The world has a narrow window of opportunity to rein in Tehran's atomic research
The nuclear deal between Iran and six major powers – P5+1 – is like a feeble baby delivered after an unusually long labour, with the parents holding breath to see if the newly arrived can survive the crucial early months. Though the official birth date was November 24, 2013, the deal came to life on Monday, when Tehran stopped enriching uranium beyond 5 per cent. US President Barack Obama, the lead midwife, has put the chance of the baby’s survival at no more than 50:50. Such caution is warranted.
Groundbreaking international agreements such as the one in Geneva two months ago materialise only when the convergence of seemingly diverse interests of countries reaches critical mass. Such moments are rare in history.
There was pressure on both sides to strike a deal because the window of opportunity, afforded by the election of the moderate Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s president in June, was limited. And the clock was ticking on when Iran’s stockpile of 20 per cent enriched uranium would reach 250 kilograms, considered enough to make one atom bomb if the fissile material were enriched to weapons-grade 90 per cent purity.
During a crucial meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned that if an agreement was not reached, hardliners would be in the driving seat in Tehran in six months – evidently referring to March elections for the Iranian parliament, a powerful body in the Islamic Republic.
Regular elections to Iran’s parliament and presidency provide an opportunity for voters to shape the regime’s policies. The economic downturn wrought by the US-led sanctions on oil sales, financial transactions, airlines and transportation led the electorate to favour moderate, pragmatic Rouhani. In Washington the Geneva Accord enabled Obama to show that the peaceful strategy of economic sanctions had worked, saving the world from the potentially catastrophic consequences of hot war with Iran.
Above and beyond these practical considerations hung an overarching reassessment of the region by Obama against the background of the three-year-long turmoil in the Middle East, from Tunisia to Syria. That turbulence has made Iran appear “an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world”, to borrow US president Jimmy Carter’s words from 37 years ago, referring to rule under the Shah.
Obama had already quietly discontinued the programme to subvert the Islamic Republic authorised by president George W Bush after the latter had listed it as one the three members of the “Axis of Evil” in January 2002. Furthermore, Obama and his aides realised that, given the Leviathan power of the Pentagon, it was easy to launch a war in the Greater Middle East but onerous to end it and manage unexpected consequences. Washington’s involvement in hot wars in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001 has engendered widespread war weariness among Americans.
The latest Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll showed support for the Geneva Accord by a 2-to-1 margin, with only 20 per cent favouring military action against Iran if the deal fails. “This absolutely speaks to war fatigue where the American appetite for intervention – anywhere – is extremely low,” said Julia Clark of Ipsos, according to a Reuters report. Those in the pro-Geneva Accord column understood that failure to reach a peaceful agreement with the Iranians would lead to military strikes by Israel with or without Pentagon involvement, which would escalate to regional war with calamitous consequences.
Earlier, such considerations did not seem to count much with most US opinion-shapers. Burdened with the notion of the self-imposed “global responsibilities” of Washington, they goaded Obama to punish Syria’s President Bashar Assad for deploying chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war in August. Obama then floated the idea of getting congressional approval for military strikes. Reflecting popular opinion, a large majority of US lawmakers were unwilling, and their resolve stiffened when the British parliament gave thumbs down to a similar request by Prime Minister David Cameron. Russian President Vladimir Putin, an ally of Assad, then proposed destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, providing Obama the opt-out he needed.
In the game that all politicians play, each side stressed that it got the better of the other. Zarif said the threat of US military strikes was gone. Kerry disagreed. Zarif argued that the agreement explicitly recognised Iran’s right to enrich uranium. Kerry differed, though does so implicitly.
As a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran is entitled to nuclear power. The long-running dispute boils down to how and how much. The Geneva Accord says that “a comprehensive agreement would involve a mutually defined enrichment programme with practical limits and transparency” with the proviso that such an enrichment must be consistent with “the practical needs” of Iran.
More specifically, each side had to cover itself against an attack by hardliners at home and in the region. In his nationally televised speech to the students of the Shaheed Beheshti University in December, Rouhani said: “Nuclear energy is our absolute right, yes, but the right to progress, development, improving people’s livelihood and welfare is also our definite right.” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei welcomed the deal and said the negotiators “deserved to be appreciated and thanked”.
Earlier that month, Zarif had finished a four-day whirlwind tour of the capitals of Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates to brief them on the accord and allay fears. Zarif also wrote in a Facebook post that he was ready for negotiations with Saudi Arabia whenever Riyadh was ready and added that talks would be “beneficial for both countries, the region and the Muslim world”. Earlier, the Saudi Cabinet had said, “If there is goodwill, this agreement could represent a preliminary step toward a comprehensive solution to the Iranian nuclear programme.”
In his speech at the regional security conference in Manama, Bahrain, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel reassured his audience from the Gulf monarchies of the Pentagon’s commitment to protect them. He referred to some 35,000 land, sea and air forces in and near the Persian Gulf. He added that the planned $580-million expansion plan for the combined headquarters of the US Fifth Fleet and the US Naval Forces Central Command in Manama was on track. None of this pacifies Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who wants nothing less than total shutdown of Iran’s nuclear programme.
Both sides stressed that it’s an interim deal for six months during which a comprehensive, permanent accord must be hammered out. However, there is a provision for the extension of this period. Of course, several things could go wrong and derail the accord – if, for instance, Iran “forgot” to declare a secret nuclear facility subsequently discovered by the US Central Intelligence Agency or Israel’s foreign or military intelligence, Mossad or Aman.
Unsurprisingly, Netanyahu has charged his intelligence agents to focus on finding Iran’s clandestine uranium enrichment sites, its designs for making a nuclear bomb, and ballistic missiles programme. This is one part of his dual-track policy. The other is appointment of a committee of Israeli nuclear experts to work with US counterparts to work out details of a permanent agreement with Iran.
Another major sticking point could emerge from the provision in the agreement which requires the signatories and the International Atomic Energy Agency to facilitate resolution of past and present issues of concern. Controversial activities at the Parchin military site before autumn of 2003 will be examined, which could prove to be the proverbial Pandora’s box.
Dilip Hiro is the author of “Apocalyptic Realm: Jihadists in South Asia”. His latest book is “A Comprehensive Dictionary of the Middle East”.