News | December 05, 2013

EastWest Direct: The Iran Deal

Last week, the P5+1 major world powers convened in Geneva to strike a six-month interim deal with Iran on Tehran’s nuclear program. The deal, which essentially freezes Iran’s nuclear program, granting limited relief from UN sanctions, has sparked sharply diverging reactions.

EWI's Bethany Allen spoke with Raymond Karam, EWI program associate and Washington, D.C. representative, who discussed the implications of the deal.

The nuclear deal with Iran has drawn strong criticism as a compromise that exposes fractures in the sanctions coalition against Iran, dismantling hard-won sanctions without having reached the goal of implementing maximum limits on Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Are the concessions to Iran’s nuclear fuel-making program a reasonable step in the right direction, or do they pose a grave danger to the future of non-proliferation in the region?

It is important to remember that the P5+1 (or EU3+3) which negotiated and signed off on this interim deal with Iran includes all five Permanent Members of the Security Council in addition to Germany. These are the same countries that passed the sanctions resolutions. 

The deal itself, which is a renewable six months interim deal, puts limits down on Iran's nuclear program that would make it harder for Tehran to build a weapon and easier for the world to find out if it tried. 

In it, Iran agreed to cap its enrichment level to a maximum of 5 percent, which is well below the 90 percent threshold needed for a warhead. Iran also pledged to "neutralize" its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium—the highest level acknowledged by Tehran—by either diluting its strength or converting it to fuel for its research reactors, which produced isotopes for medical treatments and other civilian uses.

Iran also agreed to halt work on a planned heavy water reactor in Arak, southwest of Tehran. Heavy water is a compound used to cool nuclear reactors, which do not need enriched uranium to operate. Heavy water reactors also produce a greater amount of plutonium as a byproduct, which could be used to make warhead material. Iran does not currently possess the technology to extract the plutonium, and promised in Geneva not to seek it.

The deal also gives inspectors from the UN's nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, faster and broader access to Iran's atomic facilities and obligates Iran to address all UN Security Council concerns, including those around the Parchin military compound outside Tehran. Parchin has been suspected of housing a secret underground facility used for Iran's nuclear program, a claim denied by Iran. UN nuclear inspectors twice visited the site, but seek a third tour.

In return, Iran receives a rollback in some sanctions—a total package estimated by the White House at $7 billion back into the Iranian economy—but the main pressures remain on Iran's oil exports and its blacklist from international banking networks during the first steps of the pact over the next six months.

It also opens up $4.2 billion from oil sales to be transferred in installments over the next six months as various compliance stages are reached. That's still a very small sum in a country that was once one of OPEC's top exporters.

The deal also offers Iran some sanctions easing on gold and other precious metals, as well as Iran's automobile and aviation industries and petrochemical exports. The P5+1 further agreed to hold off any new nuclear-related sanctions for at least six months in exchange for Iranian adherence to the deal.

Above all, the deal removes the immediate threat of unilateral military action and the potentially grave consequences such action would have for the world and the authority of the United Nations. The interim agreement now gives the negotiating states six months working space, and up to a year if renewed, to achieve a comprehensive peaceful settlement. The US is now able to move away from the rhetoric of military confrontation that neither President Obama, the U.S. public nor the world is comfortable with and instead share responsibility with all other permanent members of the UN security council, Germany and the EU, thus strengthening the P5+1 and facilitating action that will need to be taken within the Security Council and the UN system.

 

What challenges will the U.S. face at the negotiating table six months from now, when participating powers will seek a more permanent agreement on Iran’s nuclear program?

The next six months of negotiations will be very difficult as success would require another vast investment of effort and political capital from both presidents, and would be hostage to developments elsewhere, especially in Syria. There is a threat that the deal could fall apart almost immediately in the face of hardline objections in Washington and Tehran. A congressional vote now for more sanctions would almost certainly derail it. Iranian conservatives would see such an act as American duplicity and it would make it extremely hard to ever seal another agreement. Iranian conservatives would be likely to accelerate Iranian nuclear development, bringing a conflict closer.

The most important challenge is to ensure that the permanent agreement limits the activity of the Iranian nuclear program to plausible civilian uses subject to comprehensive monitoring as required by the Non-Proliferation Treaty. To quote a recent op-ed authored by former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz: “Any final deal must ensure the world's ability to detect a move toward a nuclear breakout, lengthen the world's time to react, and underscore its determination to do so.”

 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has labeled this deal “a historic mistake,” arguing that Iran, like North Korea in 2005, is using diplomacy as a distraction to allow it to make a jump forward in its nuclear program. Do you believe that this is the case, or is Iran making a good-faith effort to reach rapprochement with global powers after a decades-long standoff?

Despite the negative response from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the agreement, the deal is not really a bad one for Israel. For the first time in a decade, Iran will be freezing its progress on its nuclear program, and is even rolling back certain parts of the program that particularly concerned Israel.

Netanyahu has made it his mission to protect Israel from a potential Iranian nuclear attack and for a while, it looked like Israeli military action—with or without U.S. involvement—was simply a matter of time. But, now, most of the world wants to find a diplomatic resolution of the Iranian nuclear problem, compromising with Tehran in order to avoid another war.

For Netanyahu, the devil is not in the details but in the bigger picture, as he believes that the deal fast-forwards American-Iranian relations and may thereby redraw the strategic map of the Middle East. Israel enjoys its status-quo as the Middle Eastern unchallenged military power and any potential challenge is viewed as a threat. 

However, Israel will need to adapt to a changing world where its military power, while still unmatched in the region, won’t be enough to ensure its security. It will need to consider other means of protecting its interests and defusing tensions.

 

Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. partner in the region, is not alone in its fear that the deal marks a shift in the geopolitics of the Middle East. With the U.S. pivot to Asia, news of secret U.S. talks with Syria and Iran, and speculation that U.S. influence in the Middle East is on the decline, will we begin to see regional realignments in response to the changing political milieu?

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States have been lumped together with Israel as opposed to the deal struck in Geneva. However, the Gulf States have taken a different approach

The Saudi government issued a carefully worded statement that cautiously welcomed the deal adding that it “views the agreement as a primary step toward a comprehensive solution to the Iranian nuclear issue provided it leads to a Middle East and Gulf region free of all weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons.”

However, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies are not merely concerned about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. They have a more profound fear that geopolitical trends in the Middle East are aligning against them, threatening both their regional stature and their domestic security. Their basic assumption is that whatever’s good for Iran will, somehow, come at their expense. 

With Iran dominant in Iraq and Lebanon, holding onto its ally in Syria, and now forging a new relationship with Washington, there are few obstacles to its regional dominance. Internally, Gulf monarchies are afraid that this will encourage Shiite populations to oppose their Sunni rulers.

On the other hand, the Geneva agreement reflects an Iranian desire to change their relationship with the rest of the world, and by default with Iran’s Gulf neighbors, making the Middle East safer. Improving relations with regional countries is a central plank of Iran's diplomatic policy under its new president, and both President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif have made overtures towards Iran’s Gulf neighbor. Last week, they welcomed United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed to Tehran and have embarked this week on regional trips that have taken them to Kuwait and Oman. There is indication that a trip to Saudi Arabia could also be on the horizon.

The Obama Administration does think that the U.S. is overcommitted in the Middle East, and seeks to “pivot” at least some American foreign-policy resources and attention to East Asia. Substantial increases in domestic energy production have made the Middle East less important to American energy calculations, though Persian Gulf oil and gas will remain significant for decades to come. That is reason enough for the U.S. to maintain good relations with Gulf monarchies. But the overall trend is toward a diminished role for the Middle East in the global energy market. 

Still, there are many common interests to keep the allies united, including shared worries about Iran’s regional influence and about Al Qaeda and its affiliates, as well as an absence of alternative arrangements that meet their security needs.

 

EastWest Direct is an ongoing series of interviews with EWI experts tied to breaking news stories.