Just two years ago, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was still the president of Iran. His crude manner and belligerent obstinacy inspired threats from the West—from Congress and from its allies in Israel’s right-wing government. A few years before, a massive Atlantic cover story had declared a 50-50 chance of war. It seemed all but assured that the probability of such a confrontation, universally regarded as a disastrous proposition by anyone who didn’t have an ideological commitment to it, could only increase. Those were dark days.
Twenty-five months ago, Iranians went to the polls and elected a mullah—from among the much demonized Iranian mullahs—as president. The man at the pinnacle of power in Iran, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, would remain firmly in place, but Hassan Rouhani’s win signaled flexibility nonetheless. The bellicose Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took to the American airwaves to deride Rouhani’s “smile.” The remark was not without irony: Ahmadinejad smiled a lot himself, but his grins were those of a mischievous child, the needling of authority that came after a misdeed. That Netanyahu didn’t recognize the smiling precedent and the distinction with a difference that Rouhani represented spoke ill of his interpretation of events. Both smiled, but the new Iranian president was clearly of another breed.
By August 2013, Rouhani was in power; by September, he was on the phone with Barack Obama, the first such contact between the heads of Iran and the US since Jimmy Carter rang up the last Shah; in November, an interim deal was signed between Iran and world powers. These small rays of light shone through the ominous clouds that had hung over the Iranian nuclear crisis for a dozen years.
This morning, daybreak came before dawn on the East Coast. Negotiators from the so-called P5+1—the US, China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom along with Germany—and Iran announced a historic comprehensive nuclear deal. The 20 months of negotiations were a long haul: There were extensions, blown deadlines, and attempts to scuttle the deal by Congress and Iran’s hardliners. But the talks finally culminated in a marathon session of 27 days in Vienna, blowing through another few deadlines and finally ending with this morning’s announcement.
The accord places long-term curbs on Iran’s nuclear progress, even rolling back its past progress in key areas like enrichment capabilities and fissile material stockpiles, and imposes the most stringent negotiated inspections regime in the history of the world. The life of the restrictions and intensified inspections vary according to the specifics—the toughest limitations will be in force for at least 10 years, some for 15; some of the new verification measures will hold for 25 years and a few are permanent. In exchange, the Iranians get relief from the sanctions that have bitten its economy.