Iran Nuclear Talks

Iran Nuclear Talks

Will Iran And The West Reach An Agreement In 2015?

The failure of the “P5+1” (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and Iran to meet the November 24, 2014 deadline for reaching a final nuclear agreement was indeed a setback. However, the decision to extend the deadline to July 2015 was a victory for diplomacy. Both sides believe much was already achieved, as they seek to avoid war at a perilous juncture when the Middle East is in the midst of a tumultuous transformation. A final deal would, surely, benefit Iran, the US, and the Middle East. Yet, decades of mutual demonization by the US and Iran have created formidable constituencies that can scuttle the negotiations.

Distrust and Conflicting Interests

The critics of the Joint Plan of Action — signed by Iran and the global powers in November 2013—lament that Tehran is engaged in a charm offensive to obtain economic relief and buy time to surreptitiously develop a nuclear weapon. Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), writes that seven years before he became president, Hassan Rouhani developed “a doctrine of surprise” in which Iran would lull the US into complacency, before delivering a “knockout blow” — presumably a nuclear bomb. Moreover, US Senator Mark Kirk warns, “We’re definitely getting played by the Iranians. We are told the interim deal has been more propitious to Iran than to the global powers and that Iran is “cheating on its commitments.”

The negotiations have thus far resulted in a ‘win-win’ for both sides, although Iran has conceded more than received. There is also no evidence of cheating. Yukiya Amano, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), verifies that Iranian authorities are honouring the commitments they have made.

Iran entered the negotiations hoping for the immediate lifting of all the sanctions, recognition of its inalienable right as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to enrich uranium on its own soil, and keeping intact the infrastructure of its expensive peaceful nuclear programme. The US sought to stop, or reverse, the key aspects of Iran’s nuclear programme, prolong the breakout time (the time required to build a bomb should Iran decides to do so), and prevent Iran from building a bomb in the future.

In his presidential campaign, President Rouhani pledged to negotiate with the West to lift the crippling sanctions. But, he has not delivered yet though there has been some relief. The current architecture of the main sanctions imposed on Iran’s oil and gas industry and its financial and banking institutions remains intact.

These sanctions have been catastrophic for Iran. Still, the US lifted some of the less damaging sanctions, imposed no major new sanctions, and has been rather lenient in allowing Iran to slightly increase its oil export and receive payments for its previous oil sales. The US has also released to Tehran about USD 750 million each month from Iran’s estimated USD 110 billion in foreign frozen assets.


The major concession given by the P5+1 is the implicit but qualified recognition of Iran’s right to enrich uranium on its own soil, which has become a symbol of Iranian national pride. The interim agreement allows Iran to enrich uranium, albeit at below 5% purity. Iran has been producing uranium at a low level of purity, but it has not added to its stockpile of about 19,000 centrifuges, 9,000 of which are operational. Considering that the US was demanding “zero enrichment” only a few years ago, this recognition is a victory for Iran.

In return for this concession, Iran has stopped producing 20% enriched uranium and has converted a substantial amount of its stockpile into reactor fuel or to 3.4% purity. This stockpile was the main concern of Israel and the US. Many of Rouhani’s critics in Iran bitterly complain that he made a strategic blunder by playing this bargaining chip at an early phase of the negotiations rather than at the latter phases.

Iran also has agreed to an incredibly intrusive inspection and monitoring regime by the IAEA, including the video monitoring of its major nuclear facilities. Although Iran has not signed the Additional Protocol, it has reportedly tentatively agreed to snap or unannounced inspections of its key nuclear facilities. Additionally, Iran has agreed to turn Fordow, the fortified underground facility designed to withstand aerial bombardment and enrich uranium, into a research and development site, and alter the engineering design of the Natanz heavy water reactor to rule out the production of weapons-grade plutonium.

The agreements between the two parties have certainly prolonged the breakout time for Iran and have provided the IAEA with on-the-ground networks to quickly identify any diversion by Iran toward building a nuclear bomb, which can then be neutralized by the US. No wonder US Secretary of State John Kerry asserted, “We would be fools to walk away from a situation where the breakout time has already been expanded rather than narrowed and where the world is safer because this programme is in place.”

Bridging the Gulf

Iran Nuclear Talks 1Despite these considerable achievements, significant differences still separate the two sides.

First, the IAEA has refused to verify that Iran’s nuclear programme is exclusively for peaceful purposes and is concerned about the “military dimensions” of Tehran’s nuclear programme. Iran insists its programme has no military dimensions.

Second, there is the question of the quality and number of centrifuges. Washington demands a major reduction in the number of centrifuges, reportedly in the low thousands. Without specifying a time limit, Ayatollah Khamenei, the country’s ultimate decision-maker, has opined that Iran should produce enough uranium to be self-sufficient to fuel its research reactors, which would require some 190,000 centrifuges — ten times Iran’s current level.

Third, Iran is repeatedly demanding that the duration of the final agreement should be about five years, while the US is talking about 10 to 20 years.

Fourth, Tehran wants legal assurances that once the term of a final agreement expires, Iran would be allowed to have the same privileges enjoyed by other signatories of the NPT.

Finally, the fate of the Natanz and Fordow facilities and the details of the inspection regimes are yet to be decided.

These differences have opened a new opportunity for the opponents of a final deal to try to undermine the negotiations.

Rouhani’s Domestic Challenges

President Rouhani faces considerable opposition from hardliners. Some complain that Iran has practically agreed to eliminate most of its nuclear programme in exchange for a partial lifting of the sanctions. Some fear that the inspection regime could be extended to include Iranian military sites and missile manufacturing sites, which would undermine Iranian sovereignty. Some do not trust the West, viewing it as an imperialistic force sworn to disallow Iran to develop its peaceful nuclear programme. Finally, hardliners in the Islamic Republic are concerned that should Rouhani make a final deal with the US, it would empower the pragmatists and moderates to their own detriment.

However, as long as Ayatollah Khamenei supports the negotiations, the hardliners will have no chance to derail the process. Thus far, he has supported the negotiations, but has expressed pessimism about the prospects of a final deal.

It is rightly said that the interim agreement is no more than a ceasefire between the two parties. The provisions of the deal’s agreements are tentative and reversible. To finalize the deal, the P5+1 and Iran must compromise and not demand unrealistic concessions from the other.

The West’s Sceptics

Many of the same forces who have falsely alarmed the world in the past decade that Iran was only a few months away from building a bomb, and who have pushed the West toward a military confrontation with Iran, now advocate additional sanctions to compel Iran to dismantle its entire nuclear programme. They are interested in negotiations not as ‘a give-and-take’ process, but rather as a mechanism to force Iran to surrender. They know that any leader who dares to agree with even a partial dismantling of the Iranian nuclear programme would read his own obituary. Such voices prefer the current status of ‘no peace, no war’ over any rapprochement between Iran and the West.

The same forces seek to interrupt the current negotiations by pressuring the US Congress to impose new sanctions on Iran. The control of the Congress by Republicans starting in 2015 has increased their chances of success. President Obama has prudently threatened to veto any such bill.

If passed, such a bill would seriously undermine the negotiations, likely unravel the international coalition that was formed to impose the crippling sanctions against Iran, create a wedge in the Western alliance against Iran, and would be seen as a blatant violation of the interim deal. Iran could walk away from the negotiations, accelerate its nuclear programme, and blame the US for the failure of the talks. Although sanctions have been one of the factors that brought Iran to the negotiation table, there is a point of diminishing returns for sanctions when they begin to incentivize Iran to accelerate its nuclear programme. As the West was imposing its crippling sanctions, the number of Iranian centrifuges increased from about 900 to over 19,000.

A Final Deal and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)

It’s in the interests of the littoral states of the Persian Gulf to help the negotiations succeed. A failure to reach a final nuclear agreement would have a host of ill effects. It would likely embolden the hardliners and weaken the forces of moderation in Iran, intensify Iran and Saudi Arabia’s mini-Cold War, and lessen the chances of finding a solution to Syria’s bloody civil war. It would also likely intensify the devastating sectarian conflict that is tearing the Middle East apart, decrease the chance of defeating Daesh (Islamic State), and elevate the lingering tensions between Tehran and Washington, which would further destabilize the region. The signing of an honourable deal between Iran and the global powers would have the exact opposite consequences.

Iran and the GCC should stop complaining about their past grievances and should focus on their commonalities, and explore avenues for future collaboration. Indeed, the resolution of the Iranian nuclear impasse would likely create such new avenues and pave the way for a better future for everyone in our traumatized but blessed region.

Courtesy: International Policy Digest

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