When the Unthinkable Becomes Possible

The deal between Iran and the P5+1 group (the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany) would have been unthinkable a few months ago but is a reality now. It is just an interim agreement which may provoke international and domestic opposition (both in the US and Iran), but it is undoubtedly an important first step, not only to deal with the nuclear issue but also to more general normalization. 

This is probably the first positive development in a decade-long crisis that erupted with the revelation of Iran nuclear facilities in 2002. But its importance goes beyond, since it may also be the first approximation to what could be a normalization in relations.

In short, Iran agrees to certain limitations of its nuclear programme while the P5+1 removes certain economic sanctions. During six months, the parties agree to:

Iran

  • Uranium enrichment above 5% halted.
  • Stockpile of 20% enriched uranium to be diluted or converted to a form not suitable for further enrichment (oxide, for fuel fabrication).
  • Stockpile of 3.5% enriched uranium to remain untouched (not increased) at the end of six months
  • No more centrifuges installed, centrifuge production just for replacement, and IAEA access to places where they are assembled.
  • No further construction or experimental work at the Arak reactor, and no new locations for enrichment (halting plans for new ten sites).
  • Daily monitoring of enrichment, and more access to uranium mines.

P5+1

  • No new nuclear-related economic sanctions, particularly for oil.
  • Relief of sanctions on Iran exports of gold, some metals, auto sector and petrochemical sectors.
  • Part of $4.2bn frizzed assets from Iran oil sales allowed to be transferred.
  • Part of $400m frizzed Iranian funds allowed to be transferred for educational purposes.
  • More flexibility for non-sanctioned trade with Europe.

The whole amount of Iran assets now available is around $7 billion, according to some analysts. A Joint Commission is also established to monitor implementation and address issues that may arise.

The next phase of negotiations is scheduled in six months (provided that both parts adhere and comply) and expected to seek a more permanent and comprehensive agreement. What the concrete points in the table will be is unknown, but an ambitious attempt would seek to remove all sanctions on Iran in exchange of this country accepting further supervision of nuclear activities that in fact prevent it from developing nuclear weapons.

A few topics to be addressed in the final agreement have been laid out in the pact, as well as the goal of reaching it within a year. These elements include:

  • Comprehensive relief for sanctions (multilateral, national and those of the Security Council).
  • Limits established for a fixed term, after which Iran civilian program will be treated such as that of any other country party of the Non Proliferation Treaty.
  • A limited (but continued) enrichment program.
  • Resolve concerns over the Arak reactor.
  • Enhanced monitoring.
  • A step by step approach, and the principle that ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’.

Back to the current situation, progress can be hampered by a great deal of problems. The obvious first case: any of the parts fail to comply. Iran could still try to restrict IAEA supervision. The US Congress could refuse to lift sanctions (in this case, however, it is worth remembering that many sanctions were imposed by Presidential Decree and the president can cancel them without Congress approval. And of course, the European Union can (and should) act independently).

Hardliners, both in Iran and in the US, may attempt to boycott any development, or be ready to take advantage of any problem to derail the whole process.

Any international diplomatic effort involves a degree of intangible –but key- issues. One of them is trust. A long problematic relationship such as the US-Iran one creates distrust and suspicion, issues that are difficult to overcome.

The main advantage of this deal is that it relies on a series of specific, measurable and verifiable actions by each part, leaving less space for those matters to play a role. In this sense, the agreement is ground-breaking in that it has created a concrete agenda for cooperative action.

In this regard, former Iranian president Rafsanjani has argued in an interview with the Financial Times that a comprehensive deal will be easier after the taboo (of talking to each other) has been broken. While the interim deal required “breaking the ice, the second stage will be more routine. Part of it was because talking to the US was a taboo. That taboo could not be easily broken.”

The reactions, and what they mean

Israel and Saudi Arabia have been the harshest critics of the agreement (although there are more, of course). Israel has called it a ‘historical mistake’ while Saudi Arabia had repeatedly threatened before with developing its own nuclear programme in case a nuclear Iran was tolerated.

What both countries have in common is that they have been the closest US allies in the region for decades. Both have been dependent on the US for matters of national security (including at times direct military involvement). And the US has intervened in whatever problem in the region in order to protect them.

Instances of US support for Israel are widely known. But the same plays for Saudi Arabia. Only US protection provided this kingdom with the kind of security needed to transform oil revenues into political power and influence throughout the Arab and Muslim world. Israel and Saudi Arabia have also enjoyed for a long time the greatest levels of influence in Washington. This could no longer be the case.

For the US, a new situation is emerging in the region after Afghanistan and Iraq, the Syrian and Libyan wars, and the Arab spring. Turmoil has increased, autocratic regimes have proven to be unreliable partners and there is a rise in radical Sunni forces. Iran, with all its Shia agenda, can be a counter balance to those forces.

Other members of the P5+1 are also adapting their strategies. France challenged previous attempts to reach an agreement, probably with an eye on its own defence and energy companies and the market possibilities of the Persian Gulf regimes. Meanwhile, Germany and the UK have taken into account the opportunities that Iran provides for their energy firms.

Whatever the rhetoric, Israel is clearly benefited with the deal. It may have to get used to the new Iran regional status, although it could benefit from it provided that it weakens other Arab states. Prominent members of the security forces have taken views that are significantly different from those of Netanyahu maximalist instance (maybe because they are conscious of this reality).

Saudi Arabia and Gulf monarchies are those who should feel more endangered, given that their concern goes beyond nuclear issues. A US- Iran normalized relationship is a nightmare for Riyadh, given their concerns over Iranian rise and the fact that they still face potential domestic consequences of the Arab turmoil. It also goes against their positions in the Syrian conflict. In short, the changing geopolitical trends in the Middle East are aligning against them in terms of foreign and domestic policy.

To conclude this long entry. One point for the critics: Yes, it is only a partial agreement with a six-month duration; it will face huge obstacles; and a final comprehensive deal may be much more difficult. And one point for the defenders. The deal has the advantage of being action-based, with verifiable and measurable indicators of compliance. It may create room for trust and constructive relations. And is an example of how diplomacy may achieve more than hostility (and of course war).

Let’s see what happens. 

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