(L to R) Robin Wright (via videolink), Karim Sadjadpour, Kevin Rudd, and Frank G. Wisner discuss the Iran nuclear deal on July 22 at Asia Society New York. (1 hr., 34 min.)
The landmark deal between Iran, the U.S., and several European nations will face political and technical trouble in both Washington and Tehran, a panel of experts said Wednesday at Asia Society in New York, though the panelists said the agreement deserved support, and even celebration.
Former U.S. ambassador, under secretary of state, and under secretary of defense Frank G. Wisner called the deal “a huge tribute” to President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, coming at a moment when American influence in the world has been broadly questioned. The agreement, Wisner said, is “virtually unprecedented” in the history of global nuclear negotiations, for its provisions to limit stockpiles, shrink facilities, and open Iranian sites to international inspections “the likes of which the world has never designed.”
Journalist Robin Wright, a United States Institute of Peace senior fellow, was more tempered in her view of the deal, though she stressed its longer-term implications for the U.S.-Iran relationship.
“This deal was designed to be purely transactional,” Wright said, focused only on the nuclear issue. “But what has happened is that these two countries have learned to deal with each other.”
Asia Society Policy Institute President Kevin Rudd moderated the conversation, with Wright, Wisner, and Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In his opening remarks, Rudd invoked next month’s 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings to recall the enormous stakes involved in limiting nuclear proliferation. He also reminded the audience that the Asia Society had helped facilitate early, back-channel talks between the U.S. and Iran long before the official negotiations began.
“We’re in the business of professional bridge-building,” Rudd said. “Others are in the business of blowing them up.”
The Iran deal continues to provoke debate on many fronts. In a spirited, wide-ranging discussion, the Asia Society panel covered the subject from several angles — the behind-the-scenes drama in the final weeks of negotiations (Wright said the talks had reached “crisis point” on five separate occasions); the likelihood of Iranian compliance (unclear); the chances for approval by the U.S. congress (good, but not at all guaranteed) and Iran's majlis (very good, though debate will be spirited); the implications for the region — Israel and Saudi Arabia in particular — and for the U.S.-Iran relationship in the longer term.
One question involved the financial support Iran stands to gain if its compliance is confirmed, and long-standing economic sanctions lifted. Are such economic windfalls likely to go to good or nefarious ends? Iran needs roughly $1 trillion in infrastructure and other domestic spending, Wright said, adding that the government will surely address those needs. “Does that mean they won’t use any new money for mischief [in the region]?,” she then asked. That, she and the panelists agreed, was impossible to know at this stage. To a question about Iran’s hardline revolutionary guards and their post-deal plans, Wright quipped, the head of the guards “doesn’t confess to me,” and Sadjadpour added, “he doesn’t go to Davos (home of the World Economic Forum). He goes to Damascus, and Tikrit.”
Wright said Iran's revolution was in a "midlife crisis," with its once energetic clerics aging, and Iran now home to one of the world’s most youthful populations, largely friendly to the U.S. and uninterested in the dogma that was ushered in when Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers drove the shah of Iran from power in 1979. “You have a generation gap but also an ideology gap,” Wright said. Added Sadjadpour: "There’s a saying, ‘The average age of the clerics is deceased.'"
Wright, who has been traveling to Iran as a journalist for more than 20 years, spoke of a recent visit to high-tech businesses in Tehran that she believes hold great promise for the nation’s economy and perhaps a more moderate and Western-facing attitude. “Debate in Iran today is not about creating an Islamic state,” Wright said. “It’s about harnessing technology to improve the society.”
The Asia Society was a fitting venue for the conversation. Its former President Nicholas Platt (who attended the event) had opened private channels of cultural and political conversations with Iranians in the 1990s; a decade later, the Society's policy team convened private dialogues between Iranian officials and former U.S. diplomats to explore possible avenues for compromise on the nuclear front. Ambassador Wisner had been a participant in those backchannel talks, though he recalled how unlikely any breakthroughs had seemed, particularly during the tenure of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
After the more moderate Hassan Rouhani won the 2013 presidential vote, he was interviewed by Asia Society President Josette Sheeran at a public event in New York; that same day, Iran's Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry held the first high-level talks between the two nations in more than three decades.
Sadjadpour noted that a decade ago in Tehran, “you could go to prison for just advocating dialogue with the U.S. Today (Foreign Minister) Zarif has probably spent more time with John Kerry than any foreign official.”
In the video below, Robin Wright explains how Iran's nuclear deal is "a microcosm of the broader transition" the country faces, as the aging "generation of radicals" loses ground politically to a younger, more cosmopolitan and moderate generation. (4 min., 28 sec.)