Iran-West Rapprochement: The Interim Agreement and Beyond

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A final agreement between Iran and the West will benefit both sides politically and economically.

In November 2013, Iran and the West signed an interim agreement over Tehran’s nuclear program. It was the first successful negotiation between both parties after 35 years of fruitless diplomatic efforts, mutual suspicion and a hostile climate that was on the verge of an armed confrontation.

The successful completion of ongoing negotiations could result in a permanent deal. On the one hand, this could lead to the lifting of sanctions on Iran, while on the other, it might render the nuclear program of Tehran to be peaceful after all, erasing fear of a potential nuclear weapon.

Reactions to the Deal

The reception of the interim agreement was varied among world leaders. The deal sparked a heated debate between analysts about its possible consequences for security, as well as for the world and regional order.

In response to claims that concern the nuclear arsenal capabilities of Tehran, a recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report highlighted that Iran has stopped processing uranium to 20% enrichment — a critical threshold above which the production of a nuclear weapon is only a matter of time. The remaining nuclear material of 20% enrichment is converted to other forms that cannot be processed further.

According to Arms Control Now, the implementation of these provisions halts the possibility of producing a nuclear bomb during the end of the first phase agreement. It also “adds several weeks to the amount of time that it would theoretically take Iran to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear weapon” after the expiration of this period.

At the same time, the US and European Union (EU) suspended a number of economic sanctions that were imposed on Iran. These were mainly restrictions on trade in petrochemicals, precious metals and the provision of insurance for oil shipments. However, many sanctions in domains such as the arms industry, machinery products and financial assistance remain in place. As a senior US official stated: “This temporary relief will not fix the Iranian economy. Iran is not and will not be open for business until it reaches a comprehensive agreement.”

Iran and the P5+1: The Process of Negotiations 

The negotiating teams still have to overcome a series of obstacles that prevent a final agreement; Iran’s ballistic missile program is one of them. The Iranian defense minister, Gen. Hossein Dehghan, recently told journalists: “Iran’s missiles are not up for discussion under any circumstances … Iran’s missiles are only our concern … We don’t accept any intervention from anybody on this issue.” The reason for this persistent Iranian refusal to negotiate over its missile program is rooted in the important role it plays for Iran’s defense capabilities. As Michael Elleman stated: “They [the missiles] represent one of Iran’s few capabilities to deter attack, intimidate regional rivals, and boost military morale and national pride.” The US government’s decision to demand the inclusion of the missiles question in negotiations resulted from pressure by the Israel lobby in America.

Another contentious issue concerns the future enrichment capability of Iran. According to the latest report of the International Crisis Group, a possible solution to the enrichment program would be to reduce “the number of enrichment facilities to one … kerbing related research and development (R&D) activities and constraining the number of centrifuge production facilities.” The aim of such a proposal from the P5+1 would be to augment the time that is necessary to enrich all the uranium needed to build a nuclear weapon.

Prior to the imposition of sanctions by EU states, Peugeot and Renault made significant exports to Iran. Peugeot was one of the two biggest automakers in Iran, while sales of the company dropped by 68% after sanctions were placed.

Furthermore, it would stand in opposition to Tehran’s plans to produce its own fuel of nuclear reactors, as well as its goal to build new power and research reactors. Such intentions demand the multiplication of centrifuges. In April, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s nuclear energy, revealed plans to install 30,000 additional centrifuges for the enrichment of uranium in order to fuel the Bushehr power station.

An additional issue that is relevant to enrichment concerns is the research and development program. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was quoted as saying: “These negotiations should continue, but all should know that negotiations will not stop or slow down any of Iran’s activities in nuclear research and development.” Under these circumstances, one has to take into account Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s statement after a recent meeting in Vienna: “I can say we agree on 50-60% of issues, but the remainders are important ones and diverse. Even 2% can torpedo all of it.”

Besides the hard negotiation process, the Iranian government has to confront domestic critics who view negotiations and a possible agreement with skepticism, if not open hostility. According to Amir Mohebbian, a parliamentarian who supports Rouhani’s government, the conservative opposition is of the opinion that the president “had accepted the ideals and standards of the West before the negotiations even began.”

Fereydoon Abbasi, the former head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, spoke of a weakening of Iran’s national interests during a conference held by opponents of negotiations on May 3. It is believed the conference was organized by the student’s branch of Basij, a militia closely linked to the conservative establishment of Iran. If this piece of information is accurate, then we can expect sharp criticism from the conservative elite that was associated with former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, if an agreement is reached.

Benefits of a Permanent Arrangement

In the event of a permanent solution, the economies of the US and its Western allies would be boosted by the further lifting of sanctions. According to Amir Handjani, American companies like Boeing and Caterpillar “will be huge recipients of purchase orders coming from Iran,” helping the American Midwest and Pacific Northwest to weather the economic storm. France is also set to benefit from the easing of economic sanctions. Prior to the imposition of sanctions by EU states, Peugeot and Renault made significant exports to Iran. Peugeot was one of the two biggest automakers in Iran, while sales of the company dropped by 68% after sanctions were placed.

There are indications the oil sector is also willing to reactivate its business in Iran. Lukoil has already stated its interest to return to the country. According to Iranian sources, Total has negotiated a new partnership with Tehran. Additionally, there is also the gas domain that has not yet been sufficiently exploited.

Prior to sanctions, the EU economy exported manufactured and machinery goods worth €3.1 billion ($4.3 billion) to Iran. A possible reestablishment of economic cooperation would augment European exports and boost the EU’s economy during this critical period.

On the geopolitical level, US initiatives to improve relations with Iran can bring more balance to the Middle East for two reasons. First, Iran can play a constructive role in the Syrian crisis. As the Assad regime regains control of regions and crucial passages, the overthrow of the Syrian government seems to be unrealistic. Only further negotiations between Damascus and the opposition will end the conflict. Therefore, considering Iran’s strong relations with Syria, its role during these negotiations in pressing the Assad regime to accept a compromise will be crucial.

Second, Iran can also bring more stability to Lebanon. It is well-known that Tehran exerts an important influence over Hezbollah. A moderate government in Tehran that feels safe in its regional environment can put pressure on the Shi’a group to accept a settlement on its extensive weapons arsenal. Any deal would demand that Hezbollah’s arms are placed under the control of the Lebanese Army.

To sum it up, Iran and West have made important progress in ameliorating their relations with the signing of the interim agreement. Both sides have already implemented various provisions of the deal.

However, the interim agreement does not permanently settle the controversy surrounding Tehran’s nuclear program, nor does it suspend the main body of sanctions that keep Iran in an economic stalemate. The current phase of negotiations includes a number of thorny issues, but both sides stand to gain from a comprehensive agreement in political and economic terms. It is important for the interlocutors to sidestep the mutual mistrust and collaborate to reach an agreement within the deadline that expires on July 20.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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