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Iran’s Nuclear Deal: Challenges and Opportunities

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These days, almost everyone is curious about an erratic and hence potentially troublesome nuclear deal reached between Iran and the P 5+1 (read America). Soon after the agreement, the two sides have begun interpreting it in opposite directions. Americans are claiming that Iran would have to significantly roll back its nuclear programme, whereas Iranian interpretation does not endorse this point of view. Soon the IAEA’s version would start pouring in to further compound the confusion. Moreover, Obama may not be able to hold the Israeli pressure and congressional dynamics. Hence, America may backtrack.


Immediately after the agreement, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov summarized the deal as: “This deal means that we agree that it is necessary to recognize Iran’s right to peaceful atoms, including the right to enrichment, provided that the questions that remain to the Iranian nuclear programme and the programme itself come under strict control of the IAEA. This is the final goal, but it has already been set in today’s document.”

The opponents of the deal insist that Iran has retained its potential to create a nuclear weapon. The whole of its Uranium enrichment infrastructure remains intact. A disappointed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “I emphasize: the deal does not envisage the elimination of a single centrifuge.” Many experts are of the view that Iran’s large nuclear infrastructure, which consists of some 17,000 enrichment centrifuges, is needed if a country has 12-15 operating nuclear plants which have to be supplied with fuel rods. Of now Iran has only one nuclear power plant, in Bushehr, which receives its fuel from Russia. Iran has  agreed to stringent intrusive monitoring and control procedures employing video cameras, meters and snap inspections. Interestingly it has been allowed to manufacture centrifuges to replace those becoming non-functional. The number would however stay constant.

Iran had never put forward its claim to the necessity of nuclear weapons; it had all along been advocating a WMD free zone in the Middle East. According to the details of the agreement, Iran will halt enrichment of uranium above 5 percent purity for the next six months, retain half of its 20 percent enriched Uranium  and dispose off remaining half by diluting it to less than 5 percent enrichment level. Iran has agreed that it will not make any further advances of its activities at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant, Fordow, or the Arak reactor. However, Iran will continue its safeguarded R&D practices, including its current enrichment R& D practices, which are not designed for accumulation of the enriched Uranium. It will not construct any additional facility capable of reprocessing. In addition, its nuclear facilities in Fordo and Natanz will come under the IAEA control, while the construction of a heavy-water reactor at Arak, capable of producing Plutonium, will be halted. And after the final agreement, to be negotiated within one year after implementation of interim agreement, Iran’s nuclear would be treated at par with other NNWS member of the NPT.

In return for the interim agreement, the P5+1 group, (read the United States and the EU), have agreed to ease some of the sanctions against Iran. This will allow Iran to resume limited trade relations with the United States in the oil and gas, petrochemical and automotive sectors as well as trading in gold and precious metals. The resulting benefit for Iran will amount to $5-7 billion. Indeed in the aftermath of this agreement, many bluffs have been called.

Iran stands on high moral ground because its long-time stance of not building nuclear weapons stands validated. However, Iranians are known for their farsightedness and shrewd diplomacy; it would be naive to believe that they have signed an agreement for grabbing just US$ 7 billion. Likewise, Americans are also no raw to let Iran retain critical capability of enriching Uranium up to 20 percent mark and remain content with cosmetic un-enriching of already enriched Uranium.

Mark Urban’s story aired on BBC on November 06, that Pakistan has given final touches to the nuclear weapons in compliance to the Saudi order and, proverbially, the caravan of camels carrying the nukes would start marching towards Saudi Arabia on King’s wink of eye, has fallen flat on the ground. Like Iran, Saudi Arabia is also a signatory and compliant of the NPT, and it has also never strived for any nuclear pursuits beyond its obligations as a NNWS member of the NPT.

The interim nuclear understanding has indeed thrown up an opportunity for the Americans to recede from their position of untenable rhetoric and retool their relations with Iran. Since the fall of Iranian monarchy, America has been running from pillar to post for discovering its new sustainable and robust moorings in Asia in general and in the Middle East in particular. It has not been able to find a substitute to “Shah’s Iran”.

Sustainable and functional Iran-US relations could offer much relief to America in many ways. America needs to shed at least a bit of Israeli baggage to make way for some patchy and truncated Palestinian state. Moreover, America is looking for a face saving political settlement in Syria, which also needs Iranian cooperation. Furthermore, Iranian influence in Afghanistan gives it a spoiler’s role in the context of post 2014 Afghanistan. The interim nuclear agreement with Iran provides America an opportunity of harnessing Iranian help in achieving these objectives.

Iran has recently inaugurated Afghanistan’s alternative access to warm waters via Chahbahar. Americans are desperate to find an alternative to their troublesome supply routes passing through Pakistan as well as the circuitous and expensive Northern Distribution Network. American relationship with Saudi Arabia is on decline and Saudis are further unhappy with the US for not doing enough against Iran. America’s rapprochement with Iran would offset its critical dependence on Saudi Arabia.

As of now, the US is coping with its politico-military failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also faces the challenges of the Arab Spring, and is under pressure from some allies that would like to drag the United States into military operations in Libya and Syria – a hard sell to a common American. With most of the Arab countries consumed by the strains of the Arab spring, America may be feeling the necessity to reconfigure the Middle East. These constraints might have prompted the US to engage with Iran, which may be ready to own Shah’s vision of becoming a policeman of the Gulf. If so, such a move could restore pre 1979 the balance of power in the Middle East, when Iran served as a linchpin of Gulf security.

America’s attitude to the Iranian nuclear program has undergone a sudden change and the nuclear deal could herald a change of balance of power in the Middle East. It may be an equivalent of America’s unprecedented rapprochement in its relations with the Communist China in 1970.

Agreement provides a window of opportunity to revive the IPI project. Iran and Pakistan have already decided to fast track the IP portion of the project. There are indicators that donors are now showing willingness to fund the IP project. However, even if India jumps in, Pakistan should go for completing the IP first, and later lay additional pipeline for India. IP should not be delayed for reverting back to the integrated IPI version.

Pakistan had persistently urged for a non-military solution to the standoff over Iran’s nuclear programme. It has, therefore, welcomed the interim arrangement.  Events unfolding during the next six months would be crucial. Pakistan needs to be watchful and prepared to confront malicious attempts to drag it into nuclear controversies.

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IPRI is one of the oldest non-partisan think-tanks on all facets of National Security including international relations & law, strategic studies, governance & public policy and economic security in Pakistan. Established in 1999, IPRI is affiliated with the National Security Division (NSD), Government of Pakistan.


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