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Opinion

July 11, 2015

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An elusive nuclear deal

The negotiations over the Iranian nuclear deal in Vienna seem to be struggling through last minute hiccups, with both sides trying to manoeuvre maximum advantage. The final deadline of June 30 had to be extended for another week up to July 7. Even that deadline has passed.
Apparently, the talks will now continue indefinitely until an agreement is reached. Meanwhile the November 2013 interim agreement that provided Iran with limited sanctions relief in exchange for rolling back parts of its nuclear programme remains in force.
Any final, comprehensive accord will have to be rolled out in phases. It will set in motion distinct processes for implementing its provisions in both Iran and the US. Even before the deal is implemented in its entirety, a period of adjustment will be required to allow participating nations to prepare for it gradually. It will require a calibrated timetable for mutual commitments to be converted into reciprocal actions on both sides.
In other words, it is not going to be a switch-on-switch-off process. A series of steps will be taken, including verification of Iranian actions in compliance with the deal and lifting of sanction by the US, European Union and Security Council. This is the crux of the matter. No wonder the last-minute hiccups.
The so-called P5+1 Group – the US, UK, France, China and Russia plus Germany – wants Iran to scale back its sensitive nuclear activities to ensure that it cannot build a nuclear weapon. Since 2006, the UN Security Council has passed several resolutions on Iran, but the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is still unable to confirm if there are potential military dimensions of Iran’s clandestine operations. Iran says it has the right to nuclear energy – and stresses that its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes only. The US and its European allies in the group, however, suspect that Iran has not been honest about its nuclear programme and is seeking the ability to build a

nuclear bomb.
The western powers fear that even after the agreed deal roughly 5,000 centrifuges will remain spinning enriched uranium at Natanz. A major reactor at Arak, which officials fear could produce plutonium, might also continue to operate – though on a limited scale. Likewise, the enrichment site at Fordo will be partly converted to nuclear research and the production of medical isotopes. A year and a half of nuclear talks now seem to be creeping towards the finish line as negotiators wrestle with major sticking points that include investigation of a possible military dimension (PMD) of Iran’s nuclear programme, timing of sanctions relief and the question of access to Iranian sites to monitor its compliance with the deal.
Iran has always insisted that its nuclear work is peaceful and wants international sanctions that have crippled its economy lifted in exchange for a deal under which it will curtail its nuclear programme. A deal, if agreed to, would require Iran to severely curtail uranium enrichment work for more than a decade to ensure it would need at least one year’s ‘breakout time’ to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a single weapon, compared with current estimates of two to three months. In return the EU and the US will begin to lift sanctions – as Iran complies. Iran’s acceptance of a procedure that would allow international inspectors to gain access to its nuclear facilities before sanctions are lifted remains crucial to finalisation of the deal.
The pace at which international sanctions are lifted as Iran meets the commitments and the depth and breadth of international verification of its compliance are now the major issues at the current talks. The west wants Iran to provide the IAEA the full management access it needs, whenever and wherever, to verify the completeness and correctness of its nuclear declarations. Iran has serious reservations on giving this blanket access to its nuclear sites, scientists or military installations. It says that amounts to encroachment upon its ‘sovereign integrity and national security’. Iran now also seeks guarantees that the sanctions, once lifted, will not be re-imposed unless it is determined by an agreed procedure that Iran has not upheld its commitments.
If the US and Europeans do not keep their commitments under the deal, Iran says “it has the right to go back to its [nuclear] programme as it wishes.” It now also wants the arms embargo to be lifted – complicating the negotiations. In a recent statement, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei said the “implementation of the lifting of sanctions has to be in line with the implementation of Iran’s agreed commitments.” He also ruled out any freeze on research and development for 10 years, as well as inspections of military sites.
While Iranians now cite increasing domestic political constraints on going beyond their NPT commitments, the US is warning that a framework deal agreed in Switzerland in April had to remain the basis for the new comprehensive agreement. President Obama was also very firm in Washington when he said “ultimately this is going to be up to the Iranians” to meet the requirements set out by the international community. His remarks were seen most likely in response to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini’s firm articulation of Iran’s position. A dispute over UN sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile programme as well as a broader arms embargo seems to have further complicated the final talks.
In an eleventh-hour video posted on YouTube late last week, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif also chose to tell the western powers to abandon what he called “coercive” tactics in striking a deal over his nation’s nuclear programme. He accused them of using ‘discriminatory and unjust sanctions’ to punish his country and warned that if talks fail, the onus will rest on the US, not Iran. Zarif claimed the negotiators had “never been closer to a lasting outcome” and Iran was ready “to strike a balanced and good deal and open new horizons to address important common challenges.”
As Iranian officials have often done in the past, Javad Zarif also seemed to be referring to ‘common challenges’ in the context of the importance of Iran’s role in combating the growing Isis threat of extremism in the Middle East. Zarif’s message was not merely a last-minute pressure tactic or an attempt to assuage hardliners in Tehran; he spoke of a larger reality in terms of potential geopolitical implications of the nuclear deal. The whole region might see new realignments emerging. A nuclear-disciplined Iran could perhaps be America’s potential regional partner in its current strategies in the Middle East, Persian Gulf and South Asia including Afghanistan.
Whatever the final outcome, both sides are now walking the tight rope seeking to balance their need for a nuclear deal and their larger geopolitical interests. The challenge for them now is to build upon the framework deal they had agreed to last April. They know each other’s redlines and should avoid crossing them.
From the Iranian point of view, the NPT is the criteria for a final deal, whereas for the P5+1 it is the NPT plus the UNSC resolutions. The room for compromise exists only in how they can bridge this gap. It is in effect a give and take challenge for both sides to make it a win-win deal for them. Otherwise the long-awaited nuclear deal remains as elusive as ever.
The writer is a former foreign secretary.
Email: [email protected]

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