Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1255, (23 - 29 July 2015)
Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Issue 1255, (23 - 29 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Nuclear deal unknowns

While both sides of the Iran nuclear talks are hailing the agreement, it remains to be seen what understandings between Washington and Tehran were struck on wider US strategic goals, writes Khaled Okasha

Al-Ahram Weekly

Last Tuesday, Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany) signed an accord on the Iranian nuclear programme, bringing to a close a 21-month marathon of intense negotiations.

With the announcement of the agreement, simultaneous statements were released by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who described it as “a historic moment and a new page of hope”, and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini who similarly hailed “a new page that would usher in a new phase in international relations.”

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who voiced reservations about the agreement last month and warned that the talks could return to square one, held that the agreement was “strong enough for the next ten years at least.”

Le Monde added that Fabius might travel to Tehran some time in the next few weeks. We also have a brief comment from the Turkish minister of energy who described the nuclear agreement with Iran as an “extremely positive” development.

Under the agreement, economic and financial sanctions imposed on Iran will be lifted, as will those affecting its petroleum and civil aviation sectors. In addition, Iran will be allowed to export nuclear products such as enriched uranium and heavy water, and billions of dollars worth of Iranian assets in foreign banks will be unfrozen.

At the same time, the agreement warns that sanctions could be re-imposed within 65 days if Iran violates any of the provisions pertaining to technical inspections of its nuclear facilities. Also, the ban on arms sales to Iran will last for another five years, with possible exceptions for defensive weapons, and the ban on missile sales will continue for eight years.

The agreement stipulates that UN inspectors must be allowed access to all suspicious Iranian locations, including military sites. However, such access is not fully guaranteed as the agreement gives Iran the right to defer an inspection and, if differences arise, to file a grievance with the arbitration body in which it and the other six states are signatory parties.

Naturally, the Iranian news agency focused on the end of economic sanctions and the international community’s acknowledgement that the Iranian nuclear programme was designed for peaceful purposes.

It also stressed that the agreement observed what it described as the Iranian “red lines” with regard to the admission of UN inspectors to the Parchin Military Facility, and that the nuclear facilities in the country would continue to operate in accordance with the agreement Iran reached with the P5+1.

Nevertheless, the agreement, even after it was signed, still faces strong opposition from conservatives in both Iran and the US. Iranian conservative opposition is generally viewed as a kind of ploy or pressure card that Iranian negotiators used to some purpose over the course of the long negotiating tug-of-war.

Opposition in the US is a more serious matter and it will be felt most acutely in Congress, which has 60 days to assess the agreement before either ratifying or rejecting it. Anticipating difficulties from those quarters, President Obama has warned that he will use his right to veto any legislation that attempts to obstruct the agreement.

Republican Representative John Boehner expressed precisely this intention. According to Boehner, the agreement will do nothing but encourage Tehran and will probably escalate the global nuclear arms race, instead of halting the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

Obama has been hard put to persuade sceptics in Congress of the benefits of the agreement. Iran, he said, will be forced to reduce the number of its nuclear centrifuges by two thirds and to keep these inoperable under international supervision. It will have to get rid of 98 per cent of the enriched uranium it possesses.

It will face a rapid return of sanctions the moment it violates any point of the agreement because, under the agreement, it is obliged to give the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) permanent access to inspect its sites and facilities “wherever and whenever that is necessary.”

So far the confrontation between the White House and Congress over this issue has not moved beyond this point, but as the clock ticks closer to the end of the 60-day period that Congress has to study the agreement, we can probably expect some dramatic developments, such as a congressional refusal to ratify, compelling Obama to wield his veto.

On technical matters, independent from the political agreement between Iran and the P5+1, the IAEA signed a roadmap with Iran to deal with pending issues. This will give the IAEA a chance to begin “the process of evaluating issues related to whether there exist any potential military dimensions in the Iranian nuclear programme.” This evaluation process is to be concluded by the end of 2015.

As indicated above, there might be a possible hitch regarding the UN inspection team’s right of access to Iranian sites. While the agreement gives UN inspectors broad authority to enter Iranian sites, it also gives Tehran the right to object and to challenge the inspectors’ requests for permission to enter.

Consequently, a certain degree of ambiguity continues to surround the matter of technical supervision and, therefore, hampers any definitive response to the question as to whether the Iranian nuclear programme could one day shift to include military purposes on top of peaceful ones.

It is important to bear in mind that the current political agreement is based on estimates that give Iran a 12-month nuclear breakout time. This fact, of which the IAEA is aware, is one of the primary points that opponents to the agreement hone in on. They maintain that it is too short and that the loopholes regarding inspections may tempt Iran to play tricks.

After all, they argue, the deterrents amount to only the possibility of a re-imposition of sanctions within 65 days of any breach of the agreement. The ban on importing arms and missiles will continue for five and eight more years respectively. For the next 15 years Iran will not be allowed to possess more than 300 kilograms of low-grade enriched uranium. The ban on nuclear research will continue for another eight years. Iran and each of the six countries that signed the deal have one vote in the arbitration committee, formed for the purpose of settling disputes between the signatory parties.

Every country in this region, and others outside of it, will know full well that strategic equations and power balances have been changed by the agreement. The region and its conflicts are heading, relentlessly, toward radical changes.

The contact points with Iran  whether in Syria, Iraq, Yemen or Lebanon  open new horizons for various types of political interaction. There are countries, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan and the UAE, that have become rather vulnerable, even if they pretend otherwise, and the agreement with Iran makes them more so.

The region’s countries will naturally be affected by this and the shift in longstanding power balances. Egypt and the rest of the Arab countries fall into this category to varying degrees. But Israel stands out as the only country to reserve for itself a right to openly object to Washington’s behaviour toward the Iranian nuclear question.

Therefore, Netanyahu did not balk at lashing out against Israel’s strongest ally for committing a “bad mistake of historic proportions”, as he described the nuclear agreement. More vehement yet were the remarks by his education minister, Naftali Bennett, from the far-right Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) Party.

Only hours after the agreement was signed, he warned: “History books will have been rewritten today, and this period will be deemed particularly grave and dangerous.” Bennett added that if a nuclear bomb explodes in London or New York 20 years from now we would know that we could trace it to 14 July 2015.

Of course, it is still premature to discuss the changes that will take place in the region following the signing of this agreement, all the more so as in light of the secret meetings, hosted by Muscat, in which representatives from Tehran and Washington must have certainly discussed crucial regional issues and struck certain agreements with respect to them.

Washington would not have compelled the other parties of the P5+1 to proceed to the signing phase without having made certain arrangements to facilitate the realisation of its vision for the future of this region.

I suspect that these arrangements, which neither side will ever divulge, are far more important than the document signed in Vienna. These will reveal themselves in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, perhaps aggravating the situations in these countries, causing the dangers to spill over into Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Lebanon. All possibilities are open until the hidden conditions and concessions emerge into the open.


The writer is director of the National Centre for Security Studies.

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