Iran: has the leopard changed its spots?
26 Nov 2013|

Hassan Rouhani, the 7th President of Iran.The Interim Agreement reached in Geneva last Saturday between the P5+1 and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program is a high-stakes gamble for Middle-East security. At best the deal somewhat slows Iran’s capacity over the next six months to advance its nuclear program. At worst it could spark a race to proliferation in the Middle East and encourage an Israeli strike on Iran. Much depends on the inherently unlikely proposition that the Iranian leopard has changed its spots and will accept an agreement in six months that will be significantly more intrusive and limiting of its nuclear capabilities.

Commenting on the interim agreement, US President Barack Obama set out the limitations agreed by Tehran:

Iran has committed to halting certain levels of enrichment and neutralizing part of its stockpiles. Iran cannot use its next-generation centrifuges, which are used for enriching uranium. Iran cannot install or start up new centrifuges, and its production of centrifuges will be limited. Iran will halt work at its plutonium reactor. And new inspections will provide extensive access to Iran’s nuclear facilities and allow the international community to verify whether Iran is keeping its commitments.

This, the President claimed ‘will help prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon, [has] halted the progress of the Iranian nuclear program, and key parts of the program will be rolled back.’ A closer reading of the Interim Agreement suggests, however that the best the deal offers is a slowing of Iranian momentum rather than halting or preventing the nuclear program. Under the deal, Iran will still be able to process uranium using centrifuges that enrich the material by 5%, sufficient for use in an energy-producing reactor.

There are two reasons to worry about this concession. First, the world market for enrichment is already undersubscribed, so there’s no need for Iran to produce its own reactor fuel. A guarantee to provide it with fuel from a safeguarded supplier like EURATOM would’ve been vastly preferable. Secondly, while 5% enrichment isn’t useful in nuclear weapons, it’s a very good starting point for producing weapons grade material—more than 70% of the work has already been done. And the interim agreement allows Iran to keep its hand in the enrichment business. While that’s consistent with its rights under the NPT, it also provides Iran with the capacity to choose to break out of the agreement in the future should it choose to do so. Iran has chosen to see the interim agreement as legitimising its ‘peaceful’ nuclear program—in effect a major concession on the part of the P5+1.

It’s what is not covered by the interim agreement which gives greatest cause for concern. As set out by Republican Senator John McCain: ‘this agreement is silent on the question of Iran’s nuclear weaponization efforts and development of delivery systems, such as ballistic missiles, that are key components of its pursuit of nuclear weapons’.

Israel’s opposition to the agreement has been strident and vocal. Prime Minister Netanyahu has labelled it as a ‘historic mistake’, adding:

The Iranian regime is committed to the destruction of Israel and Israel has the right and the obligation to defend itself, by itself, against any threat. As Prime Minister of Israel, I would like to make it clear: Israel will not allow Iran to develop a military nuclear capability.

What for Secretary of State John Kerry represents a glittering prize of a rapidly brokered ‘deal’ remains in Israeli thinking an existential threat to their country’s future. One effect of the interim agreement could well be to drive Israel closer to countries in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which perceive Iran to be a strategic threat and will also not tolerate a situation where Tehran can get close enough to a nuclear capability that makes it possible to launch a quick final sprint to a bomb.

More broadly, Iran’s blood-curdling rhetoric on Israel, its bloody backing of President Assad in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip have also been contingently overlooked in the P5+1’s pursuit of a deal. But in six months’ time when the parties are supposed to cement a more comprehensive framework, there’ll surely have to be detailed questioning about what kind of state Iran purports to be in the Middle East. Tehran may be prepared to put its nuclear ambitions on a leash for the sake of more normalised relations with the west and for a reduction of sanctions, but do Washington and its P5 chums seriously propose to overlook Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism and interference in Syria?

Having committed to this six month process, a disturbing feature of the Obama Administration’s approach is that in defending the agreement it has comprehensively trashed the efforts up to now of the international community to enforce sanctions. The White House Fact Sheet on the Agreement says:

Without this phased agreement, Iran could start spinning thousands of additional centrifuges. It could install and spin next-generation centrifuges that will reduce its breakout times. It could fuel and commission the Arak heavy water reactor. It could grow its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium to beyond the threshold for a bomb’s worth of uranium. Iran can do none of these things under the conditions of the first step understanding.

Furthermore, without this phased approach, the international sanctions coalition would begin to fray because Iran would make the case to the world that it was serious about a diplomatic solution and we were not.

There couldn’t be a clearer statement of the failure of sanctions to prevent Iran’s nuclear program. Obama has therefore cut off his avenue of retreat to the old sanctions policy should negotiations fail. In all probability Washington will neither be able to move forward on a comprehensive deal nor go back to sanctions. In such circumstances the risks of a strike against Iranian nuclear facilities increases.

Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.