The news out of Lausanne early last month, that the permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany (the P5+1) had, after marathon negotiations, emerged with the awkwardly titled, “solutions on key parameters of a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)” with the Islamic Republic of Iran was greeted with equal doses of adulation and derision. Advocates argued that the nuclear constraints on Iran’s ostensibly peaceful nuclear program were a success, whereas critics derided the news as a mere stepping stone on Iran’s progress to nuclear weaponisation. There are merits to both sides of the rhetoric. But first, what the event was not: this was not a “deal”, “treaty”, “agreement”, or a “framework”. As Sharon Squassoni, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in Reuters, “The next few months will be crucial. The push for a framework agreement this week likely had one purpose: to give Iranian negotiators time to take the outlines of an agreement back to Tehran for final approval.” Indeed, it is the approval of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khameini, that the negotiators will need to secure.
Iran rightly views itself as ascendant within the Middle East and North Africa. It has drastically increased its regional influence through the proliferation of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) –led militias, primarily in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, which Tehran uses as a tool for power projection, and a way to revive support for Ayatollah Khomeini’s ideal of Islamic revolution.
It is not altogether clear what exactly was reached in Lausanne, either. The US Department of State released key parameters from a US perspective, dismissed by Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, as “spin” on Twitter. In the joint statement between Zarif and Frederica Mogherini, no mention of timelines was made, either regarding the amount of time that a deal would remain in place for, or when sanctions would be lifted. To highlight the difference in statements: the US statement says that Iran has agreed to shrink its stockpile of uranium to 300 kilograms; there is no such mention of this in the Iranian statement.
In a joint op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal, Henry Kissinger and George Schultz noted that the desire of Iran to continue its progress toward nuclear weaponisation has hardened, whereas the Western-led desire to stop them has comparatively declined, “Mixing shrewd diplomacy with open defiance of U.N. resolutions, Iran has gradually turned the negotiation on its head. Iran’s centrifuges have multiplied from about 100 at the beginning of the negotiation to almost 20,000 today. The threat of war now constrains the West more than Iran.”
The piece also pointed out various worries regarding the logistics required of the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) to comprehensively carry out inspections on all of Iran’s nuclear sites, with the exception of Natanz, the only uranium enrichment facility able to operate if a final deal is reached. Iran’s “breakout” time – that is, the time required to weaponise a nuclear device -- would be pushed back from 2-3 months, to 12 months, replacing the previous idea that Iran’s program would be permanently rolled back to that of a plausible, and peaceful, civilian nuclear program. Also worrying is the idea of the “sunset clause”: that any deal reached next month would expire within the next 10-15 years, leaving Iran free to pursue a nuclear capability. Such an outcome would, at least to some, simply delay an Iranian bomb, as well as the risk of a nuclear arms race.
To be sure, it’s not all bad news. For one, the very fact that all parties are communicating on such an important security issue is far better than a common hostility. There is, however, a rhetorical trap, particularly the attempt to argue that these negotiations are analogous to Nixon’s opening to China during the 1970s. As Kissinger wrote elsewhere in World Order, the comparison is simply not apt – for one, China was facing the US on one side, and 42 Soviet divisions on the other.
A deal acceptable by both sides, however imperfect, can at least be used as a foundation on which to build a mutually cooperative relationship. Iran’s willingness to cooperate in tandem with the US-led coalition in the effort to eliminate Islamic State forces, and curb jihadi extremism within the region, is one such issue that they have an impetus to cooperate further on. Pace more hawkish commentators, a deal with Iran is far better than war.
Joseph Power is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.
Image Credit: European External Action Service (Flickr: Creative Commons)