The framework nuclear deal with Iran — announced on Thursday after 16 months of negotiation — could be a regional and global geopolitical game-changer and constitute the defining foreign policy legacy of President Barack Obama’s presidency.
Suspicions have persisted for a long time that Iran has been using its peaceful nuclear program as a cover for clandestine weapons acquisition. The development would have negative consequences for every component of the nuclear arms control agenda, from increasing proliferation pressures in and beyond the region to heightened risks of nuclear terrorism, use of nuclear weapons, and setbacks to efforts to cut global nuclear stockpiles and reduce their role and salience in national security doctrines.
No credible evidence exists that Iran ever crossed the threshold into weapons production. But its continued work on enrichment and nuclear energy programs moved it technologically ever closer to a weapon. The aim of stopping Iran from developing a nuclear capability became a lost cause over the course of this century. The real policy challenge was how to accept it as nuclear-capable but not accept it as, nor provoke it into becoming, nuclear-armed.
The tough UN, U.S. and European sanctions to try and abort the march to weapons capability hurt Iran. But America too paid a heavy price militarily, financially and in reputation for its addiction to invading countries in and around the Middle East. The interim deal in November 2013, whereby Iran agreed to scale back its weapons-sensitive material and activities under IAEA oversight in return for some sanctions relief, paused its onward march on the capability path. The new framework agreement envisages halting and reversing this over the next 10 years.
This week’s deal marks a careful balance allowing Iran to keep a sharply reduced low enriched uranium stockpile and operate far fewer centrifuges, but under restrictions and international inspections that extend its potential weapons breakout period to at least one year:
- Iran’s number of installed centrifuges will be cut from 19,000 to 6,104; their operational number will fall from about 11,000 to 5,060; their quality will be restricted to first-generation IR-1s; and these constraints will remain in place for 10 years;
- Iran will not enrich uranium to above 3.67 percent (well below weapons-grade), its total stockpile of LEU will be cut from 10,000kg to 300kg, and it will not build any new enrichment facilities or proliferation-sensitive heavy water reactors, all three parts to run for 15 years;
- All excess centrifuges and enrichment infrastructure will be placed in IAEA monitored storage;
- The IAEA will have regular access to all of Iran’s nuclear facilities, uranium mines, and to the supply chain that supports Iran’s nuclear program.
As a result, over the next decade Iran’s breakout timeline — the time needed to acquire enough fissile material for one weapon — will be extended from the currently assessed two-to-three months to at least one year. In return, Iran gains early easing and the promise of eventual lifting of the crippling sanctions regime:
- U.S. and EU nuclear-related sanctions will be suspended after the IAEA has verified that Iran has taken all of its key nuclear-related steps. If at any time Iran fails to fulfil its commitments, the sanctions will “snap back into place.”
- The “architecture” of U.S. nuclear-related sanctions will be retained, allowing for snap-back of sanctions in the event of significant non-performance.
- All UN Security Council resolutions on the Iran nuclear issue will be lifted simultaneously with Iranian completion of nuclear-related actions addressing all key concerns, including enrichment and possible military dimensions.
The agreement marks a triumph of Obama’s nuclear diplomacy. The Bush years (2000–’08) proved to be calamitous for efforts to contain the nuclear weapons programs of both North Korea and Iran. Neoconservatives — who believed in using U.S. power to transform the world, were openly disdainful of arms control treaties and diplomacy, and believed in eliminating regimes rather than weapons — gained dominant sway in the administration. When President Bill Clinton left office, Iran had a tentative nuclear research program with fewer than 200 centrifuges; by the end of Bush’s two terms Iran had an industrial-sized uranium program and thousands of operational centrifuges.
The surprisingly detailed specificity of the agreement should mollify critics and satisfy opponents in Washington but could prove problematical for Tehran. Iran has been wary of falling into the Oslo trap when in the Oslo accord of the early 1990s, the Palestinians made many concessions but failed to reap any benefits owing to Israeli intransigence, which Washington proved unable or unwilling to overcome. Hardliners in Tehran will mobilize to try and scupper the sell-out deal that in their view seeks to drink from the poisoned chalice of a flawed agreement with Washington. U.S. Sunni allies in the region, in particular Saudi Arabia, may also insist on enrichment capability comparable to Iran’s.
Thus legal, political and financial challenges remain on the road to a comprehensive political agreement by the June 30 deadline. But the agreed inspections, verification and transparency measures will successfully close off all pathways to the nuclear bomb by Iran.
The Lausanne agreement has the potential to unfreeze the bitter Iran-U.S. enmity that has framed Middle East geopolitics since 1979. By ending Iran’s isolation and bringing it back into the international fold, the West can help to rebuild its once powerful secular middle class, dilute the influence of the radical clergy, turn Tehran into an ally to defeat the Islamist jihadists, and accelerate negotiations on regional issues like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Bringing closure to the 36-year conflict with Iran will also give Washington more latitude to focus on China’s continued rise in the Asia–Pacific and Russia’s return to nuclear brinksmanship in Europe.
Moreover, even after all elements of the deal expire in 10 to 15 years and Iran resumes some enrichment activities, its permanent Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligation not to acquire nuclear weapons will remain in place. Containing Iran’s nuclear weapons program does not complete the agenda of lifting the shadow of the nuclear weapons threat from the Middle East and the world. But the framework agreement will be a big morale booster when delegates assemble later this month in New York for the five-yearly NPT review conference.
Ramesh Thakur is director of the Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Australian National University. His new book, “Nuclear Weapons and International Security: Collected Essays” has just been published by Routledge.