This Is Bigger Than a Nuclear Deal

The agreement with the Islamic Republic isn't just a diplomatic milestone—it symbolizes an unprecedented era in U.S.-Iran relations.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif after a ceremony at the United Nations in Geneva on November 24. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

We have a deal.

After several setbacks, negotiators in Geneva have reached a historic agreement that will place restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program in exchange for easing some of the sanctions arrayed against the country. In the early hours of Sunday morning in Switzerland, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif broke the news in a tweet:

The details are still coming into focus, but here are the basics: Iran will stop enriching uranium beyond the 5-percent level (nuclear power plants typically run on 3.5 percent-enriched uranium), refrain from installing new centrifuges for uranium enrichment, and dilute or convert to oxide its stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium (a level that allows Iran to quickly enrich uranium to the weapons-grade threshold of 90 percent). It will also refrain from producing fuel for or operating its heavy-water reactor near the city of Arak, which experts believe could produce weapons-grade plutonium. International monitors will be granted expanded access to Iran's nuclear facilities.

In response, world powers will offer Iran billions of dollars in sanctions relief. Critically, the accord appears to be ambiguous on Iran’s right to enrich uranium—a key sticking point in the talks—with Iran and the United States interpreting the text in different ways.

It’s a big deal, though best seen as a temporary, brittle one designed to buy the parties six months to hammer out a longer-term—and far trickier—agreement.

But what’s arguably a bigger deal, and what’s been overshadowed in all the coverage of the haggling over this interim pact, is just how momentous these last several months have been for U.S.-Iranian relations. Since Iranian President Hassan Rouhani took office this summer, the two countries have engaged in the highest-level talks since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, first through a meeting between Zarif and Secretary of State John Kerry, and then through a phone call between Rouhani and President Obama (the two had previously exchanged letters). Zarif has also pioneered a new approach to speaking directly to the American people, turning to social-media outlets like Twitter and YouTube to defend, in English, Iran’s positions at the Geneva negotiations.

The way the news cycle works these days, we take it for granted that Kerry is now in Geneva celebrating a diplomatic breakthrough with Zarif. But the frenzied diplomacy this fall has truly been exceptional. As the Ploughshares Fund’s Joe Cirincione remarked after nuclear talks collapsed earlier this month, Kerry and Zarif “spent more time [together] in the last 24 hours than they have in 34 years.”

Nothing drives this point home more than David Crist’s The Twilight War, which chronicles America’s failures, over three decades, to communicate with Iran—and the grave risks this state of affairs has posed for war by miscalculation. “With no diplomatic ties and only occasional meetings in dark corners of hotel bars and through shadowy intermediaries, neither side has an accurate view of the other,” Crist, a Pentagon historian, wrote. In other words, we’ve been living through another cold war—but one without a proverbial “red phone.”

The nadir in this “twilight war,” at least symbolically, came on a Monday evening in February 1990, when President George H.W. Bush, desperate to free American hostages in Lebanon, spoke for 29 minutes on the phone with a man he believed to be then-Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani. Only later did Bush learn that the person on the other end of the line was an Iranian who opposed Rafsanjani’s outreach to the United States and wanted to embarrass the Iranian leader. The lines of communications between the two countries were so frayed that the president of the United States fell for a prank call.

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Uri Friedman is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Global Channel. He was previously the deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy.

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