Eric Bridiers

Is the Iran Deal Doomed?

On Nov. 24, 2013, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the P5+1 reached a historic agreement known as the ‘Joint Plan of Action’ in Geneva. After numerous dead ends during intense diplomatic negotiations with the previous government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the interim agreement signed with the newly elected president, Hassan Rouhani, relieved many countries. The United Arab Emirates was the first Gulf state to welcome the Iranian nuclear deal by sending their minister of foreign affairs, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, to Tehran on Nov. 28, just a few days after the signing of the nuclear deal.

Positive remarks on the agreement were also issued by India, Japan, Spain, and Austria. On Nov. 24, Japan’s foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, welcomed the agreement as the “first significant step.” Spain’s government praised the deal as an important milestone towards achieving a general agreement that fosters stability and security in the region. German media, while appreciating the significance of the nuclear deal, emphasized that the bulk of sanctions on Iran must remain in place. However, several nations such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, along with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), continued to express concerns and scepticism towards a final agreement.

Saudi Arabia’s minister of defense, Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and his counterparts from Qatar and Kuwait are of the view that the agreement gave Iran far too many concessions and said that they “hope to see a corrective process with this deal.” Sami al-Faraj, a security adviser to the GCC, told Reuters, “Iran is sitting at the high table,” he said. “We are left with the leftovers.”

Iran’s nuclear program has been a bone of contention since 2002 when the existence of two undeclared nuclear facilities, a uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, and a heavy water reactor at Arak came to the attention of the international community through Alireza Jafarzadeh, spokesman of the dissident group National Council of Resistance of Iran.

As a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran did not uphold its commitments according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which then reported the matter to the UN Security Council on February 2006. Since then, the US and the European Union have imposed sanctions on Iran, in addition to those approved by the UN Security Council. The UN resolutions made it legally binding for Iran to halt all uranium-enrichment activities and fully cooperate with the IAEA. However, Iran repeatedly emphasized its right to enrich uranium for ‘peaceful purposes.’ This argument failed to convince the international community, suspicious of Iran’s intentions. The imposed sanctions severely affected Iran’s economy, particularly its oil and gas exports.

Elected president by a landslide majority, Hassan Rouhani has sought to normalize relations with the West and break the impending stalemate through diplomatic negotiations that ultimately met their success in the form of the interim nuclear agreement signed in Geneva last year. Iran agreed to a temporary freeze on the key components of its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of partial sanctions. Along with guaranteeing no further activities of uranium enrichment or creation of other nuclear-reprocessing facilities, Iran had to grant daily access to the Natanz and Fordow Nuclear Power Plants, promising no transfer, production, or testing of nuclear fuel to the Arak Nuclear Power Plant. Moreover, Iran has to share the design details of the reactor, address possible military dimensions of its nuclear program and provide data as part of the additional protocol, supplement to the IAEA’s comprehensive safeguards agreement. The signatories to the Geneva agreement promised to not impose any additional sanctions on Iran.

Interestingly, as soon as the historic meeting in Geneva ended, the US Treasury Department enacted fresh sanctions against many Iranian individuals, such as Reza Amidi, Iradj Mohammadi Kahvarin and Vitaly Sokolenko. The United States also sanctioned Eyvaz Technic Manufacturing Company, Iran Aviation Industries Organization, Maro Sanat Company, Mid Oil Asia PTE LTD and several others. Following these fresh sanctions, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Abbas Araqchi, decided to halt further discussions on the implementation of the interim nuclear agreement and he returned to Tehran for consultations. On Dec. 17, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Marziyeh Afkham, conveyed to reporters gathered Tehran’s displeasure over recent developments and its sentiments were conveyed to the US Secretary of State John Kerry, by Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, in a telephone conversation.

Rather than using his State of the Union Address on Tuesday, January 28th as an opportunity to highlight the fresh round of sanctions imposed by the US Treasury, President Barack Obama threatened to veto any bill that called for fresh sanctions against Tehran, requesting a chance for ‘diplomacy to succeed.’ Refraining from fresh sanctions shows that the US is negotiating in good faith and expects Iran to do the same until a comprehensive agreement is reached, wherein the US plans to push for a total lockdown of Iran’s nuclear program and restrict it to a mere 5% of uranium enrichment, just enough for producing electricity.

The US’s insistence on using military force against Iran if diplomacy fails is worrisome. On Jan. 23, three days after the interim agreement finally became effective, Secretary of State John Kerry stated that the US is prepared to react with military force if Iran decides to backtrack on its commitment. Such irresponsible and reckless remarks bode ill for a mutually acceptable solution and could bring the parties to reconsider their commitments. Soon after Kerry’s statements, officials from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Iranian Armed Forces issued strong responses. Major General Hassan Firouzabadi, the chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces sounded provocative, calling such statements pointless and un-substantive rhetoric. The commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Major General Mohammad Al Ja’fari, said, “Direct battle with the US is the biggest dream of pious and revolutionary people across the world. Your threats offer our revolutionary people the best opportunity.”

Additionally, using hard power in addition to forcibly exerting political might over organizations such as the United Nations by denying a visa to Hamid Aboutalebi over his involvement in the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis in order to gain leverage at the upcoming round of multilateral negotiations, appears to be a politically unwise move.

Moreover, using military intervention in Iran could result in the collapse of all that has been achieved through the interim agreement. It could also diplomatically isolate the United States, considering the rising attention Iran seems to enjoy ever since partial sanctions were lifted and the interim deal became effective. China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Japan, Germany, Spain, the UAE, and several other nations have all endorsed the deal, along with major European corporations that have expressed a keen interest in investing in Iran. South Korea imported about 8.2 million barrels of crude oil in February alone, more than double the amount from a year earlier. Turkey and Iran have signed five agreements on economic cooperation during an international seminar on ‘Iran-Turkey Investment Opportunities and Commercial Operation’ in Istanbul.

The recent oil-for-food deal signed between Russia and Iran for a period of one year would inject more than $12 billion into Iran’s already damaged economy that is expected to grow at 1.98 percent in 2015 according to the International Monetary Fund. It seems bizarre for countries like Great Britain to extend sanctions on individuals like Iran’s Major General Hassan Firouzabadi and former Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi as a deterrent to Iran clandestinely continuing their nuclear program as the talks to hammer out a comprehensive agreement are scheduled as soon as May 2014.

Furthermore, the US has much to consider on Iran’s growing role as a balancing power given recent events in Crimea, the EU-directed sanctions towards Russia along with attempts to reduce its dependence on Russia for resources, and the growing US-Saudi Arabia differences. Recent reports that suggest a potential energy deal between Russia and Iran worth billions of dollars would not only boomerang US efforts to punish Russia over its actions in Ukraine but also reduce the efficacy of sanctions currently imposed on Iran.

Hasty unilateral actions, antagonistic statements directed towards Iran, or mobilizing regional powers to counter Iran’s dominance in aspects not related to the nuclear deal (such as Iran’s ballistic missile program) might do more harm than good to the US especially in the long run, due to its interests in the region, and the parallel side effects on its long-standing ally, Israel. Furthermore, the combination of a recovering economy and a nuclear regime that would take no more than one-and-a-half to two months to resume weapon-grade uranium enrichment could spell a diplomatic disaster for Washington in the near future. Furthermore, claims that suggest Iran is still ‘very actively’ procuring items for their nuclear program through false documentation, front companies, and multiple levels of trans-shipment by Vann Van Diepen, of the US State Department, would set a rather negative tone for the second round of talks in Geneva scheduled to be held in July.

In my view, there is the need for the US to step down from the figurative position of the lone superpower which had the muscle and position to dictate its terms on others. Iran has been complying with the guidelines underlined in the interim agreement to the extent that it has diluted half its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium, which is corroborated by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) through its recent reports.

In such circumstances, persistent efforts to convince, perhaps even coerce, regional powers such as Iran into making further deeper concessions as part of the ‘long term’ nuclear deal by countries such as Sweden would either be doomed to fail or remain unresolved until all prospects of a comprehensive, mutually-agreeable pact collapse. Any attempt to thrash out a comprehensive, mutually acceptable deal must be approached with the aim of ‘engaging’ Iran rather than cornering Iran.