Iran Interim Nuclear Deal: Important Breakthrough
THE preliminary nuclear deal which Iran and the P-5+1 (the US, Russia, China, France, UK and Germany) finally signed in the last week of November, has partially lifted the sanctions on Iran for six months. The groundwork for the agreement was laid much before the formal agreement was announced. Secret talks between American and Iranian officials have been ongoing since last year. The contacts were intensified following the election of the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, who had won the elections with a massive majority earlier in the year. Rouhani’s main campaign plank during the election campaign was the pledge to improve the economy by improving relations with the West and bringing an end to the sanctions regime imposed by the West. ‘IRAN’S RIGHT TO ENRICH URANIUM ACKNOWLEDGED’ The deal signed in the last week of November could have been easily clinched when Iran and the P-5+1 had met in Geneva earlier in the same month. A deal at the time 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 P-5+1 and fell in line. France had mainly objected to Iran’s right as an NPT signatory to enrich uranium. The American 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 the domestic audience and wanted to portray the deal as a victory for the United States 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.” The Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has insisted that Iran will retain the right to enrich uranium. The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, has also said that the new deal acknowledges Iran’s right to enrich uranium. They were responding to the US secretary of state, John Kerry’s assertion that the interim agreement does not give Iran the right to continue enrichment. Under the terms of the agreement, Iran will stop enriching uranium above five percent and convert or dilute its stock of 20 percent grade enriched uranium into oxide. Iran has agreed not to increase its stockpile of low enriched uranium and 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 form the spent fuel. Iran has also agreed to intrusive 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 the loggerheads. The US 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 Ahmadenijad era for the current state of the economy. Inflation is around 40 percent and Iranian economy shrunk by six percent at the end of this fiscal year. Five million out of a population of 75 million are unemployed. A CYCLE OF WAR & BLOODSHED AVOIDED The deal in Geneva will only release around four billion dollars in frozen Iranian assets in western banks. The sanctions on Iran’s trade in gold, petrochemicals, automobile and plane parts have also been temporarily lifted. Critics of the agreement say that Iran has made too many concessions, including opening its nuclear facilities to “intrusive inspections” by the IAEA in return for what US officials have described as “modest, reversible” sanctions relief. The November 24 agreement, according to policy makers in Washington and Teheran, 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 Washington’s insistence that Iran was building nuclear weapons. Teheran all the while has been saying that as a signatory of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) it only wants to harness nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Iran’s top leadership, including the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameinei, 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’s Khamenei’s guidance and said that the Iranian negotiators had struck to 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 fulsome 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 usurious sanctions regime on Iran and 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 UN’s chief weapons inspector in Iraq before the American invasion, has observed that the interim agreement has given the Obama administration the opportunity to move away from “its self-appointed role as global policeman” that 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 and instead opted for a political settlement in Syria. AGREEMENT: WIN-WIN SITUATION FOR ALL The American president, Barack Obama, speaking after the signing of the agreement said that though the announcement was a “first step” it has 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,” the American president asserted. The Iranian president, on the other hand, said that the agreement showed that the “world powers had recognised Iran’s nuclear rights.” The Iranian president 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 Teheran and Washington restore lost confidence. “The Iranian people demand respect for their rights and dignity,” he added. The deal has been welcomed in all the world’s capitals, except Tel Aviv. Israel is still threatening to use force against Iran with the country’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, describing the deal as “a historical mistake.” Israel, he asserted, is 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 has become a much more dangerous place after the signing of the interim agreement. But his views only found resonance among sections of the “neo cons” and those under the influence of the powerful pro-Israeli lobbying groups in the US Congress. A recent opinion poll showed that a majority of Americans are for good relations between Washington and Teheran. 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 focused on Iran, the Palestinian issue will once again come to the front burner. The Israeli prime minister has also been suggesting that many countries in West Asia also share his negative views on the agreement. But the Gulf monarchies, led by Saudi Arabia, which had earlier voiced 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.” The UAE foreign minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, 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 other GCC member states to appraise the leadership in those two countries about the latest developments. The Iranian president has been invited by the Turkish prime minister, Tayyep Recip Erdogan, to visit his country. The two countries were at loggerheads over Syria and other issues till 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 US-Iran relations along with the American pivot to East Asia will be to their detriment. There is a realisation that with the US 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 in issuing 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 could lead to a win-win situation for all. Tensions could be reduced in the Gulf region leading to a stabilisation of oil prices. Even the much touted Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline could become a reality.