Now we see the benefits of U.S. diplomacy with Iran

Story highlights

  • Mohsen Milani: Iran nuclear talks paved the way for a direct channel of communication
  • Direct channel helped free prisoners, avert a confrontation over U.S. sailors

Mohsen M. Milani is executive director of the Center for Strategic & Diplomatic Studies and a professor of government and international affairs at the University of South Florida. Follow him on Twitter @mohsenmilani. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Nothing summarizes the high drama of last week between Iran and the United States more aptly and vividly than these words: "It's the diplomacy, stupid."

The big lessons of the eventful week are that diplomacy with Iran works and the model of negotiations established to resolve an incredibly complex and dangerous nuclear impasse with Iran can and must be extended to address the major crises in the Middle East, including the bloody Syrian civil war and the fight against ISIS and other violent Jihadi extremists.
The week started when Iran's Revolutionary Guards detained 11 U.S. Navy sailors whose two boats had somehow drifted into Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf. That incident was quickly resolved and the sailors and their boats safely returned to their base. The Pentagon has yet to fully explain how the two boats drifted into Iranian waters.
Moreover, the indefensible release by Iran of the videotape of the arrest and detention of the sailors was in bad taste and a blatant violation of international norms. But these issues were not the big story.
The big story was that in less than 24 hours, an incident that could have easily escalated to become an international crisis in the volatile oil-rich Persian Gulf was effectively defused by the seasoned diplomats of the two countries. In fact, it was direct telephone calls between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif that peacefully resolved that incident. That direct line of communication between Tehran and Washington is one of the many auspicious byproducts of the nuclear deal with Iran.

A new line of communication

In the past 14 months, a new line of communication was also established between the two countries that included their security and intelligence officers, who successfully negotiated a prisoner swap between Iran and the United States.
That channel operated in parallel to, but somewhat independent of, the multilateral nuclear talks between Iran and six global powers, which included the United States.
As a result of the secret negotiations, Iran released four Iranian-Americans, including Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, and one American prisoner who, as Secretary Kerry said, were unjustly incarcerated. The U.S. reciprocated and pledged to release seven Iranians charged with violating American sanctions laws against Iran. The 12 prisoners would not have been released at that time without there having been open doors of communication between the two countries.
The Persian Gulf incident and the prisoner swap, however, will be remembered as no more than a short footnote to the historic nuclear deal between Iran and the six global powers whose implementation phase began Sunday.
The landmark deal, painfully negotiated for two years, has averted a potentially devastating war between Iran and the United States, has dismantled the key components of Iran's nuclear program, closing all paths for that country to build a bomb, and opened the way for Iran's reintegration into the global order. The deal, if fully implemented, can transform the Middle East in the coming decade. President Obama has not received enough credit for resolving the Iranian nuclear impasse, which his predecessors failed to do. All of this was achieved without any violence, without a single shot, without anyone getting killed, and without the treasuries of the two countries being drained. Such is the irresistible power of diplomacy when negotiators are able to find common ground to resolve complex issues.
Only a few years ago, some pundits and naysayers were beating the deafening drums of war by insisting that diplomacy will not work with Iran because its "messianic" Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is hell-bent on making Iran a nuclear power and will never negotiate with the United States.
Once the deal was struck, the same pundits and cynics warned that Iran will cheat and will not comply with its obligations. This week proved them wrong again, as the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Iran has complied with all of its obligations under the new nuclear deal that was struck six months ago.
With that announcement, the nuclear-related international sanctions, including those imposed by the United States and the European Union, were lifted and Iran's frozen assets, estimated to be about $100 billion, were released.

U.S. needs long-term Iran strategy

We now have entered into a new chapter in U.S.-Iran relations because both countries, whether they like it or not, will have to work together, at least for the next decade, to implement the deal. Washington, therefore, has to develop a long-term strategy toward Iran.
Unfortunately, Iran's nuclear deal has become even more politicized in this season of presidential elections when candidates have to satisfy their political bases and their campaign donors.
There are those who insist that Iran has given no concessions and has gotten everything it wanted. So let's set the record straight with facts that have been verified by the IAEA. As one of the few countries that had mastered enriching uranium at 20%, Iran has agreed to stop that activity and has eliminated its stockpile.
Iran has shipped to Russia some 25,000 pounds of its low-enriched uranium. This leaves Iran with only 2% of its stockpile, significantly less than would be required to build a bomb. Iran has also agreed to operate only two-thirds of its centrifuges.
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It has removed the core from its plutonium reactor and has filled it with concrete. It has agreed not to enrich uranium at the highly fortified, underground Fordow nuclear facility. Finally, Iran has agreed to the most intrusive and advanced monitoring of all its nuclear activities by the IAEA. In the words of Ali Vaez, a talented senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, the nuclear deal "will turn Iran from the most sanctioned state to the country with the most monitored nuclear program in the world."
Is this a perfect arms control deal? No, it is not. Does it have flaws? Yes, it does. But it is the best attainable outcome with the least costs. Moreover, those who oppose the deal have yet to offer a realistic alternative to it, except going to war with Iran.
There are also those who support the deal but are now pushing for new sanctions against Iran, something all opponents of the nuclear deal would enthusiastically welcome. The Obama administration succumbed to this pressure. One day after the implementation phase of the nuclear deal began, it imposed new, albeit very limited, sanctions on Iran for its recent ballistic missile testing. There will be more demands on the White House in the coming months to impose additional sanctions and contain Iran.

More new sanctions?

More new sanctions in this early implementation phase would be counterproductive and would empower the most radical elements of Iran's political system who have vociferously opposed the nuclear deal and believe Iran has totally capitulated to the West. Moreover, any new sanctions will push Iran even closer to Russia and China and make it easier for European companies to dominate Iran's lucrative markets.
What is needed now is confidence building and a detente between the two countries, not new sanctions and new threats. This, in turn, would require strategic patience and recognition that 38 years of mutual mistrust and animosity will not end in a few years. After all, there are powerful forces inside Iran, in the Middle East, and in the United States that enormously benefit from keeping Iran and the U.S. in a perpetual state of hostility.
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Iran and the U.S. are unlikely to become friends immediately, but if the two countries begin to work together where their interests converge and build the mechanism to resolve their differences, they can slowly move in that direction. We must give time to those in Iran who have supported the nuclear deal to strengthen their positions and make the appropriate changes in Iran's regional policies.
The United States can use the same multilateral model it used in reaching a nuclear deal with Iran to resolve the major conflicts in the Middle East. Inviting Iran to participate in the Syrian peace negotiations was a necessary first step in that direction. Iran is also a sworn and effective enemy of ISIS, a movement the West now considers to be among the greatest threats to global stability. The creative approaches for bilateral cooperation to fight ISIS are limitless.
At a time when civil wars, failed states, and violent extremists have destabilized most of the Middle East, cooperation between Iran -- one of the most stable countries there -- and the United States is essential for peace in that traumatized region of the world.