Rolling Back Iran's Nuclear Project

Global Centre Stage

Dr Ofira Seliktar presents preliminary observations on the historic Lausanne Agreement between Iran and the P5+1

After more than two years of arduous negotiations between Iran and the international community represented by the P5+1 countries (United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany), a major step towards a permanent agreement was made in Lausanne on April 2, 2015.

The historic nature of the development cannot be over emphasised. From the early days of the Islamic Republic, the regime was suspected of pursuing a nuclear weapons programme. But it was only in 2002 that an Iranian opposition group revealed the existence of illicit sites. Still, it took the Security Council some four years to take up Iran’s proliferation dossier. After an initially tepid response, the Council escalated the regimen of sanctions imposed on Iran. Working in tandem, the United States and the EU imposed their own highly punitive sanctions that targeted the crucial oil sector. Barring Iran from the Belgian-based Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), the world’s largest electronic payment system, was particularly painful for the Iranian economy.

By 2013, the rapidly deteriorating economic situation forced the regime to re-evaluate its decades-long determination to pursue the programme. The victory of Hassan Rouhani, a politician who advocated a rollback in the programme in exchange for sanctions relief, was clearly a sign of change. At the same time, hardliners such as the Revolutionary Guards, in charge of much of the project, were adamantly opposed to any compromise that would jeopardise their considerable achievements, especially with regard to the uranium enrichment cycle. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran had 10,190 working centrifuges in Natanz and Fordow. As of August 2013, Iran had a net stockpile of 6,774 kg of 3.5 percent of uranium and 447 kg of near 20 percent enriched uranium.  The Agency also noted progress on the heavy water reactor in Arak.  In addition, there were long-standing questions about previous weaponisation projects that Iran refused to answer.

Reading the Fine Print

The Lausanne agreement suggests a compromise on both sides. The P5+1 gave up on the long held position of zero enrichment, an option that has been favoured by Israel. Instead, the Iranians agreed to cut the number of centrifuges by two-thirds to 2060, and reduce the stockpile of low enriched uranium from 10,000 kg to 300 kg – for 15 years.  Two other provisions that would preclude the production of a bomb were added: the Arak heavy water reactor would be redesigned to prevent the production of plutonium and research on centrifuges would be limited to the development of advanced models. The Iranians are said to have agreed on an intrusive inspection regime along the lines of the Additional Protocol. In return, they were promised a phasing out of sanctions.  

Though considered to be quite detailed, the agreement left some important issues for further deliberation before the final deadline on June 30, 2015. Iran has not yet replied to the IAEA queries about its past weaponisation efforts, and it is not clear whether it would be required to do so for the final accord. The disposition of the 300 kg of low enriched uranium has not been decided.  It is also not clear whether a detailed and binding inspection regimen can be developed, given Iran’s record of past cheating.  The pace of sanction relief has not been worked out in detail either.  The issue is particularly complex since, as noted, some sanctions were UN-mandated, but others were imposed by the EU and the United States.  These and other intricate technical details need to be resolved before the deadline.

As of now, it is impossible to predict whether this deadline can be reached.  There are complex dynamics at play that may affect the outcome.  At the moment, the balance of power favours President Rouhani and those who want to strike a deal and position Iran towards re-joining the community of nations.  There were sizeable demonstrations of popular support on the streets, and Ayatollah Khamenei has apparently given his blessing to the agreement. Most consequential, in a surprise move, the hard-line commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Ali Jafari, made a statement welcoming the achievement of the nuclear negotiators.  

Dynamics that can Reshuffle the Odds

But the popular support and the position of Ayatollah Khomeini can change if sanctions are not phased out at a reasonable speed.  The possibility that the Republican dominated Congress may impose new sanctions to short circuit President Obama’s drive to reach a final agreement is just one of the dynamics that can reshuffle the odds.  With no economic relief in sight, the political forces that Rouhani represents may lose much of their standing.   Other hazards to the successful agreement may stem from attempts at continuing some form of an illicit programme. Given the history of persistent cheating and obfuscation, this scenario cannot be entirely ruled out. 

In sum, the Lausanne agreement is a major historical achievement, but one that is still too fragile to be considered a definitive success in rolling back Iran’s nuclear programme.

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