Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1279, (21 - 27 January 2016)
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1279, (21 - 27 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Iran after sanctions

Iran will push hard to capitalise on the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions, but will face resistance from regional and international powers, writes Mohamed Abbas Nagi

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world
Al-Ahram Weekly

Six months after Iran and the P5+1 (permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) signed a nuclear agreement, international sanctions have been lifted. This is apart from sanctions pertaining to human rights, terrorism and ballistic missiles, which will remain in force for a stipulated period.

The lifting of sanctions followed a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) attesting to the fact that Iran has fulfilled all its obligations under the agreement. It has made the required reductions in the number of centrifuges, reduced the amounts of enriched uranium it possesses by transferring most of it to Russia, removed the core from the Arak heavy water nuclear reactor, and given IAEA inspectors access to its various nuclear facilities.

One could say that the lifting of sanctions was Iran’s chief aim from the moment it agreed to engage in new negotiations with international powers. These began at a bilateral level and in secret with the US, in Oman, in March 2013. They then shifted to a multilateral publicised level with the P5+1 in November that year, which brought the Geneva interim agreement. That agreement marked the actual starting point for a final agreement that was signed 14 July 2015.

Iran realised that if it persisted in its hardline position on its nuclear programme — continuing to enrich uranium to 20 per cent, increasing the numbers of centrifuges and completing construction of Arak — sanctions would mount perhaps to intolerable levels.

Already, sanctions had curtailed its oil exports from 2.6 million barrels a day to less than a million, and had severely encumbered Iranian financial transactions abroad. In addition, Iran was already running the risk of a military strike, and it knew that the US and perhaps Israel would never let it come close to the stage of being able to produce its own nuclear bomb.

In this regard, the US’s main aim through negotiations was to set a certain cap on the pace of progress in the Iranian nuclear programme, which appeared to be racing to the point where Iran would have the capacity to produce a bomb within three months, should Tehran take the political decision to do so.

Washington was intent on hammering out an agreement that would impose extremely strict conditions on Iranian nuclear activities so as to extend the minimum breakthrough point from three months to about a year. This would give world powers sufficient time to act to prevent Iran from reaching that point, in the event that there emerged evidence Iran was indeed moving in that direction.

 

IMMEDIATE RAMIFICATIONS: Undoubtedly Iran will act as quickly as possible to take advantage of the lifting of the sanctions. It will try to attract the largest possible number of major petroleum firms, such as Shell and Total, to invest in Iran. It has already begun to draw up a new investment law.

It will also try to capitalise on the many advantages of the Iranian market, which offers a large number of potential consumers, in order to strike lucrative deals with major multinational companies. In addition, it will most likely turn its immediate attention to the development and modernisation of its infrastructure, upgrading its airline fleet, and drawing up plans for constructing oil and gas pipeline networks to other countries.

Politically, the government of Hassan Rouhani will most likely use the lifting of the sanctions as a means to bolster the prospects of moderates and reformers in the next parliamentary elections and elections of the Council of Experts (responsible for appointing, dismissing and supervising the activities of the Supreme Leader) that are scheduled for 26 February 2016.

Simultaneously, Iran will work to enhance its regional profile. Towards this end it will try to enter into new rounds of negotiations with international powers, and the US above all, in order to reach a consensus over other regional issues. The war against terrorism will probably be the starting point for a drive to forge a consensus between the two sides.

In this context, President Hassan Rouhani recently stressed that the nuclear agreement could serve as a model for resolving various other regional problems. In a similar vein, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif urged a conclusion of the nuclear agreement so that fuller attention could be devoted to resolving other crises in the region.

Perhaps the prisoner-exchange agreement signed by Washington and Tehran on 17 January 2016, just as sanctions were lifted, signals the beginning of a new phase of bilateral communication and cooperation on many issues of mutual concern.

 

HURDLES AND IMPEDIMENTS: Still, the lifting of sanctions may not mark the end to Iran’s crises, especially given its previous attempts to violate international treaties. Most immediately, there is the problem of its determination to continue ballistic missile tests, in spite of the continued ban on these missiles in accordance with relevant Security Council resolutions.

In October 2015, Iran launched a new ballistic missile — the Emad, with a range of 1,700 km — signalling in no uncertain terms that it had no intention of abandoning its missile development programme.

The test put the US administration in an awkward position in the face of Republican congressmen, who are still railing against the nuclear accord, as well as in front of the US’s allies in the Middle East, especially Israel and some Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.

This, apparently, is what compelled Washington to announce new sanctions on Iran, in tandem with the release of the IAEA report. The new sanctions, imposed by the US Treasury, bar 11 individuals and companies connected with the Iranian missile programme from transactions with the US banking system.

The measure was also intended to underscore the seriousness of Washington’s intent to keep a close eye on Iranian nuclear and missile activity during the period following the agreement and the lifting of international sanctions.

Other problems are likely to arise from an Iranian bid to capitalise on the nuclear deal to bolster its regional role. Most probably it will fuel instability in some countries in the region, especially those in the grips of conflicts that continue to defy solution, most notably Syria and Yemen.

Some regional powers will begin to push in a new regional direction, in opposition to Iranian intervention in the domestic affairs of Arab nations. This was clear from the reactions of many Arab countries in response to the Iranian intervention in the decision taken by Saudi Arabia on 2 January 2016 to execute 47 people, including Shia cleric Nimr Al-Nimr.

Following Riyadh’s lead, Bahrain and Sudan severed diplomatic relations with Iran, Kuwait and Qatar recalled their ambassadors from Tehran and the UAE reduced the level of its diplomatic representation in Tehran.

We can thus conclude that implementation of the nuclear agreement and the lifting of the international sanctions against Iran may usher in a new phase in which the Middle East will witness some significant strategic developments.

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