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A witching hour deal and the morning after: The Iran-P5+1 nuclear deal

The nuclear deal inked in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 at 0300hrs on Sunday 24 November 2013 momentarily closed the curtains on a decade of painful suspense.

According to the published Joint Plan of Action, the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia and China (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council) plus Germany (collectively known as the P5+1 or E3+3) agreed over the next six months – ‘renewable by mutual consent’ – to:

  • shelve further sanctions,
  • repatriate some $4.2 billion worth of Iran’s oil profits previously locked-up in foreign banks,
  • allow Iran’s oil clients to continue business, and
  • suspend trade restrictions in precious metals, automotives and the crucial petrochemical sector.

In exchange, Iran agreed to:

  • restrict uranium enrichment to 5% without expanding its 3.5% stockpile,
  • neutralise its 20% enriched feedstock,
  • keep centrifuge activity at where it currently stands,
  • allow intrusive IAEA inspections, and
  • suspend all work on the Arak heavy water plant, which would yield alternative plutonium fuel towards a nuclear weapon.

Taking stock

The terms appear to be heavily unbalanced in Iran’s disfavour. After all, it is merely getting back what belongs to it. And despite the overall $7 billion on offer, Tehran still stands to lose $30 billion in unrealised oil profits over the next six months while the current sanctions remain in place.

Yet, Iran gets to preserve its nuclear infrastructure and retain a de facto right to enrich low-level uranium hexafluoride for civilian purposes, eventually subject to a ‘mutually defined enrichment programme with mutually agreed parameters consistent with practical needs’ – all despite the original terms of Security Council Resolution 1737 (which required Iran to suspend certain ‘proliferation sensitive nuclear activities’). Whatever the West meant or did not, Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif certainly saw it this way, explaining in an NBC News interview that the agreement ‘says that Iran has an enrichment programme and a right to [use] nuclear technology for peaceful purposes’. This change of nuance in itself justified the merriment that accompanied the return of the Iranian negotiating team to Tehran.

Conversely, this deal has made improbable allies of hardliners in Tehran, the US Congress, Israel, the Gulf States and elsewhere, none of whom has, however, tabled a feasible alternative. The secret US-Iran talks that prefaced the deal have also turned some of them livid. Whether the deal will survive into its second phase and eventually move towards the ‘final step of a comprehensive solution’ is anyone’s guess. The West (and Israel) wants Iran to possess neither a nuclear weapon nor a capability that allows it to accomplish that goal in short order; and Iran does not want sanctions to continue gangrening its oil economy, which grievously threatens domestic stability and regime survival. With this initial deal, Iran’s leaders believe their nuclear programme is no longer in existential jeopardy.

A final deal cannot happen, however, if it remains confined to the technical aspects of nuclear science and glosses over Iran’s wider strategic concerns. In addition to acceptance of Iran’s right to enrichment, an acceptable longer-term deal for Tehran would need to recognise the Islamic Revolutionary regime as an equal interlocutor and potential partner in regional security issues.

Disturbing the regional matrix

The deal is not half as bad as the ‘historic mistake’ Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu makes it out to be. While it allows Iran to continue limited enrichment activities, it also cuts off the legs from any potential military nuclear programme and introduces a far more stringent verification regime. Moreover, the hardest-hitting sanctions aimed at Iran’s crucial oil and financial sectors all remain in place for Plan B. Before that historic Sunday early morning, Iran reportedly stood at as little as three months away from a nuclear weapon had it decided to act. In the event Tehran plays ball, by mid-2014 it would be even further from a working nuclear weapon. And if ever a military operation were to completely reset Iran’s nuclear activities, it would take perhaps three or so years for it to go nuclear, given that it has already assimilated the crucial aspects of the fuel cycle. This knowledge, many others before have laboured to point out, cannot be annihilated while Iran exists. For all we, outsiders, know, merely drawing nigh to the nuclear threshold and preserving a modicum of latent deterrence in this way – if that indeed is what motivates Iran’s nuclear thinking – may be proving a far more affordable option on balance.

For Israel, this means that Iran will perpetually be lurking just beyond the perimeter, making any deal, good or bad, irrelevant. In the event, Israel can either acknowledge and live with this inconvenient fact or more improbably for the foreseeable future, attempt to transcend the nuclear option by introducing an even more decisive and devastating alternative. It is much likelier that Israel’s deeper misgivings regarding the deal bespeak the deterioration of its regional strategic positioning. The United States is and will remain committed to Israel’s survival and well-being, but the beginnings of a deal between Iran and the United States (or the West) that leaves Israel out in the cold by neither addressing Iran’s fervid hostility nor inducing a concomitant thaw in its relations with the Jewish State, may be what irks Israel’s political elites.

Similarly, the deal has Riyadh and to some extent other Gulf Cooperation states stewing in their own juices. A deal that brings Iran closer to the Saudis’ guarantor is taken as toxic because it tilts the delicate Sunni-Shiite balance and, absent the United States, would shift the Persian Gulf’s true centre of gravity – demographically, historically, militarily, economically and politically – back to Iran. This also comes amid Saudi Arabia’s relatively decreasing importance as the world’s leading purveyor of oil at a time when the United States is becoming a fracking juggernaut on account of its massive shale oil. That Iran has been laid low over the decades is one of the main reasons for the Kingdom’s prosperity. This displeasure with Washington’s emerging Middle East policy was made unequivocal of late when the Saudis boycotted, of all things, their own non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council. However, given that Iran has not crossed the nuclear Rubicon, there is little likelihood that the Saudis, the Emiratis or other leading Sunni powers would opt to go nuclear in the next six months as a result of the deal, even if Riyadh has hinted that it might just try.

More optimistically, the nuclear deal may also very well effect changes in the Syrian arena. The Geneva II conference is now tentatively scheduled for 22 January 2014 after being postponed for months on end. The civil war grinds on meanwhile. If Iran’s leaders believe that an acceptable deal with the six world powers is within reach, there is little reason to assume that they and the Russians, their prime partners where Syria is concerned, would not be more willing to pressure Bashar al-Assad to the negotiating table, though not necessarily with a view to having him replaced. While Russia has provided critical diplomatic cover for Damascus, Iran has provided no less critical fighting power through Hezbollah, the Revolutionary Guards and miscellaneous armed Iraqi factions. But for all this to happen, Iran’s participation in the talks is a necessary condition. Whether the Syrian opposition will agree to accept what would likely in the event be some form of negotiated settlement, probably with Assad still in the picture, is another matter altogether.

Iran now possess the initiative

Perhaps more important than all else is the subtext of the present nuclear deal, which in effect affirms Iran’s status as a key actor and essential ingredient for regional security. No other country has occupied the headlines as much over the preceding years, and arguably no other country has been the object of so much diplomatic, military, rhetorical and intellectual exertion. By closing a deal with the Iranians with such eagerness, the West is essentially telling Iran ‘we recognise the legitimacy of the Islamic Revolution if you play by the rules’. The deal follows in the wake of another one, under similar threats of military action, involving the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile with Moscow standing in as guarantor. In that episode, the West in effect made it clear to Assad that so long as he hewed to the arrangement and kept to conventional warfare, they would not take steps to force him out of power.

In Iran’s highly factionalised politicking, this unspoken status recognition, if not the actual details of the deal, conceals universal appeal. Yet, while the deal has strengthened Iran’s moderates or more accurately, centrists, for the ultraconservatives in the various unelected bodies not to scupper it, Supreme Leader Khamenei, who gave his blessing to the deal, will have to persuade them, particularly the Revolutionary Guards, that their interests are not at stake.

In a perverse sense then, the Iranians now possess the initiative. After 34 years of animus and estrangement between Tehran and Washington, a successful longer-term deal, whether partial or comprehensive in which minds can agree to meet on substantive issues, will unquestionably alter the face of the Middle East and perhaps justify Barack Obama’s hasty Nobel Peace Prize. Iran’s leaders face a once-in-a-Revolution opportunity to secure their perceived national interests and rehabilitate their regional strategic standing with the acknowledgement and sanction of the United States and other status quo powers, without – and this is crucial – being perceived as joining their fold. To maximise mileage out of this opening however, Tehran will not be able either to ignore the United States’ two most fidgety regional allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, who are disproportionately wary of Persians bearing gifts. The next six months could augur plenty of promising change, it goes without saying. But to rephrase a Persian saying: do not preempt the Shahnameh (The ‘Book of Kings’)for the best part – if ever – only comes at the end.