After more than a decade of on-off-on-again negotiations, interspersed with the occasional threats and outbreaks of name-calling, the P+1 group (the US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany) and Iran have reached an historic agreement to rein in Iran’s nuclear program. In return, Iran has gained relief from the roster of onerous international economic and financial sanctions that have been imposed upon it for years and that have stymied growth, trade and fueled growing disgruntlement by ordinary Iranians over the country’s economic circumstances.
As the AP reported the accord’s announcement shortly after it was announced, “The deal comes after nearly a decade of international, intercontinental diplomacy that until recently was defined by failure. Breaks in the talks sometimes lasted for months, and Iran’s nascent nuclear program expanded into one that Western intelligence agencies saw as only a couple of months away from weapons capacity. The US and Israel both threatened possible military responses. The United States joined the negotiations in 2008, and US and Iranian officials met together secretly four years later in Oman to see if diplomatic progress was possible.
“But the process remained essentially stalemated until summer 2013, when Rouhani was elected president and declared his country ready for serious compromise. More secret US-Iranian discussions followed, culminating in a face-to-face meeting between [US secretary of state] Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the United Nations in September 2013 and a telephone conversation between Rouhani and President Barack Obama. That conversation marked the two countries’ highest diplomatic exchange since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and the ensuing hostage crisis at the American embassy in Tehran.”
Looking forward, if all goes according to the plan, there will be an extensive regimen of international inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities, a draw-down of weapons-grade uranium stores, the deactivation and storage of those gaseous separation centrifuges (high tech equipment essential in separating out the fissile uranium from its more stable sister uranium isotope), a continuing ban on Iranian conventional weapons procurement from abroad for years to come, and a rollback of economic and financial sanctions against Iran (including allowing that nation to sell its bountiful petroleum to European customers). At its core, the almost hundred-page-long document (the basic agreement and the so-called additional protocols) is designed to preclude Iran from producing enough material for an atomic weapon for at least 10 years and to impose unprecedented provisions for international inspections of Iranian facilities, including its heretofore secret military sites.
All of this came out of discussions in Lausanne, Switzerland earlier this year among the same parties that came together this time. That earlier set of negotiations had produced an interim agreement that had temporarily restrained Tehran’s nuclear program and frozen some previously locked Iranian assets, thereby setting in motion the momentum for this new, comprehensive accord.
Shortly after the agreement was announced in Vienna, US President Barack Obama was on domestic and international television to hail this agreement as a major win for both sides. His comments were carried live on Iranian television. Meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Roubani also made an announcement broadcast internationally as well as within Iran that similarly trumpeted the value of the agreement.
In his remarks, Obama said, “This deal offers an opportunity to move in a new direction. We should seize it.” He argued that the landmark nuclear deal “is not built on trust, it is built on verification” – a fascinating echo of the late President Ronald Reagan’s quip in dealing with the Soviet Union in the Cold War that he believed in the formula, “trust but verify”.
Obama went on to say all of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon have now been cut off under the terms of the agreement. Iran will now have to remove two-thirds of its installed centrifuges and get rid of 98% of its current stockpile of such uranium. In exchange, Iran will gain phased-in sanctions relief – as it fulfills the provisions in the deal. In a shot against all those Republicans threatening to oppose the agreement, Obama threatened to veto any legislation that would be designed to block implementation of the agreement, as he argued that without this deal there is “a greater chance of more war” in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, for his part, Roubani said “a new chapter” has begun in his nation’s relations with the world, although he was at pains to insist his nation had never tried to build an atomic weapon in the first place, an assertion the US and the other P+1 negotiating partners have long disputed. As Roubani told his nation, “Iran has never sought to manufacture a nuclear weapon and will never seek to manufacture a nuclear weapon. The whole world knows very well that manufacturing a nuclear bomb… is considered forbidden.”
Unsurprisingly, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu disagreed strenuously with the announced agreement, calling it a “bad mistake of historic proportions”. In the past, the Israeli government has reserved the right to take unilateral action against Iranian nuclear facilities – if the Israelis make the determination such moves became necessary. While the Saudis have yet to make any public statements about the agreement, like the Israelis, they have been deeply mistrustful of Iranian intentions and actions in the region and they have, in fact, faced off militarily against Iranian surrogates in Yemen with their attacks on Houthi rebels.
Meanwhile, in the US, Republican figures wasted little time in denouncing the announced agreement. Typical was a statement released in John Bolton’s name that read, “This act of appeasement by the Obama administration now legitimizes both Iran’s path to nuclear weapons and the terrorist regime itself. It endangers the national security interests of the US, Israel, and allies across the world.” Bolton had served as US ambassador to the UN in the George W Bush administration.
And Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a declared Republican presidential candidate, insisted Congress would reject the agreement with Iran, saying the deal “undermines our national security” and that Obama gave “concession after concession to a regime that has American blood on its hands, holds Americans hostage, and has consistently violated every agreement it ever signed”. He went on to argue the failure of congressional backing will mean that this agreement becomes “Barack Obama’s deal, not an agreement with lasting support from the United States.” Rubio hasn’t done an actual head count in the Senate, but it is true that some Democrats are also less than ironclad supporters of the agreement. As such, it would seem Obama has some serious political arm-twisting ahead of him if he hopes to get the Senate’s backing.
Much US discussion, especially now that the country has entered the presidential election season already, will inevitably focus on that question of inspections, as well as the actual possibilities of implementing those ‘snap back’ provisions for a return of sanctions, should Iran renege on parts of the agreement, or if inspectors find actual breaches of the agreement in Iran’s nuclear facilities. There will also be concerns about how well the P+1 coalition will stand together in the face of Iranian infractions.
Given the range of skeptics in his political opponents’ camp, Obama’s immediate job will be to hold back attempts by the US Congress to levy new sanctions on Iran or block his ability to suspend existing ones. In Iran, too, it is also clear politically potent hardliners have similarly been opposed to this bargain and there might well be trouble ahead for Roubani and his government in terms of gaining full backing by the religious leaders in that country.
On their way to this final accord, after the earlier April agreement, this time around, the negotiators went on more than two weeks after their original deadline, and various officials from the seven nations shunted in and out of the talks as the negotiations dragged on. Along the way, senior American and Iranian diplomats had both threatened to walk away from the talks if there was no visible progress. Looking back at the journey, US Secretary of State John Kerry said, “Believe me, had we been willing to settle for a lesser deal we would have finished this negation a long time ago.”
Analysts are already doing their sums over the economic benefits that will accrue to Iran, just as long as the agreement stands. These will include the release of around $100 billion in Iranian assets now frozen overseas, an end to the European embargo against Iranian oil exports, and the relaxation of various financial restrictions on Iranian banks. Analysts are also trying to assess the impact of a flood of Iranian oil released into the market on world oil prices. The simple answer and an easy bet would be significant and increasing downward pressure on global oil prices. Good for consumers but not so good for exporting nations like Russia, Nigeria and others dependent on oil revenues to pay for state budgets.
In return for the movement on this economic and financial basket, the Iranians have acquiesced to a continuation of the UN arms embargo on it for up to half a decade more, although that could end sooner if the International Atomic Energy Agency definitively clears Iran of any current work on nuclear weapons. There is a similar condition that has also been put in place regarding UN restrictions on the transfer of ballistic missile technology to Tehran. This limitation could last for up to eight years. The specific impetus for these further limitations largely came from the US which has been increasingly focused on preventing any Iranian trade in weapons in order to expand its military support for Bashar al Assad’s regime in Syria, the Houthis in Yemen or the Hezbollah irregulars.
Perhaps even more important than the more general agreement on inspections, the new accord allows UN inspectors from the IAEA to visit Iranian military sites as part of their monitoring tasks, a provision that the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had vowed to oppose. Such access is not unfettered, however. The Iranians could delay such inspections – and this is an element of the new agreement that its critics internationally and in the US political arena are already honing in on as they make their case against the treaty.
Under the just-announced agreement, Iran will have the right to challenge UN requests. In such circumstances, an arbitration board comprising representatives from the P+1 nations and Iran would have to rule on the matter. The IAEA also hopes to finish up its long-stymied investigation of earlier weapons work undertaken by Iran, and, as a result of all of these critically important provisions, the Americans say that Iranian co-operation in such areas will be required to ensure all economic sanctions are lifted. In this regard, IAEA head Yukiya Amano added that the IAEA and Iran had worked out and signed a roadmap to resolve remaining outstanding concerns – hopefully by the middle of December.
Commenting on that aspect of the agreement, The Economist noted, “Iran will be able to begin deployment of advanced enrichment centrifuges after the first 10 years of an agreement, but for 15 years it will have to keep its stockpile of low-enriched uranium below 300kg. After that, Iran will be able to develop the industrial-scale enrichment it seeks, but while its breakout time to a bomb will notionally diminish from the one year sought by the agreement, its obligations under the AP are perpetual, ensuring that even as its nuclear program starts to expand again it will do so under conditions of far greater transparency than in the past. As long as future American presidents remain committed to preventing Iran from ever having a bomb and will use force if necessary to prevent it, deterrence should be maintained.”
Throughout the negotiations there were, inevitably, arguments, the usual shouting and hair-pulling, probably a bit of coffee cup slamming onto the top of the conference table, and even threats to pull the plug on the negotiations themselves, as noted earlier. But, by Monday, 13 July, solutions to the remaining outstanding issues had been nailed down in a meeting that first brought together Kerry, European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif joined the meeting later and when the various negotiators had emerged from that huddle, they could tell their aides (and the world) that the deed was done.
By the time the pushing and shoving over this accord comes to an end among senators and with all the shouting from would-be presidential candidates and from criticism of the agreement by the likes of Netanyahu, the Obama administration may begin to feel that negotiating with the Iranians was the easy part – and Roubani, facing his own battles with the hardliners in his own nation, may begin to share something of the same feeling.
All in all, though, The Economist, in gaming the outcome of the political processes, argued, “But judged by more pragmatic standards, the deal, while not perfect, appears much better than any of the plausible alternatives. Republicans in Congress and their hardline counterparts in Tehran will still try to prevent the deal’s implementation. But they are unlikely to succeed. Mr Obama told opponents its opponents in Washington that it fully met the national security interests of America and its allies. He warned: ‘So I will veto any legislation that prevents the successful implementation of this deal. We do not have to accept an inevitable spiral into conflict. And we certainly shouldn’t seek it. And precisely because the stakes are so high this is not the time for politics or posturing. Tough talk from Washington does not solve problems’ Mr Obama looks to have enough Democratic senators on his side to sustain his veto. As for Iran, it is almost inconceivable that its supreme leader, despite his ambivalence about many aspects of the deal, will now allow the work of his negotiators to unravel.”
As a result, the accord may just possibly do what it has been designed to do – make the Middle East just that bit less dangerous a spread of real estate than it was. If such a thing happens, while the Obama administration will have long since moved off into history, the president and his colleagues will be able to claim this as a win and do a victory lap – at least in their memoirs about their stint in the West Wing of the White House and at the state department in Foggy Bottom. While it will still be too early to re-establish diplomatic relations between the US and Iran and to reopen their respective embassies, as with Cuba, this has already moved a notch from the days when the US was labelled the ‘The Great Satan’ and charges Iran is a prime fomenter of global terrorism.
The author settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the University of Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, runs a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one.
This article first appeared in Daily Maverick, a leading newspaper of South Africa. Click here to go to the original.