Landmark agreement

Print edition : December 27, 2013

In Geneva on November 24, after the nuclear deal was signed. In the picture are (from left) Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP

A major concession given by Iran is the decision not to commission the heavy water reactor it is constructing in Arak, 320 km south of Tehran. Photo: ATTA KENARE/AFP

President Hassan Rouhani. He said the deal showed that the “world powers have recognised our nuclear rights”. Photo: HO/IRANIAN PRESIDENCYAFP

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who gave full support to the negotiations. Photo: Office of the Supreme Leader/ho/ap

Rouhani with UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan (left) in Tehran on November 28. Photo: ho/IRANIAN PRESIDENCY/AFP

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He slammed the nuclear deal as a "historical mistake". Photo: ABIR SULTAN/AFP

The interim nuclear deal between Iran and the West will partially lift the sanctions on Iran and go a long way in reducing tensions in West Asia.

Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council namely, the United States, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom, plus Germany) finally signed a landmark nuclear deal which will partially lift the sanctions on the former for six months. The deal was reached after four days of talks. The groundwork for the agreement was laid much earlier, in the secret talks that were going on between American and Iranian officials in the last one year. The contacts were intensified following the election of Hassan Rouhani as the new Iranian President, with a massive majority, earlier in the year. Rouhani’s main campaign plank was his promise to improve the country’s economy by improving relations with the West and bringing an end to the sanctions regime imposed by it.

The deal, signed on November 24, could have been clinched easily when Iran and the P5+1 met in Geneva earlier in the same month, but was undermined at the eleventh hour by France, acting evidently at the behest of some interested parties, namely Israel and Saudi Arabia. This time, France bowed to the consensus among the P5+1 and fell in line. France had mainly objected to Iran’s right, as a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signatory, to enrich uranium.

U.S. President Barack Obama, in a statement made after the signing of the agreement, said that for the first time “after nearly a decade, we have halted the progress of the Iranian nuclear programme, and key part of the programme will be rolled back”. He was playing to a domestic audience and wanted to portray the deal as a victory for the U.S. in its efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

President Rouhani obviously had a different take on the matter. He said that the deal showed that “the world powers had recognised the nuclear rights of Iran”. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has insisted that Iran will retain the right to enrich uranium. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has also said that the new deal acknowledges Iran’s right to enrich uranium. They were responding to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s assertion that the interim agreement did not give Iran the right to continue enrichment.

Under the terms of the agreement, Iran will stop enriching uranium above 5 per cent and convert or dilute its stock of 20 per cent-grade enriched uranium into oxide. Iran has agreed not to increase its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and to freeze its enrichment capacity by not installing any more centrifuges. Another major concession given by Iran is the decision not to commission the heavy water reactor it is constructing in Arak or build a reprocessing plant that could produce plutonium from spent fuel. Iran has also agreed to intrusive International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections into some of its nuclear facilities.

The agreement with Iran is already being hailed as the most important achievement of the Obama presidency. It is the most significant agreement signed so far with Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution which overthrew America’s strongest ally in the region, the Shah. Since then, the two countries have been at loggerheads. The U.S. had started imposing sanctions on Iran soon after the 1979 revolution. Simultaneously, it tried to effect regime change in the country, first by instigating Iraq under Saddam Hussein in 1980 to invade Iran. When that attempt failed, tougher sanctions were progressively implemented. In the last decade, the sanctions had become even tougher and had begun to seriously hurt the Iranian economy. Many Iranian politicians and economists also blame the populist policies of the Ahmadinejad era for the current state of the economy. Inflation is around 40 per cent and the economy has shrunk by 6 per cent at the end of this fiscal year. Five million out of a population of 75 million are unemployed.

The deal in Geneva will release around $4 billion in frozen Iranian assets in Western banks. The sanctions on Iran’s trade in gold, petrochemicals and automobile and plane parts have also been lifted temporarily. Critics of the agreement say that Iran has made too many concessions, including to “intrusive inspections”, in return for what U.S. officials have described as “modest, reversible” sanctions relief.

The November 24 agreement, according to policymakers in Washington and Tehran, will be the first step in the ongoing efforts to find a permanent solution to the impasse. The announced goal is to sign a “comprehensive agreement” within a year. If such an agreement is signed, all “nuclear-related sanctions” on Iran will be lifted. Most of the sanctions on Iran were triggered by the U.S.’ insistence that Iran was building a nuclear weapon. Tehran all the while has been saying that as a signatory of the NPT, it only wants to harness nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Iran’s top leadership, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have repeatedly emphasised that owning an atomic weapon goes against the ideals of the Islamic revolution.

President Rouhani had the unstinted support of the Supreme Leader in negotiating the deal. Rouhani expressed his gratitude for Ayatollah Khamenei’s guidance and said that the Iranian negotiators had followed the guidelines that he had laid down. Without the support of the Supreme Leader, a deal would have been impossible. In fact, it is Ayatollah Khamenei’s full support that has muted the criticism of the so-called hardliners in Iran, who feel that Iran made far too many concessions to clinch the interim agreement. The Supreme Leader issued a letter praising Rouhani for securing an agreement that “legitimises the Iranian nation’s nuclear programme on the international stage”.

The continuance of the cruel sanctions regime on Iran on the nuclear issue had threatened to plunge the region into yet another cycle of war and bloodshed. Hans Blix, former Swedish Foreign Minister and the U.N.’s Chief Weapons Inspector in Iraq before the American invasion, has observed that the interim agreement has given the Obama administration an opportunity to move away from “its self-appointed role as global policeman”, which neither the American public nor the world is comfortable with. Earlier in the year, with a little bit of help from Moscow, the Obama administration had moved away from another war in the region by opting for a political settlement in Syria.

Obama, speaking after the signing of the agreement, said that though the announcement was a “first step”, it had achieved a great deal in the efforts to end the international community’s concern over Iran’s disputed nuclear programme. “For the first time in nearly a decade, we have halted the progress of the Iranian nuclear programme, and key parts of the programme will be rolled back,” he asserted. The Iranian President, on the other hand, said that the agreement showed that the “world powers have recognised Iran’s nuclear rights”. He asserted that the sanctions regime against his country “had been broken” by the agreement, “whether others like it or not”. The Iranian Foreign Minister expressed the hope that the deal would help Tehran and Washington restore lost confidence in each other. “The Iranian people demand respect for their rights and dignity,” he added.

Israeli reaction

The deal has been welcomed in all the world’s capitals except Tel Aviv. Israel is still threatening to use force against Iran, and the country’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the deal as “a historical mistake”. Israel, he asserted, was not bound by the agreement and “will do everything it needs to do to defend itself and the security of its people”. The disingenuous Israeli Prime Minister said that the world had become a much more dangerous place after the signing of the interim agreement. But his views found resonance only among sections of the “neocons” and those under the influence of the powerful pro-Israeli lobbying groups in the U.S. Congress. A recent opinion poll showed that the majority of Americans were for good relations between Washington and Tehran.

Israel may continue to threaten a unilateral military strike against Iran but now the scenario has dramatically changed. It will be extremely difficult for Israel to automatically get American support for military actions. Besides, as the eight-year war with Iraq illustrated, the Iranians are no pushovers. With international attention no longer focussed on Iran, the Palestinian issue will once again come on the front burner.

Netanyahu has also been suggesting that many countries in West Asia share his negative views on the agreement. But the Gulf monarchies, led by Saudi Arabia, which had earlier voiced their reservations on a deal with Iran, did a quick turnaround. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), of which Saudi Arabia is a leading member, has welcomed the preliminary accord. At a meeting in Kuwait in late November, the GCC Foreign Ministers expressed their “comfort at this deal” and expressed the hope that it “will be a prelude for a comprehensive solution of Iran’s nuclear file”. United Arab Emirates (UAE) Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan visited Tehran a few days after the interim nuclear deal was signed to hold talks with the Iranian leadership. The Iranian Foreign Minister too has embarked on a visit to Kuwait and Oman, two GCC member-states, to apprise the leadership in those two countries about the latest developments.

President Rouhani has been invited by the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to visit his country. The two countries were at loggerheads over Syria and other issues until recently. The Saudi authorities took a few days to officially welcome the agreement, stating that with goodwill it could lead to a wider solution. The unstated fear in the Gulf region is that a strengthening of U.S.-Iran relations along with the American shift of focus to East Asia will be to their detriment. There is a realisation that with the U.S. now self-sufficient in energy resources with the onset of shale oil technology, the vast oil resources of the region will now be of secondary importance to Washington’s strategic interests.

The Indian External Affairs Ministry was quick to issue a statement welcoming the “prospect of resolving questions related to Iran’s nuclear programme, through dialogue and diplomacy”. Trade between the two countries was adversely affected because of the additional Western sanctions.

Better ties between Iran and the West can lead to a win-win situation for all. Tensions can be reduced in the Gulf region, leading to a stabilisation of oil prices. Even the much-touted Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline can become a reality.

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