By Rakesh Sood
April 7, 2015
Signing of ‘Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’ closes Iran’s route to nuclear weapons, introduces stringent monitoring, & builds confidence by phasing out sanctions.
The signing of the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action regarding Iran’s Nuclear Programme” last week, between Iran and P5+1, is the first definitive step on a road that will be long and tortuous but carries profound implications for the West Asian region as a whole. It initiates a thaw in regional political equations that have remained frozen since the 1979 Islamic Revolution when relations between the United States and Iran ruptured. During the last 18 months, it had become clear that within the P5+1, the principal negotiator was the U.S. and it sometimes faced difficulties in keeping its Western partners in line. In 2003-04, the E-3 (the United Kingdom, France and Germany) had come close to a deal that would have constrained Iran’s nuclear programme earlier, but it could not materialise because the U.S. was not at the table.
Israeli and Saudi concerns
Both Saudi Arabia and Israel, key U.S. allies in the region are upset and tried to scuttle the deal, but the Obama administration was resolute in pursuing the negotiations. On March 3, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the U.S. Congress in an unprecedented example of political theatre to criticise the deal even as he faced an uncertain re-election in his country a fortnight later.
Mr. Netanyahu claimed that the deal “would not block but pave the way” in furthering Iran’s nuclear ambitions and called for more sanctions against Iran. U.S. President Barack Obama, who had declined to receive Mr. Netanyahu during his Washington trip, dismissed the speech as “offering no viable alternative to the current negotiations”. Mr. Netanyahu’s address was followed by an open letter — signed by 47 U.S. senators and addressed to the Iranian leadership — cautioning against signing any deal that would not be approved by the Congress. While Mr. Obama’s task of convincing the Congress about the merits of a deal with Iran was hard enough, Mr. Netanyahu’s speech and the consequent heightened polarisation only rendered it harder.
The U.S. kept the Saudi leadership briefed about the negotiations but Saudi apprehensions remain. Hints have been dropped that Saudi Arabia — and possibly other Sunni majority states such as Egypt and Turkey — will demand the same rights of accessing and retaining uranium enrichment technology as provided to Iran, a suggestion that makes the Western non-proliferation lobby highly nervous. It is no secret that the Pakistani nuclear programme was funded with generous Saudi support and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s recent visit to that country promptly led to speculation that Pakistan was being told that the time was coming when it may have to make good on its nuclear debts.
U.S. Rationale and Iranian Stakes
Mr. Obama’s consistent position has been that the U.S. will do whatever it takes (a euphemism that covers military means) to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The rationale for the talks is that in the last decade, Iran has slowly built up its capabilities and in the absence of any deal, Iran can move rapidly to develop a nuclear weapon capability. In November 2013, when Iran agreed to freeze its programme and engage in negotiations, it was reported to have a breakout time of three months — in three months, Iran would have sufficient, high enriched uranium (20-25 kg) to produce one bomb. Further, the likelihood of a successful air strike against the underground facility at Fordow constructed during the last decade was remote.
The Stuxnet cyber attack had slowed Iran’s enrichment programme, but since then Iran had strengthened its cyber capabilities, both defensive and offensive. The changing political dynamics in Iraq and the emergence of new Jihadi forces in the aftermath of the Arab Spring necessitated a fresh regional approach. Political support for sustaining enhanced sanctions on Iran was eroding and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s election offered a window of political opportunity. The U.S. responded with a new policy — a freeze on an Iranian nuclear build-up, an elimination of certain capabilities thereby increasing the breakout time to a year or more, a tighter inspection regime to detect any clandestine activity, accompanied by a phased removal of nuclear-related sanctions — all this based on the assumption that if this could be sustained for a decade or more, it would lead to a gradual moderation in Iran’s behaviour.
For Iran and Mr. Rouhani, the stakes are high. Iran’s regional influence has grown with the U.S. exits from Iraq and Afghanistan but the low oil prices coupled with the economic sanctions are hurting. Mr. Rouhani had handled the nuclear negotiations a decade ago and enjoys a degree of credibility but space for any manoeuvre is limited and timing is critical.
A failure in the talks means that Mr. Rouhani will not win the 2016 Majlis elections. While Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has given his blessings for the talks, the hardliners feel that now is not the time for compromises. More important, the hardliners do not want the deal to signify a movement towards a normalisation of ties with the U.S. but want its scope limited to ensuring sanctions relief. According to them, Mr. Netanyahu’s re-election and an Obama approaching the end of his tenure is not a combination that can deliver.
The hardliners have already ensured the election of Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi as Chairman of the Assembly of Experts against former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, widely seen as a moderate and a Rouhani supporter. The Assembly is an important body that guides the Supreme Leader and also chooses his successor. Its eight-year term ends in 2016 and alignments are under way for the new Assembly because the Supreme Leader is over 75 and, reportedly, somewhat frail.
Mr. Netanyahu’s surprise victory in his re-election last month will raise the brinkmanship in the coming months when the negotiators seek to hammer out the technical details by June 30. His position is that Iran must be stopped from having any capability that permits it to become a threshold nuclear weapon state because the Iranian regime cannot be trusted. Its nuclear infrastructure must be dismantled, sanctions tightened and only a new regime in Iran will moderate its revolutionary ideology. At this stage, any sanctions relief will be used by Iran to further destabilise the region. However, Mr. Netanyahu’s extreme rhetoric troubles a significant section of the Israelis who believe that such an approach jeopardises U.S.-Israel relations by introducing an element of polarisation in what has so far been the U.S.’s unconditional and bipartisan support to Israel.
Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, together with a number of former generals, have stated that a military option against Iranian nuclear facilities is unviable and the U.S. and Israel have to work together to manage Iran’s transition towards moderating its posture. They are concerned that the U.S. has dropped the linkage between Iran’s requirement of low enrichment uranium and the number of centrifuges needed by conceding Iran’s intrinsic right to enrichment but are still prepared to live with a limited frozen capacity provided there is a strengthened inspection regime that guarantees an absence of any clandestine activity.
Nuts And Bolts of Deal
The framework announced on April 2 limits Iran to operating only 5,060 centrifuges of the old variety for 10 years, places a restriction of 3.67 per cent enrichment for 15 years and reduces the 10,000 kg stockpile of enriched uranium to 300 kg. No fissile material can be introduced into the secure facility at Fordow for the next 15 years while the heavy water research reactor at Arak will be modified so that it does not produce any weapons grade plutonium. Its existing core as well as any subsequent spent fuel will be shipped out of the country. Most significant is the opening up of the supply chain that supports Iran’s nuclear programme to international accounting and inspection, restrictions on centrifuge research, development and manufacturing units, and uranium mines and mills, which will remain in place for 25 years. There remain some problem areas to be ironed out over the next three months — a dispute resolution mechanism, measures to resolve concerns about earlier military aspects of its programme possibly at Parchin which Iran has kept out of bounds, establishing a dedicated procurement channel and, finally, a phasing out of the sanctions regime. Only nuclear-related sanctions will be eased while other sanctions pertaining to ballistic missile activity, terrorism and human rights issues will remain in place. Mr. Obama’s authority to waive Congressionally-mandated sanctions may face a challenge at home, though his authority for implementing an Executive Agreement is considerable.
The agreed framework meets the test of a good deal. It closes Iran’s route to nuclear weapons, constrains elements of its programme that generate concern for a decade and more, deters breakout by introducing stringent monitoring, and helps build confidence by phasing out sanctions. Most importantly, diplomacy has achieved more than what a military strike could have achieved. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s skills to manage a tricky process despite the disbelievers, in evidence over the 19 rounds of talks spread over 18 months, and Mr. Obama and Mr. Rouhani’s sense of conviction and political leadership will be on test in the coming months as they seek to embed the nuclear deal in a broader regional strategy against the backdrop of increasing volatility and nervous allies.
(Rakesh Sood, a former Ambassador, was the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation till May 2014. E-mail: email@example.com)