Wednesday, 15 July 2015

So, we have an Iran nuclear deal. What now?

Winston Churchill was probably drunk when he said “jaw-jaw is better than war-war”. This week’s Iran nuclear agreement between the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) and Germany – the so-called P5+1 – proves the great statesman was right to bet on diplomacy.

The deal has been a long time coming. Since the P5+1 first discovered Iran’s nuclear project seven and a half years ago, negotiations to stop the programme have threatened to collapse, succeed and everything in between. But three Iranian presidents and two American presidents later, a final deal is now on the table.

This column has previously discussed the importance of a US/Iran rapprochement for a number of years and the geopolitical inevitability of an eventual deal between the two. Not only will the calming of tensions help the Iranian people recover from a crippled economy, Iran is set to play an integral role in the shift of power across the region. The deal is a diplomatic win for the US.

Included in the agreement’s 159 pages, now sitting in front of the US Congress, are nine crucial points. These include the redesign and conversion of reactors away from uranium enrichment, a limit to how much uranium fuel Iran can enrich and a stipulation for “anywhere-anytime” managed access for International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors.

Iran still holds the potential for a “break-out”, where the regime could race for a nuclear weapon, but the constraints on this activity are now much higher. Those watching the deal aren’t so sure the inspectors will have the time to spot such a break-out. Yet Iran has essentially been given a pass to become a nuclear state. Neighbouring countries already suspicious of Iran’s intentions may now think of beginning their own nuclear programme as a counter response.

Plenty of doomsday talk about proliferation and a new Middle Eastern arms race saturates the media suggesting this week’s agreement is bad. The consequences are too dark to contemplate, analysts say, and US President Barack Obama should kill the deal. However, the region has factored in a nuclear deal to its broader strategic calculations since late 2013 when an interim deal was reached with Iran.

Iranian oil is sure to come back online, of which about 300,000 barrels are reportedly stockpiled, but the country’s energy infrastructure will take years to recover, hence the excitement of foreign investors. Iran’s proxy wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen will likely heat up as sanctions are lifted and money floods back into the country. But it has to be remembered that sudden billions tend to effect political instability, and Iran’s next elections are scheduled for February 2016.

The overarching geopolitical reality for the deal is sound. The United States, as the strongest of the P5+1 group, is heavily committed to Middle Eastern security. It has the military bandwidth to cope with the threats in the region, but lacks the capacity to prosecute multiple security issues around the world. In Europe, the US struggles with Russia and Mr Obama’s “Asia Pivot” is stalling.

The US must redirect its strength. It needs to depart the Middle East, but must first secure it. Washington’s emerging strategy aims to balance the regional powers of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel with each other. None can defeat the other, and together the demands of security outweighs the temptations of hegemony. This Iran deal is a major step for this strategy.

To build the agreement, the Obama administration has conceded important ground, some of which clearly has only occurred recently. The idea that this is a bad deal isn’t entirely inaccurate considering one sentence in the deal says it will “produce the comprehensive lifting of all UNSC sanctions as well as multilateral and national sanctions related to Iran's nuclear program."

White House image outlining Iran deal points
It’s those side additions which are worrying. At the beginning of the negotiations seven years ago, convincing the Iranians to agree to talks required narrowing the discussion to include only the nuclear enrichment programme. All of Iran’s bad activity was not up for discussion and neither was Iran’s larger nuclear programme. Only the nuclear enrichment was under negotiation.

Isolating the discussion like this was the only way the P5+1 thought it could secure a final deal from Iran. Yet the Iranians now want the effects of the current deal to expand back up to include those pieces which were presumably off the table. So lifting the arms embargo for instance is worrying, especially considering Iran’s continued belligerent activity in the wider Middle East, and not something a nuclear deal was supposed to include. Something important has changed, and changed drastically.

If the US Congress refuses to pass this deal, Mr Obama has already said he’ll veto that decision. This’ll essentially lock the agreement in place, but it will not be until later this year before it can be implemented. At this point, the central question will be whether the Iranians will actually allow the “anytime-anywhere” inspections and stick to its other promises. Given the history, that’s certainly not guaranteed.

The burden of proof for Iran to show that its nuclear programme is peaceful is important, because the deal is not a voluntary procedure similar to US and Soviet arms agreements. Iran has a long way to go before it can convince the world it is ready to be a part of the international system. But bad deal or not, every reconciliation starts with a smile. Hopefully the understanding is mutual.

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