Iran’s nuclear deal
The framework nuclear agreement concluded on April 2 in Lausanne between the six world powers (USA, Russia, China, UK France and Germany) and Iran was welcomed as a triumph of diplomacy.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, greeting the announcement of the accord, said that it was just the first step towards building a new relationship with the world. “Some think that we must either fight the world or surrender to world powers. We say, we can have cooperation with the world,” he said. For US President Barack Obama it was a “historic understanding”, although some circles in the US cautioned that hard work lies ahead before a final deal is struck by the deadline of June 30.
The fact remains, however, that the deal marks the most important step towards rapprochement between Iran and the US since the 1979 Iranian revolution, with far reaching consequences in the wider region of the Middle East.
For the Europeans, negotiations went in the right direction. For them, Iran was not part of “an axis of evil” as branded by George W Bush, and their approach was to seek reliable assurances that Iran would never develop a nuclear weapon. Key EU members – the UK, Germany and France – who were engaged in talks with Iran for more than a decade, insisted on diplomacy and their approach has been vindicated.
The Europeans’ willingness to move ahead is easily understood. Lifting sanctions will be more to their benefit and in the short term, Iranian oil exports will keep prices low.
Apart from the economic gains, there are political benefits as they will be able to exercise pressure on Russia, not only in the economic field but also in connection with its Ukrainian policy. In the long term, preventing the further deterioration of security and stability in the region will benefit the Europeans more than the US. Moreover, lifting the sanctions will open up Iranian markets to the Europeans who will be more favoured than the Americans, who before the Iranian revolution enjoyed near exclusivity in the Iranian market.
Counting on Republicans who control the US Congress for support, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted strongly against the deal, declaring that it could lead to nuclear proliferation and even his country’s destruction. He asked the negotiating powers to add a new demand that Iran recognise Israel’s right to exist. In contrast, Saudi Arabia was more cautious in its reaction, although it could not conceal – nor could other Arab states – its concern about a deal that will benefit Iran. It will certainly strengthen Iran’s influence in Iraq, Syria and Yemen against which Saudi Arabia recently launched a bombing campaign.
What prompted Iran to seek a deal on its nuclear programme? Was it its political isolation and economic hardships, or the need for a more active regional role? The answer lies in Iran’s desire to make sure that its nuclear programme is exclusively peaceful, to end its demonisation and finally get closer to its Arab neighbours. For two centuries, Iran has not invaded any country and stands against foreign occupation as it did in Afghanistan, Lebanon and Kuwait.
The nuclear deal still requires experts to work out the details, in which the devil lies, prompting some pessimists to believe that it could still collapse.
The question of lifting the sanctions, which reduced Iran’s oil exports by 60%, is the most difficult. Iran’s firm position is that all sanctions must be lifted at the same time as any final agreement is concluded. These include UN, US and EU nuclear-related economic sanctions. This insistence reflects Iran’s lack of confidence in the West, in view of previous experiences. The US position is that sanctions against Iran would be removed gradually. A complicating factor is that President Obama was forced to give Congress a say in any future accord, including the right to veto the lifting of sanctions.
That brings us to the second difficulty: a possible change of hearts. The US and Iran have to sell the deal to skeptical conservatives at home. In the US, President Obama will have to face Congress, controlled by the Republicans. In Iran, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in remarks apparently meant to keep hardliners happy, said “I neither support nor oppose the deal.” Possibly, this statement aims at strengthening the Iranian negotiating team.
Another problem is whether the parties will live up to the letter and spirit of the agreement. Already different interpretations have emerged over what was agreed in the framework, suggesting that reaching a final accord will be a tough job. In this respect, France recognised the need to have a mechanism to restore sanctions in case of violations. Last but not least is the concern about Iran’s foreign and defence policies in terms of its missile programme and involvement in the region. Russia’s decision to lift the embargo and deliver the S-300 missile system to Iran is a timely example. In any case, Iran’s stand was explicitly explained by the Supreme Leader who said that “Iran’s military sites cannot be inspected under the excuse of nuclear supervision”, as it is provided in the NPT.
The benefits of a final deal, however, are huge. It would create job opportunities, investments and development locally. It would enhance peace and stability in the region, and it would strengthen the hands of those who fight Sunni extremism in the form of the Islamic State.