Making progress with Iran

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After three decades of broken or faltering diplomatic ties between Iran and the West, and a decade of tension over the Iranian nuclear programme, the E3+3 (UK, France, Germany, US, Russia and China - also referred to as the P5+1) and Iran finally made a historic step forward over the weekend. A hard-fought interim deal was reached over Iran’s nuclear programme that will provide space for all sides to now attempt negotiations towards a deeper, longer-term agreement.

The six-month deal, signed late on Saturday night, will see Iran halting further progress on its nuclear programme and rolling back key elements of it. In return, the E3+3 will provide temporary relief on a limited number of sanctions. This is nowhere near the end of the road: but it is a significant opportunity for all sides to build confidence and trust, and potentially open the door to more substantive progress.

Three issues have been of particularly high concern over the Iranian nuclear programme: their stockpile of uranium enriched to near 20% (of a quality approaching close to nuclear weapons grade); the development of a heavy-water reactor in Arak, which could produce weapons-grade plutonium if fuel rods were reprocessed; and the production of centrifuges - the machines used to enrich uranium and which have the capability of turning Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium into weapons-grade material.

As part of the deal, Iran has agreed to temporarily address each of these issues. Any uranium stocks that are near 20% uranium-235 will be either diluted down or converted into a form ready for use in reactors, which will not allow for further enrichment. Any future enrichment of uranium above 5% will be halted and the cascades of centrifuges currently set up for 20% enrichment will be reconfigured for production of low enriched uranium (LEU) below 5% U235.

Iran has also agreed to temporarily halt development of its heavy-water reactor at Arak, and to constrain its production and installation of centrifuges. It will leave a large percentage of centrifuges inoperable in Iran’s two enrichment facilities, Fordow and Natanz. The deal also provides the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) substantial daily access to both sites.

Iran will provide the IAEA information about future plans for Arak, allowing the agency to draw up effective safeguards for the plant, and will provide them with explanations of all the buildings and activities on its nuclear sites, uranium mining, and stockpiling of materials. In what is a rather extraordinary, voluntary, confidence-building measure, Iran will also permit IAEA access to the facilities used to construct its centrifuges, allowing them to fully track and confirm that they are not being used to pass centrifuges into other secret facilities.

Verification will be carried out by the IAEA, working with guidelines agreed under a P5+1/Iran Joint Commission. This will consider means for Iran to clear-up outstanding questions over Iran’s past activities, as well as consider effective verification of current and future operations. If it succeeds, this Commission has the potential to introduce innovative, ground-breaking measures that could provide models for the rest of the international community. Iran could be an important test-bed for nuclear non-proliferation that could be applied elsewhere - particularly within the Middle East.

In return, the E3+3 will provide $7 billion in limited sanctions relief - a very small fraction of the international sanctions architecture established over recent years. The bulk will remain, including against the Central Bank and in the area of financial services. In addition to this temporary easing, the P5+1 have committed - as far as their political systems will permit - not to implement any new nuclear-related sanctions throughout the duration of the six-month agreement. Human rights and terrorism-related sanctions however are exempt from the deal.

All parties to the agreement have been at pains to underscore that this is an interim step, not a final deal, and that all parts of the agreement are reversible if one side breaks their end of the bargain.

Historical mistrust

It is worth stepping back here to reflect on how we got to this point. The relationship between Iran and the west has long been complicated. Many in Iran still remember British and American involvement in the 1953 overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadeq, who was replaced by western-friendly Shah Pahlavi. Mossadeq had been pushing to nationalize Iran’s oil production; a disproportionate percentage of profits from the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (subsequently British Petroleum) was going to the UK with only a relatively small percentage to Iran.

The 1979 Iranian Revolution ousted the Shah from power and ultimately triggered a 444-day hostage crisis at the US Embassy in Tehran. Fifty-two American diplomats were held by a group of students, widely believed to be state-sanctioned, from 4 November 1979 to 20 January 1981.

Both the UK and the US suspended their diplomatic relations with Iran following the revolution. The UK reinstated its presence in 1988, only for relations to break down again a year later. They were normalised in 1998 and largely remained as such until the storming of the British Embassy in Tehran in 2011. The US broke relations with Iran in April 1980 and has yet to formally reinstate them.

US President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” speech in January 2002, in which he placed Iran alongside Iraq and North Korea as countries seeking to threaten the peace of the world with weapons of mass destruction, began to trigger fears in the public consciousness over the developing Iranian nuclear program.

This small snapshot gives only a glimpse of how tumultuous these relations - which have come to be defined by a lack of trust on all sides - have been, and makes the achievements of negotiators over the weekend all the more impressive.

A challenge remains

Throughout the past month’s diplomatic negotiations, however, certain members of US Congress, along with some sceptics in Israel, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf region, have expressed varying degrees of concern that the interim deal with Iran does not go far enough. They argue that Iran’s ability to enrich uranium should be halted completely - that is, including below 5%. Regional concern is particularly rooted in a fear of the destabilising potential of a nuclear armed Iran - as well as the shifting regional power dynamics that might ensue from a strengthened and revitalized Iranian economy, following the easing of sanctions. They fear that this deal could represent a small step towards possible long-term normalisation of Iran within the international community - which, for some, is hard to stomach. In contrast, the Israeli markets experienced a surge on the news, indicating Israeli investor confidence in the deal.

Halting Iran’s enrichment capability opens up the question over the right to nuclear technology for civil purposes enshrined within the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). A number of other member states within the Non-Aligned Movement - an intergovernmental group of 120 states which are not aligned with or against any major power bloc - are concerned that this right could be under attack.

In the US, a number of members of Congress have continued to press for a fresh round of economic sanctions against Iran. They point to their success in getting Iran to the table and argue that pressure should not be slowed until Iran capitulates entirely. Others - including the Obama administration - have contested this approach, underscoring the negotiating logic that the terms of an interim deal would be meaningless without the US being able to guarantee that it will hold up its end of the bargain.

Weapons of mass destruction free zone

Meanwhile, in a separate but intimately related arena, the concept of a broader Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East remains up in the air. After agreeing in 2010 to discuss a WMD-free zone, the countries around the region have struggled to navigate past their differences and security fears to find a way to move forward with substantive discussion. Diplomats from across the region met for the first time in Glion, Switzerland in October, to tentatively discuss the concept. They are set to meet again in the coming days.

Perhaps the interim agreement with Iran, as well as the break-through over Syria’s chemical weapons, will stimulate greater movement - either by building confidence that progress is possible, or by encouraging those concerned about the depth of the agreement with Iran to develop a stronger regional security framework.


These are the opinions of the author. This article was originally featured on a regular column by Rebecca on OpenSecurity, a forum of OpenDemocracy.net.

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