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doug saunders

On the surface, little has changed: Iran will not stop enriching uranium. The world will not stop applying sanctions to Iran. Iran and Israel have not become anything less than hostile to one another. Iran remains an authoritarian theocracy.

But the diplomatic accord reached early Sunday morning between Iran and the West is about far more than its relatively limited contents. The deal itself (which only applies for six months) is in some ways the least important factor in this new relationship. Here are four reasons why this new diplomatic reality matters:

1. It normalizes relations between Iran and the wider world: At 03:00 on Sunday morning, what had previously been a simmering conflict between non-communicating parties that threatened to erupt into all-out war was transformed into a more or less normal diplomatic relationship, open to bargaining, deal-making and tradeoffs between competing national interests. That doesn't mean all its outcomes will be good, or that even its basic goals will be attained – but it means that negotiations can work, and that they, rather than armed standoffs, will be the preferred way of dealing with the biggest problem in the Middle East.

"It is a major seismic shift in the region," Vali Nasr, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told the New York Times. "It rearranges the entire chess board."

While Iran will remain a volatile theocracy (albeit one with an increasingly liberal population), its role in the world could be changed by having normal diplomatic relations with the West: Iran could play a major role in stabilizing Afghanistan, it could help bring some resolution to the civil war in Syria (where it has backed president Bashar al-Assad and his forces), and it could moderate the positions of the Palestinians (whose Hamas party is Tehran-backed). Or it could reject all three. Nevertheless, an international order based on cynical horse-trading is infinitely superior to one based on armed threats and total defiance.

2. Iran has committed to important goals, with important incentives: What Iran has agreed to do is not trivial: It has agreed to stop enriching uranium to the 20 per cent level (which is still a civilian electrical-generating grade of uranium, but is easier to enrich further to the 90 per cent level needed for military uses), and to convert its existing stock of 20 per cent uranium back into 3.5 per cent reactor-fuel rods. It will suspend the construction of the Arak heavy-water reactor, which is capable of producing plutonium. It has agreed to daily inspections of its facilities.

In other words, Iran has agreed to become a normal nation under the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty. Yes, this still means that Iran could produce a nuclear weapon within a couple years (U.S. intelligence agencies agree that Iran has not had an active nuclear-weapons program since 2003, but it is widely agreed that Iran appears interested in developing weapons capability in the long term). But there's nothing the world can realistically do about that: Even in a best-case scenario, Iran would be able to return to nuclear-ready mode within a couple years; the weapons knowledge, obtained from Pakistan, is never going to be forgotten. Even a large-scale military strike against Iran would not have erased this capability, or even slowed it much.

What holds Iran to the deal is the promise of reduced sanctions, and this should not be dismissed: That promise is what brought Iran to the table; it is what brought a (perhaps temporary) unity of purpose between Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and president Hassan Rouhani; and it is what would make failure painful for the Iranians.

3. The Israel threat is contained: Aside from Iran's military threat to the Middle East, the accord helped stabilize another looming threat: The very real potential that Israel might launch a military attack against Iran's nuclear facilities.

This would have been catastrophic. Aside from triggering a generation-long, region-wide war in the Middle East, such an attack would also have destroyed any possibility of Iranians rejecting their theocratic state and making a revolutionary shift to democracy (something that appears increasingly possible); not only would it fail to prevent a nuclear Iran, but it would actually render Iran far more militant and dangerous – and permanently so. It would also place the Israeli public in far greater danger than they have ever experienced.

With this deal, the Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg writes, President Obama "boxed in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu so comprehensively that it's unimaginable Israel will strike Iran in the foreseeable future." With Mr. Netanyahu's worst instincts neutralized, there are far more openings for genuine progress in the Middle East.

4. This will now be the central issue in Iran's domestic politics: One surprising lesson from this year's events: The sanctions worked. While there are good reasons to question the value of sanctions as an international-relations tool – including humanitarian reasons, as they tend to harm the most vulnerable in the target society – it is clear that the crippling economic punishment meted upon Iran had a real political effect.

For one thing, it relegated former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his allies into the dustbin of history. The overwhelming electoral victory this year of the comparatively conciliatory Hassan Rouhani owed much to the sanctions: Iranians blamed Mr. Ahmadinejad for clumsily bringing on the ire of the West and, in the process, ruining their lives. Iran's is a middle-class society, by Middle Eastern standards, and people suffered badly from lack of access to goods. Mr. Ahmadinejad's confrontational policy seemed to produce only pain with no benefit.

And the sanctions led to this accord. There is certainly no guarantee that Iran will stick honestly to the terms of the accord, or that when the six months are over its leaders will come to the table and sign a permanent deal.

But the price of not complying will be high, and it will be paid entirely in the domestic political arena by Mr. Rouhani. For the moment, this weekend's accord will mean a slight release of sanctions (between $6- and $7-billion, mainly in unfrozen bank assets). The promise of a larger end to U.S., United Nations and European Union sanctions, and the opening of normal trade and banking relations between Iran and the world, is the top item on the mind of every Iranian citizen. Iran could surely renege on the deal, but then it would face its own internal catastrophe.