Sibal on Interim Nuclear Deal with Iran

Commentary | December 03, 2013

Writing for India Today, EWI Board Member Kanwal Sibal speculates how the recent interim agreement between Iran and the P5+1 countries might unfold. 

The interim nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 countries opens up real prospects of resolving an issue that has generated enormous tensions in the region for years with threats of military strikes and imposition of draconian sanctions against Iran and diplomatic drives to pressure third countries to curtail their relationship with that country.

Hassan Rouhani's election as President and Obama's willingness to pursue a political solution have made this breakthrough possible. US and EU sanctions have undoubtedly had a biting effect on the Iranian economy and made the regime seek fresh talks with the West.

The US position too has evolved lately, with more talk of a diplomatic solution and less military rhetoric, even as the sanctions screw has been inexorably tightened to bend Iran's will. The Israeli lobby as well as Saudi clout within the US political system have worked against any reconciliation with Iran, with excessive rigidity of thinking on non-proliferation issues touching Iran and antipathy towards it because of the 1979 hostage episode complicating any negotiating process. The changing political landscape in the Arab world, with Egypt in turmoil, Libya unstable and the Syrian situation not only escaping Western control but also spawning extremist, Al Qaida-linked forces, the appetite for a military confrontation with Iran has, however, been diminishing and the US president's preference for a political solution has been gaining force.


After being upstaged in Syria by the Russian president, Obama would have wanted a balancing success in Iran, even if America has obvious geo-political interest in breaking the Iran-Assad-Hezbollah axis that is also accentuating the Shia-Sunni conflict. He has resisted being bull-dozed by Israeli-generated domestic pressures into creating a political impasse with Iran by imposing unconscionable conditions that would inevitably compel military action. He also understands that unwillingness to explore a negotiated solution and taking an unvarnished hard-line position would lose him support of some of his partners, make minimum consensus building with Russia and China in the UNSC on sanctions unsustainable and generally alienate the international community.

The salient features of the interim agreement shows a genuine effort by Iran to create favourable conditions for a final agreement in the next six months. Iran has agreed to halt enrichment over 5 per cent for six months and dismantle "technical connections" allowing such enrichment, neutralise its stockpile of near-20 per cent enriched uranium by diluting it to below 5 per cent within that period, cease installing new centrifuges at its Fordow plant and leave those it has in Natanz inoperable, grant daily access to Fordow and Natanz to IAEA inspectors and not to commission its heavy water reactor in Arak as planned in 2014. These substantial concessions have prompted Obama to claim that Iran's breakout period for becoming nuclear has been stretched.


In return, Iran has obtained relatively little. Sales of Iranian oil will remain at their currently reduced level as a result of sanctions, with only $4.2 billion from them transferred in installments as and when Iran fulfils its commitments. Iran will have access to $ 1.5 billion revenue from trade in gold and precious metals and some sanctions on Iran's auto sector and petrochemical exports will be suspended for six months. Safety-related repairs and inspections inside Iran for certain Iranian airlines will be licensed. Most of the sanctions will thus remain in place, with Iran's approximately $100 billion in foreign exchange holdings remaining largely inaccessible or restricted.

The Iranians are claiming that the interim agreement recognises their NPTrooted right to enrichment, whereas Secretary Kerry has publicly rejected this claim and affirmed that this issue remains unsettled. President Obama has added the contestable twist that the NPT does not confer enrichment rights. The NPT permits the peaceful use of nuclear energy and therefore low uranium enrichment under IAEA safeguards for fuelling civilian nuclear reactors is implicitly allowed by it. However, because enrichment technologies for civilian purposes can also be used for military purposes, US law forbids the export of such technologies. This became a thorny issue even in India-US nuclear negotiations, with India claiming that "full civilian nuclear cooperation" included the transfer of enrichment and reprocessing technologies and the US demurring.


US leaders seem to be making negative statements on enrichment rights to placate those domestic lobbies that remain opposed to any compromise on the nuclear issue with Iran. If the interim agreement allows Iran to enrich unto 5 per cent and dilute its 20 per cent enriched stock to 5 per cent too, it is implicit that the US has accepted Iran's right to enrichment up to this level under strict IAEA safeguards. It would be preposterous to suggest that Iran can be divested of this right in the second phase of nuclear negotiations.

Secretary Kerry is not wrong in emphasising the difficulties ahead in negotiating a final deal. Israel, anguished by the interim deal, has called it a "historic mistake". How far it can use its weakening clout within the US political system on this issue to derail the delicate negotiating progress ahead remains to be seen. The Saudis, more quietly, will do their bit to create impediments as they are deeply perturbed by the shift in the balance of power that is occurring in the region, with Iran's regional status gaining western recognition. The danger from the hard liners in Iran crippling future discussions on the ground that the government has made too many concessions cannot be ignored. Distrust between the West and Iran is so deep, and the history of nuclear negotiations between the two so marred by bad faith, that hiccups cannot be ruled out. India would have every reason to welcome the interim agreement and applaud the good sense of both sides in reaching it.

Click here to read the original article published in India Today