Monday, 6th October 2014

Iran: Crunch time looms for nuclear deal

Fears that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s illness could lead to a major internal power struggle within the next, critical few weeks seem premature (see Politics). Meanwhile, even if the rahbar (supreme leader) has been clear that Iran will not be joining a US-led coalition to fight the Islamic State challenge, Washington has been talking about Iran in more constructive terms, seeing it as an important regional player that cannot be ignored in countering the jihadist challenge rising out of Iraq and Syria. The regional realignment gives welcome substance to President Hassan Rouhani and foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s claims to be repositioning the Islamic Republic as a major regional actor – and trading partner – in the face of rival factions’ scepticism (GSN 975/11). But the more positive mood does not necessarily mean that Iran is going to see a resolution of its intractable nuclear problem that will inevitably lead to an end to international sanctions.

Under the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) agreed on 24 November 2013 by Tehran and the P5+1 powers, moves have been made to address concern that Iran was positioning itself to ‘break out’, which would allow it to produce sufficient weapons-grade uranium to manufacture a bomb before the UN Security Council, or others, could stop its production. The JPA envisaged a comprehensive solution that should be negotiated by 20 July 2014, or within an agreed additional period (GSN 959/1). The JPA negotiators failed to achieve the July target, and agreed that 24 November should be the final date for reaching a comprehensive solution.

Some analysts – including former UK diplomats Peter Jenkins and Richard Dalton, authors of the Iran’s Nuclear Future report published by London think tank Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Programme* – believe 24 November could prove a final deadline. The process could founder, despite the evolving geopolitical environment and other positive factors, were the protagonists to fail to reach an agreement then.

Not everyone agrees: further talks to reach a comprehensive agreement could be envisaged in H1 2015, some analysts argue. But time is running out, with ‘pushback’ against the agreement building, from hardliners in the Iranian military/security, judicial and other elites, within the US Congress and from allies of anti-JPA hardliners Israel and Saudi Arabia.

A comprehensive agreement is clearly worth reaching. It should help to keep the Rouhani/Zarif tendency in office, outflanking more radical elements who might seek to revert to the more conflictual (if economically disastrous) policy of the Ahmadinejad era. It is unlikely to lead to a deeper rapprochement. GSN has written before about the potential for a potential ‘Obama in Iran’ moment, as the US president seeks to burnish his thin foreign policy legacy; the rahbar has clearly shown he doesn’t want to play ball. But it should reduce tensions, whose flames are fanned by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on the one side, and Saudi claims about an Iranian nuclear threat, on the other. At their report’s launch on 4 September, Jenkins and Dalton argued that western policy-makers would do well to take less heed of Israel and Gulf allies while shaping a pragmatic, workable policy.

There will be much discussion of centrifuge numbers and sensitive questions to answer over Iran’s non-operational centrifuges (up to 10,000 of them) between now and 24 November. Compromises will be needed on all sides, but this is not impossible. If agreement can be reached, a lengthy confidence-building period will be required, but there is time for this, with European partners prepared to remove sanctions (the US process, involving Congress, will be messy), allowing Iran to rebuild its economy – a key aim of Tehran’s decision to embark on the process, as stated by Khamenei.

Trust is the key issue. Jenkins and Dalton put considerable emphasis on the ‘nuclear fatwa’, a body of opinions issued by Khamenei; the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran-affiliated Bamdad Institute has published a collection of some 30 extracts on weapons of mass destruction from the rahbar’s sermons and statements since 2003, which show “beyond doubt” that Khamenei has consistently regarded weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, as haraam (forbidden).

But even if Khamenei has been consistent, can the international community trust the many-headed Iranian state structures to behave in accordance with the nuclear fatwa? Safeguards can and will be built into a new agreement, and internationally verified through the Non-Proliferation Treaty and other instruments. Iran wants a deal; the international community needs one. In a period marked by newsflow that is negative even by Middle Eastern standards, it is time to move towards a comprehensive agreement bringing Iran back from the cold.

*http://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/field/field_document/20140904IransNuclearFutureJenkinsDalton.pdf

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