Iran Won the Vienna Accords By Agreeing to Stop What It Never Was Doing

Iran has won the diplomatic struggle over its nuclear program in Vienna. Its success was not due to United States negotiators’ fecklessness as Republican critics and Prime Minister Netanyahu have been quick to assert. Iran was able to win because it was very easy for it to bluff, by giving up activities in which it had never engaged and never intended to engage.

On the other side of the negotiating table, the United States had already abandoned its Bush-era goal of effecting regime change in Iran, making its negotiating position considerably weaker. Moreover, the talks were tightly constrained by the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which guaranteed Iran and all other 190 signatories to the treaty the “inalienable right” to peaceful nuclear development, providing this development is carried out for peaceful purposes.

Many lies have been told about the Iranian nuclear program that have made the negotiations difficult:

1. Iran’s nuclear program was carried out in secret. In fact, the program is more than 40 years old and was instigated by the United States. The United States provided Iran with its first research reactor.

2. Iran had or has or will have a nuclear weapons program. There is no evidence anywhere that such a program exists or ever existed as verified by the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Iran’s leaders have regularly denounced nuclear weapons as un-Islamic.

3. Enrichment of uranium was tantamount to a nuclear weapons program. In fact, there are nineteen other non-nuclear weapons’ signatories to the NPT enrich uranium just as Iran is doing. Several of these uranium enriching nations had or have stated that they might have a nuclear weapons program in the future. None of them have ever been targeted by the United States or other nuclear weapons’ states, cementing Iran’s contention that they were being specially targeted not for their nuclear activities, but just because they were “Iran.” Given the Bush-era declaration that the United States wanted regime change in Iran and was using the nuclear weapons issue to garner American public support, this was highly plausible.

4. Iran might plan some kind of clandestine program to “race” to a bomb. This fantasy never seems to die. The fact is that Iran has no infrastructure to weaponized fissile material, produce a bomb or develop a delivery system for such a bomb. It has taken Iran years to produce enough low-enriched uranium (less than 5%) to produce even one bomb. That uranium would have to be enriched to a 95% level and even if Iran could somehow construct a bomb in short order, it would have to be tested, and then there would be no bomb. Additionally, any such activity would be immediately detected by IAEA inspectors.

The talks were further inhibited by people who insisted on attaching all kinds of extraneous issues that fell outside of the purview of the talks. Chief among these was an embargo on conventional arms sales to Iran, which had nothing to do with the nuclear question. Other issues included some kind of guarantee of release of political prisoners, recognition of Israel and withdrawal of support for the Assad regime in Syria—all utterly irrelevant to the talks themselves. No matter what Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, Lindsay Graham or Prime Minister Netanyahu said, these issues were off the table completely.

Iran thus had an enormous space in which to negotiate. It was already guaranteed to have its nuclear program preserved by virtue of the NPT. The idea of dismantling its nuclear capacity completely would have impacted all the other NPT signatories and created havoc in the world of arms control.

It was also easy for Iran to give up a nuclear weapons program that never existed, and that it never intended to implement. As a bargaining position this is unassailable as your counterpart at the table insists and insists on something that has no value, it is possible to use giving way on such an empty demand to extract other concessions. Such a move is in effect a bluff, and the United States, saddled by the Bush-era assertion that Iran was building a bomb, could never backtrack on this without extreme embarrassment.

On the Iranian side, the Tehran leadership has benefitted considerably over the years from enmity with the United States. Every failure in economic and social policy has been blamed on the United States, and official hostility toward the United States has shored up those in power for decades. Giving up this domestic political advantage was going to be very difficult, but it could be done if the population could be brought to see the accords as a sacrifice. This was another bluff, but a bluff directed at the Iranian public. Jubilation in the streets in Iran shows that this was a very good move. By giving up their advantage in attacking the United States, Iran’s leader actually increased their popularity.

The sanctions actually helped Iran in many ways. Far from being “crippling,” they forced Iran to become self-reliant in nearly every conventional industrial and commercial activity as well as agriculture. To be sure, Iran could not have lived under the sanctions indefinitely. The lack of access to the international banking system was debilitating, but there is no question that Iran’s internal economy was strong enough to continue for many years under these restrictions. Iran’s GDP growth as measured by the IMF and the World Bank was 3% last year, and its poverty rate was lower than the United States.

I recently returned on June 21 from a three-week trip throughout Iran and the incredible development of industrial infrastructure there as well as the plentiful agricultural supplies were evident everywhere.’

Thousands of foreign investors were ubiquitous even in provincial towns salivating at the opportunities that would emerge at a successful conclusion of the accords. One German industrialist said: “I had no idea how rich and developed Iran was. We will not have to build anything here. We just want to expand the industrial activities that already exist and increase marketing efforts. We will all make a great deal of money.”

Not well known is the fact that Iran has now become nearly self-sufficient in conventional arms manufacture. In fact, Iran is an arms exporter. In the final Vienna accords, a bargain was struck to maintain an embargo on conventional arms trade. This was another bluff. Iran doesn’t really need to import much in the way of arms, but by putting up a big show of resistance, the negotiators created a bargaining chip that really didn’t exist.

The United States would have done better had it actually known something about Iran, or had become realistic about its hyped-up rhetoric about the danger of Iran’s nuclear program before heading into these negotiations. The Bush-era sanctions against Iran created a false crisis and an utterly unnecessary sanctions regime. The resolution of this situation will certainly be good for the world, but Americans should be clear that this was a crisis of our own making, and most of the energy our negotiating team expended in the last 18 months was directed at saving face and backtracking from the mistakes of the Bush-era hyped-up crisis that never really existed.

William O. Beeman is a Professor, Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. During 2013-2014 he will be a Visiting Scholar at the Department of Anthropology, Stanford University. Read other articles by William, or visit William's website.