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Curbing Tehran’s ambitions

by Ramesh Thakur

Now that the excitement has abated, it is time for a sober second look at the deal on Iran’s nuclear program signed in Geneva on Nov. 24. The agreement is neither a historic breakthrough nor a historic mistake, merely an interim agreement. It is an important and welcome first step but stops well short of the final step. It is welcome because it pauses both Iran’s march toward weapons and the West’s march to another war.

With neither a regime collapse imminent nor an effective military strike on Iran realistic, the Geneva deal is an acceptable stop-gap measure. It is also possible that in order to focus on China’s assertiveness in Asia-Pacific and Russia’s return to some influence in the Middle East, Washington needs to bring some sort of closure to the 34-year conflict with Iran.

The perceived threat from Iranian enrichment has been reduced without crossing Tehran’s red line on it. The deal neither explicitly accepts nor disavows Iran’s right to enrichment. It halts enrichment above 5 percent, neutralizes the stockpile of near 20 percent uranium, and halts progress on Iran’s enrichment capacity. As quid pro quo, Iran has been granted around $7 billion worth of sanctions relief (out of a total of $80 to $100 billion) and the promise of no more U.N., EU or U.S. sanctions for six months.

Because of doubts about Iran’s good faith and over possible undeclared facilities beyond IAEA reach, critics in Israel, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. are spoiling to wreck the deal for allegedly putting Iran on the same path as led to North Korea’s eventual nuclear breakout.

This is nonsense. The limitations on proliferation-sensitive material, stockpile and facilities will lengthen the time required for Iran to weaponize from two weeks to two months. Iran will not be any closer, but further away from the bomb because of the deal even if the interim agreement lapses.

Comparable earlier offers by Tehran had been turned down by Washington. The result? Iran’s centrifuges have multiplied from 164 in 2003 (when Iran’s offer of a freeze as part of a grand bargain was spurned by a punch-drunk Bush administration) and 3,000 in 2005 to 19,000 today (although only 11,000 are currently usable) and a stockpile of 8,000 kg of enriched uranium.

Some success for sanctions. According to Hossein Mousavian, a former spokesman for Iran’s nuclear negotiators, the deal does not represent Iran’s capitulation under crippling sanctions. Rather, it is the result of the election of a new president in Tehran keen to explore a rapprochement with the European Union and United States, and the shift in the U.S. red line from “no enrichment” to “no bomb.” It may be too that Iran’s nuclear program has matured from a nascent to an advanced capability since 2003-05, to the point where Tehran feels comfortable enough to pause it rather than keep absorbing the high costs of the sanctions regimes.

It is possible still for Iran to withdraw from the NPT, expel IAEA inspectors, and use its bomb-capable nuclear infrastructure to make nuclear weapons. However, most of the sanctions and the entire “sanctions architecture” remain in place. Because the sanctions relief are limited, temporary and reversible, the incentives for Iran to implement the interim agreement are stronger than the potential rewards of violating it; because it slows and reverses the decade-long trend of an expansion of Iranian enrichment stockpile and capacity, the West has a strong incentive against breaching the deal — a useful benchmark for assessing a negotiated outcome.

But the agreement is fragile. The key challenge ahead will be to define the precise terms of the nuclear program Iran is permitted to keep. The final step of the comprehensive solution envisaged in the interim deal would see the complete lifting of all U.N., multilateral and national nuclear-related sanctions on Iran.

The next set of demands will include efforts to cut back the number of centrifuges substantially; dismantle the heavy water reactor at Arak that is regarded as unnecessary for civilian purposes and destabilizing because it can be used for reprocessing and plutonium separation as precursors to weaponization; closure of the enrichment facility at Fordow; and broader guaranteed IAEA inspections at Parchin.

If the West’s goal is to verifiably and irreversibly roll back Iran’s nuclear breakout capability, the quest is likely to prove futile. For reasons of security — history and geopolitics give both Iran and Israel a nightmarishly bad neighborhood — as much as national pride, Iran will insist on maintaining material and infrastructure that give it some minimum capability to weaponize in future if necessary. Rather, the real challenge will be to widen the technological and detection gap between capability and weaponization, to cap Iran’s capability at a point that provides the necessary reassurance to regional states and the international community.

Even if negotiations falter and fail, the Geneva accord will still have slowed Iran’s march to nuclear weapons. To most people, the threat to regional and international security posed by Iran possessing 100-200 nuclear weapons and their means of delivery would be considerably greater and more real than with Israel having that capability. Nevertheless, it is fanciful to believe that Israel can be permitted to keep its nuclear arsenal indefinitely but no other Middle Eastern country will ever get the bomb. Either the region will be verifiably denuclearized and Israel folded into a nuclear-weapon-free zone, or Iran will break out some day, sooner or later.

The Geneva agreement buys time by freezing Iran’s nuclear program for six months while a comprehensive permanent deal is negotiated. Should that eventuate, it might prove to be a game changer for the entire Middle East. For Iran, this is a bold effort to reset relations with the West by breaking cleanly with the volatile Ahmadinejad administration.

The bitter enmity between Iran and the U.S. has framed Middle East geopolitics since 1979. The Geneva agreement has the potential to unlock that frame. By ending Iran’s isolation and bringing it back into the international fold, the West could help to rebuild Iran’s once powerful secular middle class, dilute the influence of the radical clergy and turn Tehran into an ally to defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda.

A successful end state agreement could also unlock the potential to begin negotiations with Iran on other regional issues like Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.

Professor Ramesh Thakur is director of the Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.