Saturday,16 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1241, (9-15 April 2015)
Saturday,16 December, 2017
Issue 1241, (9-15 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Nuclear snags remain

Despite this week’s agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme, questions over the country’s research and development on centrifuges and enrichment remain, writes Gareth Porter

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The Framework Agreement, reached last Thursday between Iran and the P5+1 group, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, clearly provides a combination of constraints on Iran’s nuclear programme that should reassure all but the most bellicose opponents of diplomacy.

It also provides the basis for at least the minimum of sanctions relief in the early phase of its implementation that Iran required. But some of the conditions for that relief are likely to create new issues between Iran and the Western powers.

The agreement’s dependence on decisions by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the penchant of Israeli intelligence for discovering new evidence of illicit Iranian activities will encourage moves to delay or obstruct the lifting of sanctions.

US and European officials earlier told reporters that they would phase out their sanctions on oil and banking in return for Iranian actions to modify the country’s programme gradually over several years, making it clear that the purpose of the strategy was to maintain “leverage” on Iran.

Iran, however, demanded that the sanctions be lifted immediately upon delivering on its commitments under the agreement. A source close to the Iranian negotiators said that Iran was confident it could deliver on all of the actions related to its enrichment programme and the Arak nuclear reactor within a matter of months.

The same diplomatic conflict was being fought over UN Security Council sanctions. Iran wanted them to end as soon as it has fulfilled its commitments, while the US and its allies were insisting that the sanctions can only be suspended gradually, on a schedule that would extend through most or all of the initial ten-year period.

 The P5+1 group also demanded that in order to get the sanctions lifted Iran will have to fully satisfy the IAEA that it has cooperated completely in regard to the “possible military dimensions” (PMDs) of its programme, and wait for the IAEA to give Iran a clean bill of health that its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes only.

 Figuring out how these pivotal issues were finally resolved requires sifting through evidence that is not entirely clear-cut. The two sides apparently agreed that they will not release any official text of the agreement.

The joint statement by EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif, which is the closest thing to an official statement, was very brief and general and failed to clarify the provisions on lifting the sanctions.

 Moreover, the only available text of the statement, a transcript of the English-language translation of Zarif’s Farsi version published in the Washington Post, unfortunately fails to complete the one sentence on how the issue of sanctions removal was resolved because what was said was partially inaudible.

 The fact that no official text was released has meant that press coverage of the content of the agreement has relied primarily on the much more detailed summary of the agreement by the US State Department and remarks by US Secretary of State John Kerry.

The US interpretation of the agreement, however, is ambiguous on some aspects of the sanctions removal issue, raising serious questions about what was precisely agreed upon.

On US and European unilateral sanctions on oil and banking, which are of greatest short-term importance to the Iranian economy, the document says those sanctions “will be suspended after the IAEA has verified that Iran has taken all of its key nuclear-related steps.”

That wording appears to suggest that the sanctions will be suspended immediately upon the verification of the last step taken by Iran. The US text thus seems to indicate that the Iranians won their demand that the Western powers give up their scheme for a “gradual” or “phased” withdrawal of the sanctions.

But the Iranians had wanted some of the sanctions removed each time they completed the implementation of a commitment, and instead the payoff comes only after the final step is taken.

The US document also makes it clear that the “architecture of the sanctions” regarding the US unilateral sanctions, meaning the legal and bureaucratic systems underlying the sanctions, “will be retained for much of the duration of the deal and allow for a snap back of the sanctions in the event of significant non-performance.”

The Iranians have complained that suspending sanctions while leaving the threat of future sanctions in place has an intimidating effect on banks and businesses regarding the resumption of relations with Iranian entities. But they didn’t have much leverage over that question.

The UN sanctions issue was resolved in a distinctly different way. According to the US text, all the UN Security Council Resolutions on Iran, which impose various sanctions on the country, “will be lifted with the completion by Iran of nuclear-related actions addressing all key issues (enrichment, Fordow, Arak, PMDs and transparency).”

The implication of the US summary is that Iran will get some sanctions relief from the UN Security Council each time it has completed the implementation of one of its key “irreversible” commitments, as Iran had been demanding, and not only at the end of its completion of all of the commitments.

The inclusion of the PMDs of the Iranian nuclear programme, referring to past activities related to nuclear weapons development, as an issue on which Iran will have to satisfy the IAEA introduces a potential obstacle to early sanctions relief.

IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano has said it could take several years for the organisation to complete its assessment of the issue. But at least a delay by the IAEA will not prevent Iran from obtaining relief upon completing the other actions it is to take.

Further confusing the interpretation of the agreement, Kerry referred to the United States and its “international partners” providing sanctions relief “in phases,” a statement that appears inconsistent with the State Department text.

In a tweet on Thursday, Zarif cited the Iran/P5+1 joint statement as saying that the US will “cease all application of all nuclear-related secondary economic and financial sanctions” but asked, “is this gradual?”

Judging from the US statements, Iran could get the bulk of the sanctions relief in the initial period of implementation and much of it within the first year or so. But that prospect would depend on the goodwill of the Obama administration and the IAEA.

The Obama administration may well be inclined to facilitate the provision of early sanctions relief. But the political dynamics swirling around US and IAEA policies toward Iran suggest that the processes of IAEA assessment and delivery of sanctions may not go as smoothly as Iran hopes.

Looking even further ahead, Iran is certainly concerned about how a future US administration will implement the agreement. According to the source close to the negotiators, Iran was insisting that the UN Security Council pass a new resolution before the end of the Obama administration in 2017 that reflects the Comprehensive Agreement and repeals previous resolutions. It remains unclear whether the P5+1 agreed to that demand.

One thing the US text makes clear is that the issue of Iranian research and development (R&D) on advanced centrifuges and enrichment remains unresolved. The US statement says that for the first ten years of the agreement, enrichment R&D will have to be consistent with maintaining a breakout timeline of at least one year.

This is obviously based on further understandings that have not been revealed or are yet to be negotiated. Beyond that period, the Iranian R&D plan will be “pursuant to the JCPOA,” meaning that the final Joint Comprehensive Programme of Action is still to be negotiated.


The writer is winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism and author of Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.

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