Finally, the Iran nuclear deal is a reality now. It resolves the long-brewing crisis over Iran’s nuclear program. The West led by the US had been harbouring grave reservations about its avowed peaceful nature, accusing Iran of clandestinely seeking to make a nuclear bomb. On its part, Iran always denied these allegations insisting its nuclear program was for peaceful purposes only. It claimed its entire nuclear activity was consistent with its NPT obligations. The US and its European allies however suspected Iran had not been honest about its nuclear work and wanted it to scale back the scope of its sensitive nuclear activities to a level where it cannot build a nuclear weapon.
In its historical perspective, it is a crisis of choice, not necessity. Initially, the US was not even ready to talk to Iran and instead deputed its three EU partners, France, Germany and Great Britain, to engage Tehran with a demand for cessation of its enrichment activity. The stand-off continued even after several rounds of negotiations and punitive resolutions of the UN Security Council since February 2006 calling on Iran to halt its nuclear work. Until President Barack Obama came on the scene, the EU troika never seriously tried to explore a non-confrontational course of action towards Iran. The UN sanctions against Iran have been in place since then although IAEA has yet to confirm a veritable military dimension in its nuclear program.
Pursuant to President Obama’s policy of direct talks with Iran, it was in October 2009 that a structured dialogue between Iran and the so-called P-5+1 Group — US, Russia, China, UK, France and Germany — was held in Geneva. While the West’s key demand remained for Iran to suspend uranium enrichment, Iran maintained that its uranium-enrichment and nuclear research activities for peaceful purposes were lawful and within its right under Article IV of the NPT, and thus irreversible. Even in that deadlock, the Geneva talks did seem to have provided an opening for diplomacy between the two sides. Since then, further discussions were held, first in Baghdad in May 2012 and then in Almaty in February 2013 on the modalities to end the decade-long crisis.
There were also other developments with salutary effect on the engagement process. President Hassan Rouhani’s victory in mid-2013 presidential election came as a big ‘game-changer’. Tehran showed a new outlook altogether seeking to alleviate the West’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear activities in order to get relief from the economic sanctions. In late September the same year, Rouhani’s telephone call to President Obama, the first-ever contact at this level since 1979, provided a new momentum to the efforts for an end to the crisis. President Obama welcomed what he described as a “unique opportunity to make progress with the new leadership in Tehran”.
Iran has accepted extremely invasive inspections involving international verifications of its nuclear facilities for the next 10 years to ensure that its nuclear activities are purely peaceful.
In April this year, both sides were able to agree on a “framework” deal delineating the path toward a comprehensive nuclear agreement which after intense diplomatic efforts involving lengthy, dense and highly technical discussions with several deadline extensions was finally signed in Vienna on July 14, 2015. The deal comprises a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) boils down to five key areas: sanctions relief, uranium enrichment, plutonium production, verifications and inspections and possible military dimension (PMD). Under the deal, all EU and US energy, economic and financial sanctions, and most UN sanctions, will be lifted on “implementation day” — the day Iran shows it has complied with specific obligations to reduce centrifuge numbers and uranium stockpiles and address concerns about the potential military dimensions of its nuclear program.
UN curbs on access to ballistic technologies will last for a maximum of eight years and the arms embargo against Iran will be lifted within five years. The EU and US will maintain proliferation-related technology trade curbs for eight years, or until the IAEA concludes that nuclear material in Iran remains in peaceful use. After 10 years, the remaining UN curbs on sensitive nuclear related items are scheduled to be removed in full. A complex legal framework and political mediation process will be put in place to handle suspected violations, based around a joint commission made up of the international powers and Iran. A formula has been adopted to enforce non-compliance penalties.
The agreement binds Iran to severely curtail uranium enrichment work for more than a decade to ensure it would need at least one year’s “breakout time” to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a single weapon, compared with current estimates of two to three months. In return the European Union and the United States will begin to lift sanctions, as Iran complies. To ensure Iran limits its uranium enrichment to 3.67 per cent, it will cut its centrifuges from 19000 to 6,104, with 5,060 for enrichment. As for plutonium production, Iran has agreed to reconfigure its heavy water reactor at Arak drastically limiting its production capacity.
Iran has accepted extremely invasive inspections involving international verifications of its nuclear facilities for the next 10 years to ensure that its nuclear activities are purely peaceful. Under the agreement, Iran has also committed to fully resolving outstanding issues over the so-called “possible military dimensions” to its program by December this year. It will entail trips to Iran to interview technical experts as well as supervised site visits, including to sensitive bases such as Parchin, the top-secret research facility run by the Revolutionary Guard. The road map involves a “clear sequence of activities” according to the IAEA’s chief, Yukiya Amano. The sanctions will only be fully lifted once Iran has proven it has stopped its nuclear enrichment program.
All said and done, the conclusion of this landmark deal after years of negotiations has been widely welcomed all around the world with few known exceptions including Israel and Saudi Arabia. The UN Security Council has also unanimously endorsed the Vienna deal providing the basis for international economic sanctions against Iran to be lifted, a move that incited a furious reaction in Israel and potentially sets up an angry showdown in Congress where the US lawmakers have 60 days to review the deal. How things shape up in the coming months will determine the future of this important agreement.
In the ultimate analysis, for the world at large, it is immaterial how much uranium Iran will be allowed to enrich or how many centrifuges it will keep as part of the deal. What is important is the sincerity of purpose on both sides in honouring their commitments to make the deal work. President Obama, however, made it clear that the deal is based on “verifications, not on trust.” He said if Iran violates the deal, “the sanctions will be snapped back in place.” Iranian leaders have also been saying that if the US and Europeans do not keep their commitments under the deal, “it has the right to go back to its [nuclear] program as it wishes.”
It seems there is still a trust deficit that will have to be overcome to make the deal work. If it works, Tehran’s economy will see a massive boost in terms of trade and new investments. It will have a sweeping impact on the people of Iran and potentially on the geopolitics of the entire Middle East. The whole region might see new realignments. A nuclear-disciplined Iran could perhaps be America’s potential regional partner in its current strategies in the Middle East, Persian Gulf and South Asia including Afghanistan. For Pakistan, there will be an opportunity as well as a challenge in reviving its close and cooperative relationship with Iran as a factor of peace and stability in their troubled region.