
So I don't think compensate is the right word or way to think about it, but the administration should be and is talking to them about how to make sure that none of the consequences of this agreement raise their level of insecurity. And so if they need more defense cooperation or missile defense cooperation and intelligence cooperation in ways that will balance Iran's inevitable you know, access to frozen funds and ability to have a growing economy, and therefore you know, interfere more in the region, then that needs to be part of the discussion.
That's of course why the president invited leaders to Camp David, you know, in the run up to this to explain it. It's why U.S.—Washington is in such a intense dialog with the Israelis, and you know, we can't paper over the fact that there is still a massive disagreement, but I think you know, all the administration can do is continue to—to explain why it thinks this is a good deal and to make sure that it's doing for Israeli security what it needs to do.
And so I think you can be sure even if the partners in the region aren't thrilled with the deal, that there will be discussions on how to make sure their defense needs are met in the wake of a deal.
QUESTION: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Carol Williams with the Los Angeles Times.
Are you concerned that there are exaggerated expectations on the ground in Iran on how soon the sanctions relief will be tangible? And what's the risk of popular discontent developing with the slow pace of foreign investment and job creation?
GORDON: That's an interesting question, because you know, you—you may be right. There's definitely a feeling in Iran that this has been a huge breakthrough, and you know, sanctions relief will immediately improve the economy, and probably that's overstated. First because as I was just saying, it won't come on day one. First, Iran has to do all of these nuclear steps, which they say they'll do quickly, but chances are will take some time. We estimated, you know, six months to a year before they've done these various steps. So there won't be sanctions relief in that—in that time.
Even then, while no doubt companies around the world will be showing, you know, significant interest in Iran, they're also going to be cautious that they're not making investments in a place where there are plenty of other reasons to think twice about investing, economic mismanagement and so on, where if the deal isn't implemented, I mean, this snapback notion is that if they don't comply with what they said they were going to do, the sanctions could come back in place.
So it may be that companies don't rush into areas as quickly as the Iranians hoped. And then, and this is one of the interesting things about it, the excuse that Iran is failing and failing economically because of sanctions will be gone.
And that was, you know, there were views in the past where the supreme leader was assessed to welcome the sanctions, because he always had that pretext. You know, the world is against this, and you know, you can rally your people to the notion that everyone is ganging up on you unfairly. And now that excuse has been taken away. Okay, Iran's legitimate rights to nuclear energy have been recognized. Sanctions are being lifted.
If they under those circumstances can't deliver to the—for the people, then they're going to have to answer the question a different way. So that'll be an interesting aspect of how this plays out over time.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Farah Stockman with the Boston Globe.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this call.
I wonder if you could just say a few words about what happens 10 and 15 years from now. What does it look like when these restrictions go away?
GORDON: Shortest answer is we don't know.
And I think critics or people concerned about the deal have focused on that point and rightly pointed out that you know, decades do pass. And if you know, if such an agreement had been reached 10 or 15 years ago, we would now, you know, having to answer what—what you do within Iran where the restrictions on numbers of centrifuges and so on have been lifted.
I think the best response to that is that leaders at that time will have to make an assessment of what relationship with Iran they want to have. And the president of the United States, the prime minister of Israel, the P5+1 leaders will decide if they are OK with an Iran having a large-scale civil industrial enrichment program and building up a stockpile, and whether Iran does or doesn't have an illicit nuclear program.
I mean, this—this agreement has not only all of the technical details and the annexes that we can talk about, but it—it reaffirms that Iran under no circumstances is ever going to seek to develop nuclear weapons.
So if Iran violates that or gives the impression it's violating it over the next 10 years or so, then our leaders at that time will have to decide how they're going to deal with it.
And so in that sense at least it buys that period of time for Iran to demonstrate that if not seeking nuclear weapons for inspectors to learn about Iran and know everything possible about the Iranian nuclear program, and then to make a call at that time what sort of Iran they're willing to live with.
But you know, again, if you're so convinced that in 15 years, that will be such a problem that we might have to deal with it by you know, for example, using force, it—it does seem more sensible to bide that period of time and see rather than you know, accelerating it and confronting the issue now without even taking advantage of the time that you've bought.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Jeremy Au Yong with the Straits Times.
QUESTION: Thanks for doing the call.
I just want to (inaudible) talked about what you think the Congress is going to be like and what are the media issues that are going to come up, and what will happen if Congress rejects the deal?
GORDON: Thanks. And let me just add one line to my answer to the last question about you know, what it looks like in 10 or 15 years. I mean, it would be better if this agreement lasted forever. I don't want to downplay that as an insignificant concern. I mean, acknowledge that you know, that—that is legitimate to worry about that.
And I would personally rather see an indefinite agreement, and I think you know, rather than indefinite, 50 years or 30 years would be better than 10 or 20.
And as you know, it's staggered and certain of the restrictions are for 10 years, others 15, and other things are permanent.
So I think it—that you should—one should acknowledge that—that that's a potential challenge, but you should also acknowledge, and we need to understand that insisting on an indefinite agreement would not have led to an agreement.
There was never any chance that Iran was going to take these very strict restrictions on enrichment and make an agreement that it's—you know, it's different from every other NPT member forever. Because other NPT members can proceed with enrichment programs so long as the IAEA is verifying and so on. Let's say for old (ph) agreements and all the rest.
So I just want—want to be clear, that's not an insignificant concern. But it's also something that if we had made a prerequisite for an agreement, we would have no agreement, and we'd be faced with an Iran potentially moving towards a capability today.
The question was just asked about Congress is another good one. I think you know, Congress, we've heard from a lot of members of Congress already, especially Republican members of Congress who don't support the deal, and I think they are unlikely to change their minds.
So there is a significant chance that Congress will vote against the agreement or you know, more specifically and technically accurate, vote against the provisions that allow the president to spend and waive sanctions, which you know, in effect, is against the agreement. And that the president, as he said in his remarks this morning, will veto such a measure so that it will pass, and the reason and you know, it can get into detail about the different concerns that they have, you know, you've heard them all along, verification won't be enough. So-called sunset clauses is a problem, legitimizing enrichment and so on.
I think knowing that the president can veto will make it easier for some of them to go ahead and vote against it, because they're not actually going to own the responsibility for voting against it. It would be an interesting experiment if there was no veto possible, and under those circumstances, would Congress reject it, knowing that it then wouldn't exist.
But because of the veto, I think there is a decent chance that Congress will actually vote against it, and the president will have to veto that vote, which is you know, unfortunate for such a critical aspect of our strategic policy to be hinging on the absence of an override, but you know, such is the situation.
And you know, also, you know let me be clear, Congress I think has every—should have a role. This is an important agreement, and members of Congress, you know, I hope will read it very carefully and decide whether it's in our interests. But I hope that when doing so, they don't ask "is this agreement perfect," because the answer to that question would be no. But they asked is there a realistic alternative to this agreement that's better, and I think if they ask that question, then they'll support it.
QUESTION: How did they get a veto-proof majority?
GORDON: I missed the beginning of that question, sorry.
QUESTION: What if they get a veto-proof majority?
GORDON: If they get a veto-proof majority, then the president wouldn't have the authorization. You know, Congress passed a lot of the sanctions and then gave the president waiver authority to waive or suspend the sanctions.
Without that, there won't be an agreement. And—and then you know, Iran wouldn't implement its part of the agreement, and you know, we'd have to see what happened under those circumstances. And that's what I mean about actually taking responsibility for the vote, knowing that he can veto it may allow certain members to vote in that direction rather than voting with the understanding that if we reject it or if as you say, they're the veto-proof rejection, then there's no agreement and Iran can go back to spinning, you know, 10,000 centrifuges and you know, enriching to 20 percent, and keeping a stockpile of 10,000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium, and completing a heavy water reactor, and not having inspectors, and all of the benefits for us of the agreement will go away if Congress has a veto-proof majority.
QUESTION: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Marina Whitman with the University of Michigan.
QUESTION: Thank you.
Obviously, this discussion was intended originally to have one person who favored the agreement, and I believe one person who doesn't. And because Ray Takeyh was unable to come, we've had the pro but not the con although we've heard some of the objections that might be made.
I wondered if anybody could briefly summarize what objection—I know Ray has said in the press and so forth why he is not in favor of it, and I wondered if anybody could summarize those arguments even though he can't be there.
GORDON: I'm happy to—I mean, being quite familiar with the arguments...
GORDON: ... tell you what they are. You know, like I said, you know, I've given you my view. You're right, there is an alternative view, which I think I can be fair about and Deborah Amos may want to come in as well, but they mostly consist of the fact that the agreement legitimizes Iran's enrichment program. Critics don't want to see Iran have any enrichment. They're worried that an Iran that is allowed to have even some enrichment will not only leave it potentially on the threshold to build a nuclear weapon, but will lead some of the neighbors to enrich as well, and then everybody is closer to weapons capability.
Critics don't like the sunset provisions or the so-called sunset provisions because they say even if you're right that this is a good agreement for 10 years or 15 years or whatever, once those provisions go away, then Iran can start moving towards the weapons capability and we don't trust it, so you know, any agreement that we accept would have to last much longer or forever.
They don't believe in the verifications provisions, notwithstanding all of the arguments that you know, supporters of the deal make about how these are the most intrusive inspections ever. They worry that they won't be good enough, that Iran has in the past had secret enrichment programs and has sought to cheat, and we can never be confident that it won't do so in this case.
They argue that the explanations on what is called PMD, past military dimensions, or possible military dimensions are not good enough, and that Iran hasn't fully come clean about what it's done before.
And then finally, and again, I'm you know, trying to be fair about the arguments that you hear against it, even though I think each can be rebutted, they very much worry about the geopolitical implications of lifting sanctions on an Iran that is a state supporter of terrorism and an adversary of Israel, and adversary of our friends in the Gulf.
And like I said earlier in response to the question about the Gulf, many of our partners in the region are less focused on the specific nuclear provisions than on the implications of lifting sanctions on Iran because it is a reality that if this deal goes through, Iran will have access to over $100 billion of frozen funds, and will be able to export oil again and make money from that.
And so for many of the critics, it actually has less to do with the specific provisions of this or that nuclear arrangement than just the general concept of an agreement where sanctions are lifted on Iran and Iran can continue with nefarious activities in the region.
So that's—that's what I think critics will focus on. Again, I don't know if Deb wants to add anything to that.
AMOS: No, I think you pretty much covered the waterfront.
Unless anybody else wants to add what the objections will be.
QUESTION: Well one that would just hasn't been touched on is this issue about conventional weapons.
GORDON: So that was on the...
GORDON: The conventional weapons arms embargo issue got a lot of attention in the endgame because it was one of those endgame issues. That's not to say that it wasn't—that we weren't aware of it earlier on. I mean, this didn't just come out of the blue. All along, the Iranians insisted that when sanctions were lifted, that lifting had to include the arms embargo that was put on in 2010 as part of a UN Security Council resolution, because they said it was only put on because of Iran's nuclear activities and if Iran's going to curb those nuclear activities, the arms embargo should be lifted.
The U.S. position, along with some of its partners but not all, critically, was that you know, we don't want to see Iran importing or exporting our arms because of what it's doing in Syria and elsewhere, and Iraq. And it's important to leave it on.
So that was just never resolved all along. It wasn't resolved in Lausanne, and it came up again, and was you know, ultimately one of the biggest sticking points in Vienna, and ended up with a sort of compromise which was that the arms embargo provisions from the security council resolution will remain in place for five years, and the ballistic missile provisions for eight, unless before that time, the IAEA reaches the broader conclusion that Iran has answered all the questions and doesn't have an illicit nuclear program.
So in that sense, it was acknowledged that it was linked to the nuclear issue, and it will go away at some point so long as Iran satisfies and answers all the nuclear questions.
And that was you know, the compromise that emerged from the fact that the Iranians insisted that there be some lifting of this, and key P5+1 partners, notably the Russians and the Chinese, took the Iranian side on that issue and said, you know, there's only an arms embargo because of the nuclear stuff. They do the nuclear stuff, then the arms embargo has to be lifted, and that again takes you back to what we were discussing earlier, about the need to reassure neighbors in the region that there will be a way to contain Iran, even in the day when the arms embargo, the conventional arms embargo has been lifted.
OPERATOR: Again, if you'd like to ask a question, please press star, one now.
Our next question comes from Sangwon Yoon with Bloomberg News.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this.
I was wondering what you think the Iranian hardliners' reaction would be to the deal now that it's finally out? You know, the supreme leader just tweeted, you know, saying thank you to negotiators, which isn't really an explicit endorsement of the agreement.
Do you possibly foresee a lot of pushback considering Iran probably wouldn't be seeing sanctions relief at least for another six months?
GORDON: Yeah, there will definitely be a hardliner pushback in Iran. There are constituencies in Iran that have an interest in not making this happen. And unfortunately, they have, you know, the means to do things that will make everything more complicated, you know, an act of terrorism or something. Indeed, one of the reasons why the administration pushed back against earlier congressional efforts to say the deal is off if there's an act of terrorism is that could have ultimately been an incentive to some of those hardliners to do just that in order to kill the nuclear agreement.
So I'm afraid you know, there will be those in Iran who—who actually share the concern of some of those in the region who think that this could actually lead to a more open Iran, the development of an Iranian business class, a middle class. You know, demands for change within Iran as the economy changes. And so—so there are conservatives and hardliners that you know, want nothing to do with a diplomatic agreement, especially with, you know, the so-called great Satan, United States.
So, we shouldn't only focus on—on the selling, you know, that has to be done in the U.S. and western capitals, but in Tehran they have to do some selling as well. but the difference, as was pointed out earlier, if the supreme leader, you know, they don't exactly have an open democratic debate or congressional result. If the supreme leader decides that it's in Iran's interest, then you can expect him to overcome the hard line resistance to it.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Ching-Yi Chang with the Shanghai Media Group.
Thank you for holding this conference call.
In an article, Business Insider today says the reason why President Obama was pushing hard on reaching the deal is because quote, "if the deal falls apart, it will be immensely difficult to—to maintain the biting level of sanctions of the past decade, especially given these positions of Russia and China," end quote.
So does the U.S. need the—need the—Russia and China in the international affairs more and more right now, and what kind of roles will Russia and China play in this historic deal?
GORDON: Thank you.
One of the interesting things about the whole P5+1 experience was actually how unified they were. And I'm not going to suggest they were absolutely unified, and I just mentioned a case on the arms embargo where there were differences, especially with Russia and China.
But for countries that in some ways you know, on every other issue around the world are at such loggerheads, I mean mainly the U.S. and Russia, and in some different ways, the U.S. and China, on this issue, you know, there was pretty much a unified approach. In Russia and China were partners all along in supporting the pressure on Iran, but also supporting a diplomatic deal. And I think you know one of the concerns of the administration in the endgame was precisely what you raised about keeping sanctions on, if we were to be the ones who walk away.
And I think the same is true, and Congress will have to think about this going forward.
If there's now a deal in place that the international community very much supports, and I think that's clear from what you know leaders have said in Europe and Russia and China, you know, we've already talked about certain Middle Eastern partners. But if there's broad international support for this by the countries that have put sanctions on Iran, and then the U.S. or more precisely, the U.S. Congress says "no, we don't like this agreement," our ability to maintain those sanctions would be quite limited.
They were hard enough to get in the first place. We only got them because we really focused it on a nuclear deal. And under those circumstances, if we're the only ones to walk away from that, or if we were to ask for things like I was saying earlier, that would be you know, extra curricular to the nuclear arrangement, then it would be more difficult to keep those sanctions on. So we got, you know, not just Russia and China, but India and South Korea and Japan and everyone else on board for this because it was designed to stop the Iranian nuclear program, and now they think this does that, and we're unified. But I—I don't think it would be possible to maintain sanctions in the same way if we walk away from the deal now.
QUESTION: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Christopher Wall with Pillsbury Winthrop.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you. I would like to ask a question in relation to the snapback provision, so-called. I mean the president and the negotiating team has placed great emphasis on the ability to put the sanctions back in place if there is Iranian non-compliance. But my quick reading of the sections dealing with (inaudible) resolution, you know, invoke a very complicated arbitration-like procedure with a joint commission and an advisory board and ministry of foreign affairs having the ability to meet, and eventually the UN Security Council, of course, where China and Russia have vetoes.
What is your assessment of whether there is any realistic chance of sanctions ever snapping back, or is that really just a fiction for political purposes to sell the agreement that the administration is putting forward?
GORDON: No, you raised an important issue. And as I, you know, flagged earlier, that was one of the tricky things. But I actually think it came out pretty well. You're right that it's complicated and cumbersome, and it would be preferable obviously from our point of view for a mechanism whereby if you know, if we say there's a violation, then sanctions snap back. And of course we can do that for U.S. sanctions, but at the security council the concern was that it would be subject to consensus or therefore to a Russian veto if there wasn't a mechanism to deal with it.
And there now is a mechanism. You're right that it's not immediate, but the essence of it is that if five of the eight countries that are on the commission of the P5+1 plus Iran plus the European Union agree that there has been a violation, then the sanctions snap back.
And so if you do the numbers, that means that even Iran, Russia, and China can't block snapback of sanctions if there's a violation.
So that's pretty solid. It's not foolproof, and it's not as good as the U.S. deciding it alone. But Iran was never going to agree to an outcome or Russia for that matter, where sanctions are lifted, but if the U.S. just decides whenever it wants that UN Security Council sanctions go back on, it can do that. That would be you know, Iran would be then taking a bunch of nuclear steps and going down this road with no assurance that sanctions would actually stay off.
So negotiators batted around a whole lot of complicated alternatives. And the one that came out is again, I think solid because I do think if there's a genuine violation, the U.S. can count on you know, its British and French and other European partners. And in terms of the timing, yes it would take a little bit of time to work through you know, these—the advisory committee and the joint commission, but that—that is also inevitable. You know, again, you're not going to have a situation, I don't think anywhere, where you have a suspicion or a—an alleged violation of an arms control agreement, and then one country can just say, the next day international sanctions come back into place.
So, it's not perfect, but I—it's far better than we've ever had before. And that's a key point here, is that the problem with, you know, one of the good things about this agreement is that on the verification aspect, Iran is committed to implementing from day one and then signing and ratifying forever the so-called additional protocol of the IAEA that does allow inspectors to go where they feel they need to go.
That's a major breakthrough, and one of the most important things about the agreement, and it lasts forever.
The only problem with that is that the additional protocol doesn't have a dispute resolution mechanism, that what happens now is the IAEA will say we want to go to that. We have questions, we want to go and check it out. The country says well here are the answers. We're good here. And the IAEA says no we don't agree, and then it just sits there.
In this agreement now, there's actually this mechanism which may be a bit cumbersome, but at least gets to you where you need to go, which is basically if the IAEA isn't satisfied, then ultimately, sanctions will be put back in place in Iran, and Iran has to answer the questions to international satisfaction to avoid that.
So it's actually a conceptual breakthrough compared to what we've had in the past.
QUESTION: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Inga Czerny with PAP [Polish Press Agency].
QUESTION: Thank you. Inga Czerny from Polish press. I would like to ask how is it it would be do you think for the new U.S. president, if it's Republican, to withdraw the U.S. from the agreement, if as you said for example, you were (inaudible) still stay a part of the agreement? Thank you.
GORDON: It is imminently possible. And you know, the next U.S. president can do whatever he or she wants so you know, according to the Constitution, with an agreement like this.
But I also think it's unlikely. Because if this—if it's not implemented, then all bets are off, and I think you know, even President Obama would—would—if Iran doesn't uphold its end of the bargain, you know, not support sanctions relief on our end of the bargain.
But if Iran is doing what it has agreed to do and what the IAEA will have to verify that it is doing, then the next president would have to, you know, inherit a situation in which Iran is or by then will have already gotten rid of the—the core of the heavy water reactor at Arak, reduced from 19,000 centrifuges to 5,000 operating, in total 6,000, reduced its stockpile from over 10 kilograms of low-enriched uranium to 300—sorry, 10,000 to 300. Gotten rid of 20 percent enriched uranium.
All of these things, the new president would have to come in and say "all right, well this deal is off." Opening us up to Iran starting again to do all of those things. And that just seems to me unlikely that a president would choose to do that and then to invite, you know, this potentially crisis situation where Iran is then again advancing towards a nuclear weapons capability.
So you'll hear lots of grumbling. I suspect you'll hear the Republican presidential candidates, you know, be sharply critical of the agreement. But that's a different thing from actually becoming president and abolishing something that has you know, physically and visibly limited the Iranian nuclear program.
QUESTION: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Richard Zawaya with the National Foreign Trade Council.
QUESTION: Mr. Gordon, can you clarify one aspect of this, which is U.S. sanctions? As I understand it, the U.S. sanctions will by no means be lifted as part of this agreement. Only those that apply to the nuclear issue will be—the primary embargo on U.S. companies predates the nuclear issue by years. Am I correct?
GORDON: Yes, you are correct.
The U.S. is agreeing to lift the nuclear-related sanctions that it has put in, and the secondary sanctions that go along with it. But the primary U.S. sanctions on Iran have been in place for a long time, as have sanctions related to terrorism and human rights. And the U.S. made clear from the start that those will remain in place.
QUESTION: Thank you.
OPERATOR: We will now turn the call over to Deborah Amos.
AMOS: We are just about out of time, 3:26. I'm assuming we have no more questions.
Phil, you want to just wrap up for us what we're going to see over the next couple of days, and anything that we should be watching out for, so that we would know that this deal is in trouble or just anything that strikes you that you are going to be watching for in the next couple of days?
GORDON: Yeah, I think you know, all eyes are—are on Congress, probably appropriately, because you know, I mentioned some of the other things that have to. The Iranians have now agreed to this text, and I doubt for all the hustle and bustle you'll hear in Iran, that they're going to walk away from it or you know like the Majlis is going to veto it or something.
The UN Security Council, you know, it's our sense that it will have widespread support at the Security Council.
So then, you know, in terms of whether this goes ahead, the biggest question is what the U.S. Congress is going to do, because nothing will take place until Congress has its 60 days to review it, and then has a vote, doesn't have to have a vote, but it can choose to have a vote.
So, I think that will be where people are you know, most appropriately focusing. In the region, again, as we said at the very beginning, you're hearing pretty predictable reactions, but nothing that really is going to stand in the way from this moving forward.
You'll have a whole process playing out. Someone mentioned Secretary Carter's visit to the region, and that there be dialog with the countries in the region about how to contain Iran and what the deal means and all that. But nothing that's really going to stand in the way.
So I think the biggest variable now is the domestic and congressional debate that we'll have over the next 60 days. And like I said, you know, that's entirely appropriate. This is a big deal. It's not perfect. There are risks involved, as you would imagine for this sort of thing.
And Congress should absolutely have hearings. The public should digest and understand what's going on. I'm personally confident that if they do that, they will conclude that this really is in the U.S. interest. But you know, they'll do their—their duty and—and ultimately reach their own judgment.
AMOS: Thank you.
And thanks everyone, for being on the call.
This is an on the record briefing, and I thank you all, and have a good afternoon.
GORDON: Yeah, thanks everyone for joining. Bye.