US-Iran nuclear deal: Charting a new course

Hassan Rouhani Photo:
Hassan Rouhani Photo:

After four days of intense negotiations in Geneva, a comprehensive deal was signed on 24 November at 4:30 am between the representatives of the P5+1 group of nations (five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany) and Iran, leading to an interim agreement for six months. For the first time, Iran has accepted “strict constraints on its nuclear programme in exchange for partial relief from sanctions.” This comprehensive deal marks the most significant achievement of US foreign policy under Barack Obama’s presidency. Obama called this treaty the “first step” in US-Iran relations in a decade. Before the Islamic Revolution, during the reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi, Iran became a close ally of America. At that time, Iran had served US strategic interests in the Gulf region. In addition, Iran had very close relations with the Jewish state of Israel. But when the Islamic Revolution took place, Iran overnight became an adversary of the United States, and relations between Iran and Israel also deteriorated.

In January 2009, Obama, during his first inaugural address, indicated “a willingness to open contacts with Iran and other UN-trusted governments. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” In October 2009, William Burns, who was the US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, met with a top Iranian negotiator on the sidelines of the nuclear talks in Geneva. Soon after, Burns was promoted to the post of Deputy Secretary of State. In September 2010, Iran released a US female hiker on health grounds and she returned to the US via Oman. In September 2011, Iran freed two male hikers who also returned to the US via Oman. In February 2013, the United States and its partners opened a new round of talks with Iran on the nuclear issue in Almaty, Kazakhstan. But Iran refused to meet separately with the US delegation led by the new Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Wendy Sherman. In March 2013, Burns and national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, arrived secretly in Muscat for a meeting with Iranian officials.

In June 2013, Rouhani won the Iranian election. He promised relief from sanctions that had crippled the country’s economy and signalled a willingness to engage with the US on the nuclear issue. In the meanwhile, Burns and Sullivan held two more secret meetings with Iranian officials just before the annual UN General Assembly meeting. A framework for a nuclear deal started to emerge as did plans for a potential meeting between Obama and Rouhani in New York. In September 2013, both leaders attended the General Assembly session. Although, efforts to arrange a face-to-face meeting were not successful, Obama spoke to Rouhani by phone in the first conversation between a US and Iranian leader since 1979. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met the negotiating team of the P5+1, including John Kerry and Wendy Sherman. Kerry talked alone with Zarif for 30 minutes. On 30 September, Obama briefed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the talks. The very next day, Netanyahu talked about Iran’s intentions and lack of trustworthiness in his speech to the UN General Assembly. He called Rouhani a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

In October 2013, Burns and Sullivan held a fourth secret meeting with Iranian officials, and then a fifth, this time joined by the chief US negotiator, Wendy Sherman. The framework of the nuclear deal was hashed out in the early secret talks. A new round of talks with the P5+1 group of nations was held in Geneva and Wendy Sherman met publicly with  Zarif. In November 2013, representatives of the P5+1 group of nations met their Iranian counterparts in Geneva. On 24 November 2013, the P5+1 group of nations and Iran reached an initial deal on curbing Iran’s nuclear program. The comprehensive deal releases Iranian oil sales revenue from frozen accounts and suspends restrictions on the country’s trade in gold, petrochemicals, car and plane parts. There will be no new sanctions for six months if Iran sticks by the deal. Iran will also receive sanctions relief worth about $7 billion in various sectors including precious metals. In return, it will have to restrict its nuclear activities. Over the next six months, Iran has agreed to:

  • stop enriching uranium above 5 percent, reactor-grade, and dilute its stock of 20 percent enriched uranium or convert it to oxide, which makes it harder to enrich further. The medium-enriched uranium, in its hexafluoride gas form, is relatively easy to turn into weapons-grade material, so it is a major proliferation concern.
  • not to increase its stockpile of low-enrichment uranium.
  • freeze its enrichment capacity by not installing any more centrifuges, leaving more than half of its existing 16,000 centrifuges inoperable.
  • not to fuel or to commission the heavy-water reactor it is building in Arak or build a reprocessing plant that could produce plutonium from the spent fuel.
  • accept more intrusive nuclear inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, including daily visits to some facilities.

Tehran, however, insists that it must be allowed to enrich uranium to use in power stations. In a nationwide broadcast on 24 November, Rouhani repeated that his country would “never seek nuclear weapons”. He hailed the nuclear deal, and claimed that it was in accordance with Iran’s fundamental principles. He added that no matter what interpretations were given, Iran’s right to enrichment had been recognised.  Iran’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who has the final say in matters related to nuclear energy, also supported the deal.

Obama welcomed the comprehensive deal and stated that it would help prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons. Kerry claimed that the deal was a first step towards making sure that Iran does not have nuclear weapons and that it would make Israel and the Middle East a safer place. However, Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu said to his cabinet that it was a historic mistake and that his country would not be bound by the agreement. He further stated that “we cannot and will not allow a regime that calls for the destruction of Israel to obtain the means to achieve this goal. Israel has many friends and allies, but when they are mistaken, it’s my duty to speak out”. According to Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty the reaction of Saudi Arabia was more guarded. The deal is a historic step towards normalising relations between the US and Iran and could be a game changer in West Asia. But Saudi Arabia is wary of any rapprochement between Washington and Tehran that will reduce its importance and tip the scale in favour of Iran, its arch rival. Israel has been lobbying hard to get the US Congress to impose further sanctions. The White House has warned that any legislation imposing new sanctions against Iran may kill the deal and make the military option more likely.

In  speech following the deal, Obama said, “As we go forward, the resolve of the United States will remain firm, as will our commitments to our friends and allies — particularly Israel and our Gulf partners, who have good reason to be skeptical about Iran’s intentions. The first step that we’ve taken marks the most significant and tangible progress that we’ve made with Iran. And now we must pursue a lasting and comprehensive settlement that will resolve an issue that has threatened our security — and the security of our allies — for decades. It won’t be easy, and huge challenges remain. But through strong and principled diplomacy, the United States of America will do our part on behalf of the world for greater peace, security and cooperation among nations.”


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