Early Tuesday morning, news emerged that the US, along with five other countries, has finally brokered a long-awaited nuclear deal with Iran. Already, commentators are hailing this agreement as the biggest diplomatic win of President Barack Obama's presidency, and given Iran's significance in pretty much every Middle Eastern kerfuffle in which the US is currently mired, that assessment doesn't seem too far off. Obama himself wasted no time in claiming that the deal would basically put an end to nuclear proliferation in the region, guaranteeing that Iran won't develop a nuclear bomb for at least another decade.
For most casual observers, keeping up with the complexities of the deal – which has been in the works for 20 months – has been a real pain. Iran's nuclear program has been an issue since the 1970s, even before the rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, and the current nuclear program has been a subject of on-and-off negotiations for about a dozen years. The deal announced today has been the subject of protracted horse-wrangling, culminating in an 18-day slugfest of talks in Vienna, where leaders of the seven countries involved hashed out minute details and technicalities of nuclear development and sanctions. The end result is a 159-page document that few have had time to parse. So for people out there who'd like to know what the fuss is about, but don't feel like wading through a mountain of documents and think pieces, I've put together a little primer.What Everyone Was So Worried About in the First Place:Western officials suspected have long suspected that the Islamic Republic of Iran has been trying to develop a nuke, and Iran's long, gruelling conflict with Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the 1980s led many to assume leaders in Tehran would seek an ace-in-the-hole weapon.But the current situation really began in 2002, when evidence of the state's nuclear program was revealed to the public. Although by 2003 Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, had officially denied that the country's nuclear research was aimed at weaponisation, many suspected that the scale of Iran's uranium enrichment exceeded the amount needed for nuclear power generation.
This news triggered a backlash against Iran from the international community – for instance, a series of UN resolutions put the kibosh on most arms exports and imports to the country, banned trafficking nuclear technology to Iran, and froze the assets of key businesses and individuals affiliated with the nuclear program. Individual nations also levelled sanctions at Iran, and America led the way, eventually effectively closing all trade with Iran save for humanitarian aid and a few sectors like agricultural or medical technology.Yet for all this pressure, as of 2013 American officials admitted that they hadn't seen much give from Tehran on its nuclear ambitions. A spokesperson for the US Treasury Department argued that year that Iran's election of the relatively moderate ex-nuclear negotiator Hassan Rouhani as president was a result of America's economic squeeze. Still, hope that sanctions would push Iran to abandon its nuclear plans was dimming – as were prospects for any meaningful negotiations .So What Changed?Not long after Rouhani's election, negotiations got a huge shot in the arm when a new round of talks resulted in a Joint Action Plan in November 2013, setting up a pattern of good-faith nuclear program reductions in Iran in exchange for sanctions relief from the West. By the start of 2014, Iran had agreed to lower its uranium enrichment, begin diluting its stockpiles, and open up to letting in UN nuclear watchdogs in exchange for billions in sanctions relief and unfrozen assets.
What America Wanted Out of a DealIdeally, the US would have liked to prevent Iran from ever developing a nuclear bomb. Barring that, US leaders wanted to break Iran's ability to weaponise uranium in the immediate future, giving Western nations time and leverage to move further along the anti-proliferation road.What Iran WantedPretty much everyone in Iran recognises that something has to be done to end the sanctions. Between 2011 and 2013, the state's oil exports fell from 2.2 million to 700,000 barrels per day , leading to billions of dollars in economic losses per month. A lack of access to international markets and banking have massively inflated the currency, increasing the cost of basic goods .So naturally, Iran's key concern has been ensuring the lifting of all sanctions. Some officials have voiced a hope that an agreement could be fully implemented by December, leading to a windfall of up to $200 billion in income for the nation's energy sector alone over the next six years. Yet while Iranians are gung-ho to see their economy open to the world, they're also still eager to see some kind of recognition of the legitimacy of their country's nuclear energy program – to maintain some status as a nation with respectable aims and its own agency even if it makes concessions.What Other Countries WantedWhile America and Iran were the key players in these recent negotiations, it's important not to forget that the rest of the world had their own goals as well. And for many states, the prospect of reducing global oil prices by gaining access to Iranian crude and opening up a massive new market for investment and exports made a deal extremely alluring. Former major Iranian trading partners like the UK and Germany had openly expressed the idea that sanctions might unravel anyway if negotiations weren't successful.
Why Everyone Was Still Biting Their Nails Until This WeekBy early April, negotiations with Iran yielded a historic initial framework for curbing Iran's nuclear program. Iran provisionally agreed to limit its nuclear program and open itself up to greater UN monitoring. In turn, the Obama administration started talking openly about how and how soon it could lift sanctions on Iran. Just before the last round of talks began, Secretary of State John Kerry seemed open to meeting Iran halfway and easing some restrictions on the nation almost as soon as the deal was a go, rather than waiting for full evidence of implementation from nuclear watchdogs.Yet as the last round of talks started in Vienna on June 26, many still worried about details like the exact regime of monitoring and the speed and sequencing of sanctions relief hadn't been hammered out. Especially when the issue of arms embargoes, conspicuously muted in previous discussions, reportedly started to resurface as a major bone of contention in negotiations, some prepared for bad news.Finally, We Got a DealBut yesterday, the world finally saw a deal that both American and Iranian negotiators consented to.Iran will cap its enrichment and stockpiling for 15 years, reduce its centrifuges over the next decade, ship spent fuel out of the country, and repurpose the Arak reactor, putting a hold on new reactors for 15 years. Iran also agreed to grant unprecedented access to UN inspectors – basically in perpetuity, but with heightened scrutiny on elements of its nuclear operations for 25 years. It will also limit nuclear research for eight years and hold off on any nuclear weapons–related research indefinitely.
In return, the other negotiating powers agreed to start scaling back sanctions as this plan was implemented. America even managed to strike a deal on arms, restricting conventional weapons shipments for five years and ballistic missiles for eight years at least. It's not as rapid a shift as Iran might have hoped for, nor as complete a dismantling of Iranian nuclear capabilities as Americans might have wished. But for both sides, it's possibly the most rational middle ground we could have hoped for.
How Folks Around the World Are ReactingAs you might imagine, reactions to the deal have been mixed. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has slammed the deal as a historic blunder that will enable Iran to do even more to fund proxy conflicts in the region and pursue its ultimate sinister ambitions unabated. Most Republicans in America seem to share his broad sentiments. House Speaker John Boehner, for one, has started to spin the agreement as an endorsement of state-sponsored terrorism, a sign of American weakness, and a failure to achieve our true goal of a surefire end to any future Iranian bomb. (Congress will have 60 days to approve or reject the deal, or do nothing, but Obama will be able to veto a rejection.) 2016 presidential GOP hopefuls have already taken up Boehner's cry as a major new talking point, and will continue to badmouth the deal for months to come.Why This Is Still a Pretty Damn Important DevelopmentRemoving a source of conflict between Iran and the West and opening up travel and trade will likely radically alter dialogue between all the nations involved. That's especially true given that, once sanctions unravel, it'll be very hard to ratchet them back up , meaning that this opening is a somewhat permanent development. So long as the deal can reach the first stage of implementation, we're looking at a major rewriting of the calculus of the global energy market, Middle Eastern affairs, and Iranian-Western diplomacy. Whoever you think emerged as the "winner" of these negotiations, it's inarguable that we just saw history being made.Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.
On VICE News: Critics Say Nuclear Deal Will 'Fuel Iran's Terrorism'