Picture: The Writer | Credit: Wikimedia Commons - Photo: 2013

The Road Ahead After Breakthrough Over Iran

By Jayantha Dhanapala* | IDN-InDepth NewsViewpoint

KANDY, Sri Lanka (IDN) – Even cynics must admit that the time comes in international relations when long frozen situations suddenly thaw causing positive change for international peace and security. Examples of such “game-changers” are many but outstanding are (in chronological order): U.S. President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China; the 1978 Camp David Agreement on the Middle East; the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 signifying the end of the Cold War; and President Willelm de Klerk’s release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 leading to the final dismantlement of apartheid in South Africa in 1994.

We have been fortunate to witness two of such dramatic events in quick succession in 2013. There was, in September, the agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons and although the Syrian civil war continues its bloody course the worst is seemingly over and we are headed towards the Geneva II Conference announced for the end of January 2014.

And now we have the November 24, 2013 interim agreement on a Joint Action Plan for six months between the P5+1 (the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany facilitated by the European Union) and Iran achieving a peaceful resolution of the problem of Iran’s nuclear programme which for about a decade caused acute tensions threatening to erupt into war.

The world is a better and safer place as a result of all these events.

The Joint Statement issued by the EU High Representative and the Iranian Foreign Minister states:

“After intensive negotiations, we reached agreement today on a joint plan of action which sets out an approach towards reaching a long-term comprehensive solution. We agreed that the process leading to this comprehensive solution would include a first-step on initial reciprocal measures to be taken for both sides for duration of six months. We also share a strong commitment to negotiate a final, comprehensive solution.”

The deal, spelt out in four pages, calls for Iran to halt most but not all of its uranium enrichment efforts; downgrades its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20% through conversion and blending; open its facilities to daily monitoring by international inspectors; freezes the construction of the heavy water Arak reactor pending arrangements for it to be placed under IAEA safeguards; and provides immediate relief for Iran from current sanctions amounting to an estimated $ 7 billion, with more to follow and no more sanctions in future.

It was the election of the moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s President in June 2013 that changed the atmosphere. Rouhani visited New York for the UN General Assembly assuring the world of Iran’s peaceful intentions. His telephone call with Obama promised positive results. It is now revealed that the outline of an agreement and a road map had been discussed secretly over a long period of time.

Amidst the numerous claims for credit in negotiating the breakthrough there is the unsubstantiated report that the Sultan of Oman was a key broker since secret talks were conducted in Muscat by a team of US diplomats led by Deputy Secretary of State William Burns. Significantly these contacts began during the Ahmadinejad Presidency in Iran but accelerated after Rouhani’s election.

For Iran, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei prepared the ground by telling a carefully chosen audience of Iranian hawkish elements that a red line for Iran was the right to enrich uranium for peaceful uses of nuclear energy. It was a matter of national pride. Iran had already enriched large quantities of uranium in pursuance of its right to do so. In point of fact no such right is explicitly stated in the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) which Iran has signed and ratified. At the same time the enrichment of uranium is also not specifically prohibited by the NPT.

It is important to clarify here that plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU) are the two indispensable raw materials necessary for the manufacture of nuclear weapons. The active materials are HEU (uranium with a high percentage of U-235) or plutonium (Pu-239), explosively assembled into a chain-reacting critical mass. Uranium in its raw state is unsuitable for such manufacture. For the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, uranium enriched to five percent or three and a half percent is used for power reactors; 20 percent for research reactors; and 80 or 90 percent for a bomb.

The telling point

Iran makes the telling point that in the early stages of negotiations in 2003 it offered the Bush Administration to stop enrichment when it had 164 centrifuges but since the West rejected this, the process went on till they had 19,000 or so today (11,000 estimated to be actually usable) with second generation centrifuges about to be commissioned and large stocks of uranium enriched to 20%.

The text of the deal makes it clear that Iran is allowed to keep uranium in two of its facilities Natanz and Fordow enriched up to 5% subject to daily verification visits by the IAEA. That is a modest victory for Iran but the deal obliges Iran to give up (by diluting and converting into uranium oxide) the stockpile of uranium enriched up to 20%, to refrain from operating the idle centrifuges, and to halt the production and installation of new second generation centrifuges.

The facility at Arak, which had been the focus of Israeli allegations (denied by Iran) that it will use plutonium, will have to cease working unless it adopts IAEA safeguards after submitting a Design Information Questionnaire to the IAEA.

The deal which has to follow an Action Plan – the implementation of which will be supervised by a Joint Commission of the parties – is for duration of six months after which a more permanent deal has to be negotiated. The agreement says:

“Following successful implementation of the final step of the comprehensive solution for its full duration, the Iranian nuclear program will be treated in the same manner as that of any non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT.”

That would be an excellent conclusion but much will depend on how the deal is implemented. Spoilers – especially Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US Congress – are already at work to wreck the deal.

The P5+1-Iran interim agreement has been welcomed by the overwhelming majority of the international community including some significant persons in Israel. It has relieved tensions in the Middle East where Iran with its huge influence with Shiite groups can help mitigate sectarian clashes. Secretary of State Kerry had begun his term with laudable ambitions to make progress on a two state solution for Palestine but has had to face stubborn opposition from Premier Netanyahu of Israel.

The Iran deal may be an encouragement to Kerry to persist especially since there are three more years to go for the Obama Administration. Palestine is undoubtedly the crux of the Middle East problem from which much of the hate fuelled terrorism arises. With a solution to the Palestine problem the world will see a significant defusion of terrorism.

Iran can help in achieving solutions to problems in Syria and Afghanistan in the coming months. The re-entry of Iranian oil and gas into the world’s markets will benefit all especially developing countries. Further implications are the positive impact this agreement is likely to have on the North Korean nuclear programmed encouraging the resumption of six party talks.

The road ahead

The road to be traversed in the next six months is dangerously mined. Avoiding the dangers will require sincerity and goodwill on the part of all the parties. The EU and especially its High Representative Catherine Ashton has been dogged in their determination but within the P5 France has played a dubious game with lucrative arms deals with Saudi Arabia.

The IAEA will have to co-operate with fulfilling its role and the statements made by its conservative Japanese head Yukiya Amano so far have not been encouraging. Fresh responsibilities cast on the IAEA will add to its Budget which the US and the EU will be expected to cover.

The process of convening the conference on the Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone, required by the 2010 NPT Review Conference, may receive a fillip from the Iranian deal and thereby improve the prospects for the 2015 NPT Review Conference and the overall longevity of the NPT itself.

Thus while Obama’s diplomacy has succeeded, he faces huge pressures. In the Fall of 2014 midterm Congressional elections are due and until then the Obama Administration faces many problems in Congress. Holding off additional sanctions on Iran will add to these. The breakthrough has many enemies and the parties must ensure it works. Kerry’s visit to Israel and the Iranian Foreign Minister reaching out to the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia are steps in the right direction to convince all that diplomacy and not war is the right way to prevent a nuclear weapon capable Iran.

*Jayantha Dhanapala is a former UN Under-Secretary-General and a former Ambassador of Sri Lanka. These are his personal views. [IDN-InDepthNews – December 8, 2013]

The writer’s previous articles on IDN:

2013 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Photo: The Writer | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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