AFTER several weeks of unexpectedly hard and often tetchy bargaining, six world powers and Iran reached an agreement on January 12th that sets out the details of a “joint plan of action” (JPA) to freeze Iran’s nuclear programme for six months. The implementation of the JPA, originally negotiated in November, will begin on January 20th. Verification that Iran is sticking to its side of the interim deal will come from the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) through stepped-up inspections and monitoring. In return, Iran will begin to receive, in monthly instalments, some $4.2 billion in seized assets held in Western banks; some minor financial sanctions will also be suspended. However, the clock is now ticking on efforts to achieve a comprehensive long-term pact. Even supporters of the interim deal rate the chances of success as low.
Though hailed as an historic breakthrough by some and a terrible blunder by others (notably Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister), the November deal may be best seen as a six-month truce to buy time. Gary Samore, who was Barack Obama’s adviser on arms control until last year and is now at Harvard’s Belfer Centre, points out that neither side has given away any of its big bargaining chips. Most actions being taken are reversible; the trickiest issues have been kicked down the road.
That is not surprising, given the degree of mutual mistrust; you have to start somewhere. But it means that all the heavy lifting has still to be done. In particular, a deal that America (with the support of Britain, France and Germany) could sign up to is far from anything even Iran’s more moderate new president, Hassan Rohani, has indicated he could contemplate.
Mr Obama says that “Iran must accept strict limitations on its nuclear programme that make it impossible to develop a nuclear weapon”. In truth, no agreement can permanently remove Iran’s ability to get a bomb if it really wants one; infrastructure can be hamstrung, but technical knowledge cannot be eradicated. Mr Obama’s real aim is to make it as hard as possible for Iran to exercise that option, denying it the ability to produce large amounts of fissile material quickly enough to escape detection and disruption.
To that end, while accepting that Iran should be allowed to keep some uranium-enrichment capability (a concession too far, according to many critics), America will insist that Iran reduces its centrifuges from its current 19,000 to fewer than 5,000. Among America’s other conditions for a comprehensive deal are the closure of the supposedly impregnable underground enrichment facility at Fordow; the dismantling of the heavy-water nuclear reactor at Arak; a satisfactory account by Iran of all its past “weaponisation” activities; and an inspection regime even more rigorous than required by Iran’s signature of the IAEA’s “additional protocol”.
By contrast, Mr Rohani has promised that none of Iran’s existing nuclear facilities will be destroyed; that Arak (which, once online, gives Iran an alternative plutonium path to a bomb) will be kept only to supply medical isotopes; and that Iran has the right to what he calls “industrial-scale” enrichment, which could mean at least 50,000 centrifuges. It is thought that he envisages a deal that freezes the programme for three years, after which, having shown good faith and signed the additional protocol, Iran would be allowed to expand enrichment to an industrial scale.
Mr Samore says that concentrating only on limiting Iran’s breakout capability is a bit of a red herring. The real issue, he says, is that if Iran has a big enough nuclear infrastructure, it might be able to siphon off people and material into secret facilities. These might produce a small arsenal of nuclear devices before Iran felt the need to announce a test, by which time it would be too late to do anything about it.
Mark Fitzpatrick, a specialist on weapons proliferation and nuclear security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, fears that the present gap between the two sides and the strength of the constituencies who believe nothing good can come from negotiating with the devil will make a long-term deal “well-nigh impossible”. Mr Samore thinks that as long as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is supreme leader, Iran will not give up its option to acquire nuclear weapons.
Both experts reckon that the best that can be hoped for is a series of extensions of the interim deal with incremental adjustments and reciprocal concessions on both sides every six months to keep the process alive. For example, in return for further sanctions relief, the Iranians may offer to convert Fordow into a research-and-development site with a small number of advanced centrifuges. They may also suggest converting Arak into a light-water reactor that produces much less plutonium, a project that could take many years.
At least one extension of the interim deal now looks fairly certain, but a continuing series of extensions may be exactly the game plan Iran has in mind. Few concessions would be irreversible, while a gradual easing of sanctions as a reward for its apparent reasonableness could lead to a fracturing of support for international sanctions that have been so painstakingly constructed. America and Europe would stay united, but other countries, not least Russia and China, might be happy to break ranks within the “P5+1” group (the UN Security Council’s permanent members plus Germany) that negotiates with Iran.
A series of extensions will happen only if those hostile to the interim deal on both sides hold their fire. Yet support has grown in Congress for legislation to bring in new sanctions against Iran. With support in the Senate getting close to the 67 votes needed to override a presidential veto (which would otherwise be exercised), they remain distinctly possible, though the White House doubts that Democratic senators would go so far while an accord was still in place. Mr Samore reckons that Congress, having a version of the “Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act” ready as a threat, might put useful extra pressure on Iran. But were the sanctions now to become law, “it would just kill the interim agreement”. As a consequence, he says, everyone would blame America for the breakdown, putting the international sanctions at risk. The path ahead looks anything but smooth.
The Iran Project is not responsible for the content of quoted articles.