Iran-U.S.

A deal for now

Print edition : May 01, 2015

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif after their nuclear talks in Lausanne, Switzerland, on April 2. Photo: REUTERS

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani unveils a nuclear fuel assembly during a ceremony marking the national day of nuclear technology in Tehran on April 9. Ali Akbar Salehi, he head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organisation, is by his side. Photo: AFP/Handout

A satellite view of a mountain in Iran where the Fordo uranium enrichment plant is located underground. Photo: The New York Times/Google Earth

Iran and the United States sign an interim accord with a June 30 deadline for a final agreement, but the U.S. keeps “all options open” if any aspect of the deal is ignored.

IT was evident for some time now that a “nuclear deal” between the United States and Iran was imminent. Reports based on official briefings from both Washington and Tehran in the last couple of months had suggested that only a few differences remained to be ironed out. Finally, after hard bargaining over details in the eleventh hour, an interim deal was announced in the Swiss city of Lausanne on April 2. The deadline for the final agreement has been set for June 30. Neither the re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu as the Prime Minister of Israel in March nor the threat of Republicans in the U.S. Congress had any negative impact on the outcome of the nuclear talks.

The talks held by P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations and Germany) with Iran were also in favour of a quick nuclear deal. Although the P5+1 is formally part of the negotiations, it is U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minster Mohammad Javad Zarif who did most of the talking for more than two years. The technical aspects were dealt with by the U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Iran’s energy chief Ali Akbar Salehi. Both of them are trained nuclear physicists.

Under the draft nuclear accord, Iran has agreed to reduce by around 40 per cent of the centrifuges that it can operate to produce enriched uranium and to substantially cut its stockpile of low-enriched uranium. The U.S. claims that Iran has agreed to reduce the stockpile from 10,000 kilograms to 300 kg for the next 10 years. Iran has not yet confirmed that it has made such a commitment.

The duration of the nuclear deal will be for 15 years. The Barack Obama administration was pressing for a 20-year deal. Under the interim deal, Iran will not have to dismantle any of its existing nuclear facilities. The Obama administration had initially demanded the dismantling of a few. After 15 years, Iran will be allowed to produce as much enriched uranium as it wants to. Under the terms of the agreement, Iran will be allowed to conduct research and development on advanced centrifuges. Iran, being a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), has the “inalienable right of all the parties to the treaty to develop, research, produce, and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination”.

On March 20, Obama took the unprecedented step of issuing a video appeal to the Iranian people on the occasion of Navroz, the Iranian new year. He said a nuclear deal would open up a brighter future for the people of Iran. At the same time, he warned that Iranians would face more sanctions and isolation if their government did not agree to a deal. A “reasonable deal”, he promised, would open up hitherto closed vistas for Iranians in various fields. Obama once again cited the “fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons” issued by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. After the signing of the nuclear deal, Zarif reiterated that the country’s nuclear programme “has always been and always will remain exclusively peaceful”.

When Hassan Rouhani assumed office as President of Iran in 2013, he pledged to “reconcile with the world”. The backing of Ayatollah Khamenei has been crucial to the success of the Iran-U.S. nuclear talks so far. As otherwise, hardliners in Iran would not have agreed to some of the conditions put forth in the preliminary deal. The Obama administration wanted Iran to curtail its missile programme. Iran, it seems, has stood its ground on this issue. In the face of emerging threats in the region, missile defence is crucial for Iran’s security.

The U.S. has promised to lift most of the draconian sanctions it has imposed on Iran after the framework agreement comes into force. Obama has the authority to lift some of the sanctions with immediate effect. The sanctions had a serious impact on Iran’s economy, affecting almost all the key sectors.

Zarif described the agreement as a victory and said it demonstrated that Iran “will never bow to pressure”. There were celebrations on the streets of Tehran when the agreement was announced. From the details emerging out of the U.S. interpretation of the interim agreement, it is possible that Iran has made quite a few concessions but as the U.S.-Iranian commentator Trita Parsi observed: “Small minds will obsess over what has been given. Great minds will celebrate over what has been gained. We are steering a clear path to a peaceful resolution to the nuclear dispute.”

Before the final deal is clinched, Washington may try to squeeze Tehran even further. The “fact sheet” released by Washington states that “important implementation details are still subject to negotiations, and nothing is agreed upon until everything is agreed upon”.

Iran has already agreed to be subjected to intrusive International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections. The “core” of Iran’s heavy water reactor in Arak will be removed and the facility will be redesigned so that it can produce only non-weapons-grade plutonium. The Fordow nuclear plant will be turned into a nuclear research centre without fissile material.

In 2010, Iran agreed to a proposal by Presidents Lula da Silva of Brazil and Recep Erdogan of Turkey for the despatch of 50 per cent of its low-enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for higher enriched uranium for medical use and research. The Obama administration rejected that proposal out of hand and instead imposed additional sanctions on Iran.

Although the joint statement released at Lausanne by Zarif and the European Union (E.U.) foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini talks about the lifting of all sanctions, including those imposed by the U.N. Security Council and the E.U., following the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, there is no guarantee that the sanctions will be lifted in the immediate future. According to the fact sheet released by the U.S., the sanctions will only be “suspended” and if the U.S. and its allies conclude at any time that Iran has violated the terms of the deal, then the “sanctions will immediately snap into place”. Obama had earlier specified that the aim of the agreement was “to cut off every pathway that Iran could take to develop a nuclear weapon”. Any agreement with Iran, he said, “would not be based on trust” but instead on “unprecedented verification”.

At a conference in the White House soon after the deal was announced, Obama gloated that the deal was the result of “the toughest sanctions in history”. He issued a warning that if Iran failed to implement any aspect of the deal, then “all options” were on the table for him and future Presidents. “All options open” has been a favourite term for U.S. Presidents and politicians. It means the option to resort to war mainly against oil-rich countries in West Asia.

Zarif has restated his government’s demand for immediate relief from U.N. sanctions and the urgent need to “terminate” and not just suspend E.U. sanctions. The P5+1 wants the IAEA to first certify that Iran’s nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes and does not have “possible military dimensions” . There is optimism in Iran that the bulk of the sanctions will be lifted within a year.

Obama was quick to telephone Netanyahu to assure him that Israel’s security will never be compromised and that he was still concerned about Iran’s “destabilising policies”. He also talked to Iran’s other rivals in the region, notably the rulers of the Gulf kingdoms, and assured them of the U.S.’ abiding security relations with them.

Obama will be hosting a summit of all the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders at the White House soon. Saudi Arabia, like Israel, is vehemently opposed to Iran. The Saudis have made veiled threats about seeking a nuclear deterrent of their own if the U.S. cosied up to Iran. Obama had no words of criticism for Israel’s growing nuclear arsenal and its aggressive policies.

Even as the U.S. and Iran were finalising the draft agreement, Saudi Arabia launched an unprovoked aggression against Yemen citing Iran’s involvement in that country. Israel will be working overtime to stymie the nuclear deal with the help of its influential friends in the U.S. Congress and media. Netanyahu said the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal posed an “existential threat” to Israel’s security.

It may take some time for Iran to reap the economic benefits from the nuclear deal. But businessmen are already making a beeline to Tehran. Iran is already being viewed as the hottest emerging market. The country, besides having vast hydrocarbon resources, is also rich in human capital. Western Europe is looking for alternative gas supplies to lessen its dependence on Russia. Iran, already a key player in the region, is likely to emerge even stronger. Iran and the U.S. may even be getting ready to do a political tango. They are already fighting against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq.

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