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Late in the night, Indian Standard Time, news emerged from Lausanne that a framework for a nuclear agreement between Iran and the E3+3 (France, Germany Britain + Russia, United States, China) had been agreed upon. Lausanne, the small and picturesque Swiss town on the shores of Lac Léman, has been the latest host to dozens of diplomats, lawyers, and nuclear scientists involved in the long and difficult negotiations over the state of Iran’s nuclear obligations. A short joint press conference by Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, and Federica Moghierini, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, announced to the world that a significant milestone had been reached and that an agreement would be drafted by June 30. More than elation, tiredness marked the faces of the two diplomats. This last phase of discussions had gone late into the night for the previous two days and even these were only the tip of an 18-month long conversation between Iran and the E3+3.

The outcome of the negotiations has been hailed in the expected corners as well as condemned by the usual suspects. If this framework holds and a final agreement is inked by June 30, this will be one of the few times in recent memory that diplomacy has held sway over force. Barring the Cuban Missile Crisis, few major international squabbles in the past century have been solved through negotiations. So much so that we might have even forgotten what compromise looks or feels like – either side is satisfied but not content. The same is the case with the Iran talks. Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Republicans might prefer total supplication and abject surrender from Iran but there is as much chance of achieving that – even through war – as there is of the West giving Iran a clean chit on its nuclear activities.

The framework is far more elastic than it appears at first sight. Though the United States has released a fact sheet and the US Secretary of Energy, Ernest Moniz, made a statement, these are just US interpretations of what has been agreed upon and Iran has not signed off on them yet. Iran’s only public commitment is stated in the joint statement made by Zarif and Moghierini. Troubling to some, the framework has been portrayed in a different light by Iranian leaders in Persian to their domestic audience than Western negotiators have to their citizens. This was also seen in November 2013 when the Joint Plan of Action was first agreed to and is nothing to be alarmed about. It would hardly be healthy for the life of the framework if Iranian President Hasan Rouhani portrayed the JCPOA to the clerics and common Iranians as an American victory or an Iranian submission any more than for US President Barack Obama to tell the US Congress that Iran outwitted the United States and the Europeans in the negotiations. Such diplomatic license must be allowed in reading the behaviour of politicians.

Nonetheless, that statement still gives several reasons for optimism. The parameters of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, at the very least, assures the world that Iran’s Heavy Water Reactor at Arak will not be used to make weapons-grade plutonium, that its enrichment capacity, level, and stockpile will be limited for a specified duration, and that there will be no enrichment facility other than at Natanz. Reprocessing is forbidden Iran and spent fuel will be exported. Tehran will also accept the modified Code 3.1 of the Subsidiary Arrangements of the International Atomic Energy Agency and nuclear-related sanctions will be removed upon IAEA verification of Iran’s safeguards.

The Devil, as they say, is in the details and these will not be known until the final agreement is drafted. Iran hawks warn that the JCPOA does not go far enough but several experts seem to have confidence that the agreement will lead to something more substantial by the end of June. Many are in fact surprised that Iran conceded so much at all though they will hold the champagne until the deal is signed and implemented. To get into specifics, first, Iran will retain the right to enrich uranium. Yet it has agreed to limit this to 3.67 percent for at least 15 years and not build any new enrichment facilities for at least as long. Tehran is allowed only 6,104 centrifuges under the agreement, a far cry from the 19,000 operational presently. The excess centrifuges will be stored under IAEA supervision and will be accessed only as replacement for operating centrifuges. In addition, all operational centrifuges will be IR-1, that is, Iran’s more inefficient first generation equipment. It has also been agreed that Iran will not maintain a stockpile of uranium enriched to 3.67 percent greater than 300 kgs; presently, the country has 10,000 kgs of low-enriched uranium. It is not clear whether the excess will be downblended or exported but either way, it will not go into the Iranian nuclear programme in its present state. In conjunction, it is estimated that were Iran to try and make a nuclear device – it will certainly not be a bomb – the breakout time would be at least a year as opposed to the three months at present.

Second, Fordow – the secret site that was revealed by the United States, France, and Britain in 2009 – will be converted into a research centre. It may work on nuclear related matters but not enrichment research for at least 15 years. The facility will neither enrich nor store uranium for the same period. Almost two-thirds of the nuclear infrastructure at Fordow will be removed; it will have 1,044 centrifuges remaining but these will not be used to enrich uranium and will be placed under IAEA safeguards. This means that the only facility at which Iran can enrich uranium is Natanz, where 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges will be allowed to operate. The thousand IR-2M centrifuges will be removed and placed in safeguarded storage for 10 years. Iran’s other more advanced centrifuges are similarly prohibited for ten years. Research related to the development of advanced centrifuges will be limited for ten years and after that, subject to IAEA supervision.

Third, the IAEA will have regular and even continuous access in some cases to Iran’s entire nuclear fuel cycle. Its uranium mines will be under continuous surveillance for 25 years and its centrifuge manufacturing facilities for 20 years.Natanz and Fordow will, of course, come under safeguards and all of Iran’s technological and material procurements will be channeled through the IAEA. The JCPOA suggests that Iran will implement the modified Code 3.1 of the Subsidiary Arrangements with the IAEA; this requires it to give early notification to the IAEA when it constructs new nuclear facilities. The statement released by the United States says that Iran will accept the IAEA’s Additional Protocol but the joint press release suggests that this acceptance will be provisional and temporary. One can guess that Iran’s provisions refer to other promises made by the E3+3 but what it means by temporary acceptance is yet unclear. Though the US statement says that the IAEA will have the authority to investigate suspicious activities, Iran will likely question the definition of “suspicious activities.” The US seems to be sure that Iran will confess to its past work on the possible military dimensions of nuclear research but this is unlikely. This is also, thankfully, the least bothersome of the clauses and may be honoured more in the breach than the observed if the other clauses are satisfactorily implemented.

Fourth, Iran has agreed to redesign and rebuild the HWR at Arak. The core of the IR-40 will in fact be removed and destroyed, making it impossible to produce weapons-grade plutonium in the reactor. Iran has agreed not to reprocess fuel and will export its spent fuel out of the country for the reactor’s lifetime. Tehran has agreed to abjure from building any more HWRs for the next 15 years and it will not accumulate heavy water in quantities greater than is needed for the operation of the research reactor at Arak.

These are substantial compromises from Iran. In exchange, the nuclear-related sanctions against it will be removed upon verification by the IAEA that Iran has livedup to its safeguards and transparency commitments. UN Security Council resolutions shall be lifted under similar conditions. Interestingly, the greatest hurdle in the rapid re-imposition of sanctions upon an Iranian breach of faith would come not from Iran but Russia, a member of the E3+3. Moscow has long stated that snap-back sanctions bypass the veto in the UNSC and it is not willing to give up that right. From Russia’s point of view, it may no longer be interested in maintaining sanctions on Iran or it might want to leverage it against the United States if the geopolitics has shifted significantly at a later date. How the United States and its European allies convince the Russians to agree to a snap-back remains to be seen.

The details in the JCPOA has surprised many observers as have Iran’s substantial compromises. A two-thirds reduction in the number of centrifuges, the restriction on enrichment, a small stockpile, and the unprecedented access promised to the IAEA were beyond what anyone had expected. This has led many to wonder if there are any major discrepancies between the Iranian understanding of the framework and the US interpretation. However, when asked on Twitter, Gérard Araud, the French ambassador to the United States, said that the Iranians had agreed to the detailed parameters of the US interpretation. The discussions over the final draft will address how much sanctions relief and when is appropriate for how much safeguards. If even three quarters of this framework is implemented, it will still be an excellent outcome.

To those who remain unconvinced, it might be useful to reflect on the idea that no guarantee is absolute and no agreement is perpetual. Iran may well manage to develop a nuclear device on the sly despite all these safeguards. Geopolitical alignments may change and it may become convenient to look the other way as was the case with Israel and Pakistan. No country will ever adhere to an agreement that runs contrary to its national interests. That is a reality one must come to terms with.

Finally, the dispute over Iran’s nuclear programme is not about its sovereign right to engage in such endeavours. These long negotiations are about Iran’s failure to keep its word once it signed and ratified the Non-Proliferation Treaty. One wonders what would have happened in a world where the Shah of Iran was not persuaded by Richard Nixon to accede to the NPT. As for the hypocrisy of the “recognised” nuclear powers in their disarmament and proliferation obligations, power is the ultimate arbitrator.


This post appeared on FirstPost on April 04, 2015.

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