Today marks the start of implementing the interim deal with Iran, which will halt the development of its nuclear programme for six months in exchange for limited sanctions relief from the international community. Since the interim deal was struck in November 2013, the parties have been working together to agree on the terms of implementation. These details were finalised on 12th January, with agreement to trigger the six month timeframe eight days later.
What this means in practice is that for the first time since the crisis began over a decade ago, Iran and major players within the international community will be actively working together to develop assurances around Iran’s nuclear programme and repair broken relationships. As a first step Iran will, from 20th January, halt its production of near-20% enriched uranium and start diluting its existing stockpile. This particularly controversial element of the Iranian programme has received high media attention, as uranium enriched above 20% brings it much closer to weapons-grade material.
The International Atomic Energy Agency will take the lead on monitoring and verifying compliance with the implementation agreement and, under the terms of the deal, will have unprecedented access to Iranian nuclear facilities. The Agency will start reporting on the status of the Iranian programme from today, focusing on those elements which form the core of the interim agreement: uranium enrichment and enrichment infrastructure, reprocessing and the Arak facility. Milestones have been set that Iran must meet throughout the duration of the agreement.
For the duration of the interim agreement, Iran will limit its production of new centrifuges and refrain from further developing other elements of its uranium enrichment infrastructure. It will also halt several activities around its heavy water reactor at Arak such as producing, testing and transferring fuel, and installing new components. Proliferation concerns over the Arak facility relate to the potential for such a heavy water reactor to produce weapons-grade plutonium as part of its spent nuclear fuel.
The five permanent members of the UN Security Council - the US, UK, Russia, France and China - and Germany have agreed in return to provide limited, temporary sanctions relief to Iran in various stages throughout the agreement, linked largely to demonstrations of Iranian compliance with the conditions of the agreement. In the meantime, the majority of international sanctions architecture will remain in place.
But the terms of the interim agreement are secondary, intended only as a springboard to more ambitious progress. The principal objective is to build confidence and create space for the parties to negotiate a substantive, long-term agreement. The interim deal does however mark an important symbolic shift in the momentum of the dispute, opening the door to side-deals and a potential warming of relations. It is notable that only last week the UAE appeared to come to some form of accommodation with Iran over the sovereignty of disputed islands in the Persian Gulf, an issue that has been a source of friction for many years. Several Gulf states have also appeared to suggest extra regional efforts to build more positive relations with their neighbour on the other side of the water.
Meanwhile, some in the region and in the United States Congress continue to voice deep skepticism over both the interim deal and its implementation agreement. They fear that re-opening the taps, even a notch, on the Iranian economy could reinforce Iran’s nuclear ambitions before we can be sure that their shift in tone is genuine. They fear that eagerness to reach a deal may be clouding the negotiating parties’ judgement, rushing the international community into making unwise concessions. And they fear that an Iran emboldened by a closer relationship with the west may shift the regional dynamics in a way that strengthens their influence, opening questions about the balance of power in the region. The underlying sentiment remains one of deep mistrust.
A group of US Senators spanning both the political right and left have put their name to a draft bill intended to impose fresh sanctions on Iran in the event that either it reneges on its commitments under the interim deal or no substantive agreement is reached within six months. The co-sponsors of the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013 - Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and Republican Senator Mark Kirk from Illinois - are touting the proposed legislation as a “diplomatic insurance policy”. It has already amassed relatively strong support, in numbers at least, in the Senate - although the 12th January implementation agreement with Iran appears to have slowed the bill’s momentum and, at least for the very immediate term, it looks unlikely to be put to a vote on the Senate floor.
The surface logic behind the bill is the Senators’ belief that sanctions have brought Iran to the table, and only the threat of more sanctions will ensure that they stay there. Sanctions do indeed seem likely to have played a role in Iran’s recent shift in approach although it seems more likely that the change in leadership in Iran is at the heart of it. But the logic of the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act misses the more complex negotiation and diplomatic considerations.
Sanctions are a policy instrument, not a policy solution - and to be effective their application must be proportional and appropriate, and be perceived as just. Threatening Iran with extra sanctions now is not treating them as a negotiating partner, but instead punishing them as a criminal. Such treatment is likely to result in open hostility and political backlash in Iran.
The bill also contains language removing Iran’s ability to enrich uranium in any form: some believe that only this will provide certainty around Iran’s nuclear programme. But the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Iran is party, does not talk about the ability of the international community to restrict the enrichment of uranium. In fact it provides explicit provision for “the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination”.
Uranium enrichment forms part of those research and development activities, and is already carried out by other non-nuclear weapon states party to the NPT. As such, holding Iran’s low-level enrichment capability hostage would be to put Iran on a different footing from the rest of the world; a red line for the Iranians, as it would undoubtedly be for others.
If passed, the bill will likely be perceived abroad as the US reneging on its end of the deal and entering negotiations in bad faith - willing them to fail. These interpretations matter. Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has said that “the entire deal is dead” if the legislation goes ahead. Pulling the rug out from under President Hassan Rouhani’s feet and bolstering the hardline skeptics in Iran would seriously endanger any chance of a peaceful, diplomatic agreement.
It is understandable that some continue to harbour deep mistrust towards Iran given their recent history of animosity towards the US and the west, and the development of a nuclear programme shrouded in secrecy, ambiguous dimensions and unanswered questions. However, through this diplomatic effort, we now have a rare opportunity to move beyond that mistrust. We can’t expect the interim deal to be a magic bullet - the most complex questions still need to be resolved, and trust cannot be built overnight. But we have an option in front of us that holds much promise and a partner who is at least now willing to consider serious assurances over their nuclear programme. We should grasp at it with both hands, putting all of our energy into making it work.