Iran. Geneva. Deal. Breathing space

29.11.2013

A fragile, interim, but tangible agreement on the Iranian nuclear program was achieved in Geneva on November 24. All the parties to the talks have managed to save face and preserve their reputations. That is clearly a good starting point.

But it’s a long road towards a comprehensive settlement; that road will take six months at the very least.

Iran’s right to enrich uranium is not and will not be disputed, even though the text of the agreement does not spell this out. Nevertheless, on the very day the agreement was signed, the Iranian president had this to say: “We will keep working at Natanz and Arak over the next six months exactly the same way we are working now". The president was being more than a bit disingenuous: a temporary suspension of enrichment to more than five per cent is one of the elements of the Geneva accord.

The accord itself, meanwhile, is largely symbolic. It signifies the progress already achieved; it points the direction of future progress; it demonstrates the willingness of all the parties involved in the talks to move forward; and it builds trust, especially between the United States and Iran.

Nevertheless, it is merely an interim document. After all, how much has really changed in practice following the deal on/with Iran?

There is no denying that a significant amount of trust has been built; for the first time after a decade of fruitless talks, all the parties have come to realize that achieving a deal and a compromise with Iran is a realistic possibility. That is a huge success in itself. But let us be frank: the resolution of all the key problems posed by the Iranian nuclear program has been postponed until mid-2014.

What next? There will be a significant improvement in the transparency of the Iranian nuclear program. The IAEA will be allowed to inspect Iranian nuclear facilities and given access to the relevant documents on an unprecedented scale. That is undoubtedly good news. In addition, Iran will refrain from enriching uranium to more than five per cent, and from launching new centrifuges, which is also a welcome achievement.

Will any of the frozen Iranian assets be released? The answer is yes; at the very least, we are talking about three to five billion dollars which will not require Congressional approval. But the most difficult part, for both Rouhani and Obama, will begin when the complete lifting of all unilateral U.S. sanctions on Iran is put on the agenda. The Iranians want their money to be able to move freely around the world. Right now, that freedom is severely restricted via FATF mechanisms and unilateral U.S. measures. It is these measures that really bite - and they cannot be rescinded without the Capitol Hill’s approval. Two other parties will also have a major say in this process, Tel Aviv and Riyadh. Both are very experienced players as far as the international financial system is concerned. Both were an invisible presence at the Geneva talks; they have lost that round, but the game is far from over.

Finally, Iran should ratify, as a matter of urgency, the Additional Protocol to the IAEA Safeguards Agreement and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; these steps will be a major contribution to building trust. If Iran undertakes these steps, I believe it would be entirely appropriate to extend an invitation to Tehran to take part in the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague.

The sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council could also be lifted on a step-by-step basis. In fact, some of them could be rescinded before the end of the six-month "probation term"; the rest will follow once a comprehensive agreement has been signed in 2014.

There are several important issues that need to be resolved over the coming six months. The first is the future of the heavy-water reactor in Arak. The second is the future of the enrichment facility in Fordow. The third is giving IAEA inspectors the level of access stipulated in the Additional Protocol to the Safeguards Agreement, regardless of whether Iran ratifies it in the next several months.

Another key issue is giving Iran adequate guarantees that there will be no use of force or threat of force (including cyber-attacks) against its nuclear infrastructure facilities. That problem, however, hinges on the resolution of the previous ones.

Should the comprehensive agreement the parties hope to sign in 2014 cover only nuclear issues, or should it aim for a much broader scope? I believe that on the multilateral level, addressing only the nuclear problem will suffice. As for a bilateral U.S.-Iranian agreement, Iran must be given American security guarantees as part of any such deal. The document should also address such regional security problems as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the naval stand-off in the Gulf and the Arabian Sea. But even if Washington extends some kind of security guarantees to Iran, they are very unlikely to be announced officially. In any case, it will be a very long journey before Obama and Rouhani can arrive at a package agreement, if such a deal is at all possible.

What are the implications of the Geneva talks for Russia? This has been the Russian diplomacy's second major victory this autumn, coming on the heels of the deal brokered on the Syrian chemical weapons. After all, a large part of the plan of action agreed in Geneva was based on Russia’s Lavrov Plan. Moscow has been very steadfast and consistent in its approach, which had changed very little, if at all during the Geneva talks. Iran’s right to enrich uranium is not being disputed; its stockpiles of uranium enriched to 20 per cent will be eliminated; as a result, the nuclear proliferation threat, which was the main Russian concern, has been drastically reduced. That is the main Russian achievement.

In addition, the Iranian nuclear program will become more transparent; that is equally as important for Moscow. Yet another achievement, as far as Russia is concerned, is that the Geneva deal has begun to establish a climate of international trust with regard to Iran. Political tensions have subsided, and the threat of force is no longer on the table; these are all important victories for Russia.

Nevertheless, Moscow must be prepared for two completely opposite scenarios of how events might unfold in the coming months.

Scenario A: If the dialogue between the United States, the Western countries and Iran makes progress, Russia will have to play a completely different role. This scenario might well include the construction of new oil and gas pipelines, which will not necessarily advance Russian interests; oil and gas prices are also likely to take a tumble as a result.

Scenario B: If the agreements reached in Geneva fall through, and no comprehensive deal is signed next year, the political tension in the region could spiral to an unprecedented level.

Conclusion: the ideal state of affairs for Russia is the existing situation, whereby the temporary diplomatic solution achieved in Geneva provides for a greater transparency of the Iranian nuclear program; bolsters the leading (though not officially so) role of the Russian diplomacy in the multilateral negotiating process; and upholds the strategic importance of bilateral dialogue with Tehran.

Regarding the latter, I was not at all surprised when on the day of the signing of the Geneva deal Rouhani publicly spoke about his participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Bishkek in early September, where he had his first meeting with Putin. In my view, the situation is ideal at this moment for Rouhani to visit Moscow. Conversely, Putin might just as usefully visit Tehran, with a stopover in Bushehr for a ceremony of ramping up the nuclear power plant to its full design capacity. Why not? Putin could also discuss deeper economic ties with Rouhani; the issue was barely mentioned during the first meeting between the two presidents in September.

The time has come for stepping up bilateral economic cooperation with Iran. It is also time to offer the country full SCO membership, without waiting for the UN Security Council sanctions to be lifted. Up until now, these sanctions were used as a flimsy excuse to deny membership to Tehran. Now that even Washington is finally talking about the lifting of sanctions, it is high time for Russia to give fresh impetus to its strategic cooperation with Iran.

It is also important to realize that no matter how the situation unfolds, over the next six months (or even in the longer term) bilateral U.S.-Russian leadership with regard to the Iranian nuclear problem will remain the key driver of the search for a sustainable and comprehensive solution based on the interim November deal.

A sustainable agreement on the Iranian nuclear problem will have positive repercussions for the political climate in the Middle East. The counterproductive and aggressive policies of the hawks, i.e. the Saudis and their ilk, have been neutralized. Riyadh’s attempts to undermine the talks in Geneva have failed. Iran - and Egypt, for that matter - could play a more active and constructive role in putting an end to the civil war in Syria. Efforts by Tehran and Cairo will also be indispensible in paving the way towards the long-awaited conference on setting up a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, with unambiguous support from the United States, Britain, Russia, and the UN Secretary-General.

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