By Tim Tang
On the list of trigger-happy, nuclear-capable rogue states, Iran is not too far from the top. At first glance, Iran has all the elements of a stereotypical dystopia: a budding nuclear arsenal, festering historical hostilities with a next-door neighbor (or several of them, actually) that threaten to overflow into war, and a supreme religious leader spouting extremist rhetoric that cuts a middle path between the hilarious and terrible.
But what if this all changed?
The recent election of (relative) moderate Hasan Rouhani signals a change in Iranian politics- more specifically, its once-feared nuclear arsenal.
On November 24, Iran and the United States revealed a newly confirmed nuclear treaty designed to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, while opening the door for further reform. The treaty is temporary; new measures are planned six months after its passage, when the agreement will expire.
What does the new nuclear agreement entail? First, it dictates that Iran dilute or dispose of its uranium stockpiles at 20% or greater purity. Why? Uranium at this degree of purity (or higher) has the potential to be converted into nuclear weaponry. On the other hand, Uranium-235 at around 5% purity, which Iranian reserves the right to use for peaceful uses such as energy generation in the Arak heavy-water electricity plant.
While Iran currently possesses over 18,000 uranium-enrichment centrifuges, most of these are low-efficiency; those capable of processing uranium to higher concentrations will be dismantled under the terms of the treaty. In addition, Iran will be required to provide daily access to nuclear plants for UN International Atomic Energy Agency personnel inspection, in order to prevent clandestine enrichment. Any additional, non-approved plants are to be dismantled. Violation of the agreement’s terms will result in renewed sanctions.
Iran’s nuclear program, however, has continued for well over a decade and cost billions of dollars; it is both a matter of national pride and a potential bargaining chip in the unstable Middle Eastern political arena. Why would Iran agree to hinder the development of such a potent program?
Simply put, they are being paid. First, Iran will be paid 6-7 billion dollars in relief funding. Iranian overseas funds, which had been frozen as part of a sanction effort, will be unfrozen for limited purposes, such as medical aid.
Sanctions on fledgling Iranian industries such as automobile manufacturing, petrochemicals, and precious metals such as gold will also be lifted, allowing Iran to expand and compete globally. The potential for vast economic growth, it seems, is simply too good an offer to pass up.
The agreement is not the first of its kind, but it represents a revolutionary shift in American foreign policy. Originally, nuclear negotiations were handled by a group of Western nations known as P5+1, consisting of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the US, Russia, China, UK, and France) and Germany.
The latest agreement, however, is a uniquely American achievement, representing an example of unilateralism in political negotiations. Originally started by a letter from Obama to Rouhani in August, meetings were gradually arranged between Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, Jake Sullivan of the State Department, and Iran expert Puneet Talwar. Secretary of State John Kerry continued with meetings with Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif at the UN Assembly in late October, culminating in the current agreement.
The treaty has not proven to be very popular. The other P5+1 members, for one, disapprove of the United State’s role in the negotiations, as well as the terms itself. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius expressed skepticism of the efficacy of the agreement, viewing the continuation of the Arak reactor plant as a loophole that still provides Iran with a means of furthering its nuclear program. His Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, expressed similar concerns over the ability of sanctions to halt Iranian expansion.
Legislators on both sides of the political spectrum have also voiced doubts over the possibility of further measures being taken in six months- an embarrassing move which will undoubtedly affect Washington’s reputation.
More importantly, however, are the reactions of American allies in the Middle East. While Obama explained the agreement to be a temporary measure that allows for further progress to be made- perhaps ultimately resulting in significant political change- the leaders of Israel and Saudi Arabia are much more suspicious.
To them, the terms represent not so much a symbol of moderate diplomacy so much as a sign of American retreat- a move coinciding with American military withdrawal from the Middle East, signifying a “we don’t care” attitude as America decreases its energy dependence on Middle Eastern oil and, in their opinion, forsakes its former allies.
The possibility of US withdrawal may compel the Saudi Arabian government- which has few friends in the region and largely relies upon US military support- to acquire nuclear weapons of its own, perhaps purchased from Pakistan.
In Israel, the worries are even more serious. Literally surrounded by political rivals of a different religion, Israel is the most dependent of US allies in the region. Netanyahu has described the agreement to be a “historic mistake”, citing the continued possibility of Iranian nuclear enrichment with the loopholes provided under its terms.
Israel’s concerns are grounded; even excluding the possibility of clandestine enrichment sites, Iran’s potential to obtain a nuclear weapon is still very much a real threat. Uranium ore has a purity of about 0.7%; upon reaching 5% purity, most of the work has already been done. From there it becomes a simple matter of enriching the material to weapons-grade 20%, which may take as little time as three months if operating at peak efficiency.
The treaty, Israel argues, slows down but never stops Iran’s ability to acquire dangerous nuclear material. Thus, the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iranian production sites remains a possibility.
If nothing else, the progression of recent events only goes to show the problems that haunt diplomatic action attempting to create meaningful change at the price of political popularity; there is a distinct possibility that the treaty may cause greater political tension than it eases. How will the issue be resolved? The answer will be revealed in six months- but until then, Iran’s nuclear trigger finger is loosened… just a bit.
1 Levinson, Charles. “Israel Debates a New Diplomatic Approach.” Wall Street Journal[New York City] 25 Nov. 2013, Vol. CCLXII No. 125 ed., Section A sec.: A12. Print.
2 Norman, Lawrence, and Steven Fidler. “Science of Nuclear Capacity Fuels Doubt on Deal’s Impact.” Wall Street Journal [New York City] 25 Nov. 2013, Vol. CCLXII No. 125 ed., Section A sec.: A12. Print.
3 Solomon, Jay. “Iran Pact Faces Stiff Opposition at Home and Abroad.” Wall Street Journal [New York City] 25 Nov. 2013, Vol. CCLXII No. 125 ed., Section A sec.: A1+. Print.
4 Solomon, Jay, Carol E. Lee, and Lawrence Norman. “Two-Track Negotiations Led to Nuclear Deal.” Wall Street Journal [New York City] 25 Nov. 2013, Vol. CCLXII No. 125 ed., Section A sec.: A1. Print.