The world is watching with keen interest as nuclear talks between Iran and the six major powers — the US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — enter their final phase. Chances of a deal being agreed upon within a week or so seem likely, although the possibility of last-minute hiccups cannot be ruled out.
Iran’s problems with the International Atomic Energy Agency and the world powers began in 2002, when it was discovered that it was secretly engaged in uranium enrichment at a plant in Natanz and had established a heavy water reactor plant at Aarak. This raised suspicions that Iran was involved in nuclear arms production and had suspended it only when these facts became known.
When Iran failed to respond to the demands of the six major powers to suspend its enrichment activity and other weapons-related projects, the UN Security Council, in 2006, imposed sanctions, and the US and European countries tightened the noose by slapping additional ones. Harsh sanctions had the desired effect of squeezing Iran’s economy, with its public getting restive. This helped in bringing a moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, to power in the 2013 elections.
The same year, an interim agreement was signed with the P5+1, whereby some sanctions were relaxed in exchange for Iran agreeing to suspend its uranium enrichment and other weapons-related activities.
Talks on the deal were extended beyond the deadline of June 30, 2015 and the parties are reported to be in the final stages of concluding it. The broad contours of the final deal aim at restricting Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. The country has agreed to reduce the 19,000 centrifuges at Natanz and Fordow to 6,014, and the top ceiling of enrichment not to exceed 3.6 per cent. Iran’s ability to produce enriched uranium or plutonium, sufficient to make a bomb in three months, has been reduced to reaching that stage in one year.
Iran’s main interest as of now seems to be in acquiring nuclear technology and developing a nuclear infrastructure, with the country not necessarily being interested in the manufacture of weapons. The director of US National Intelligence in a briefing to the Senate in February 2015 also alluded to this.
The P5+1 countries have ensured a fairly comprehensive compliance regime of monitoring and inspections. The West’s insistence that it be allowed inspection of Iran’s military installations has been strongly resisted by Tehran and it stands firm on this point. It also knows that any violation of the deal that involves repudiation of its fundamental commitment of not making a bomb will invite a catastrophic response from the US. From Tehran’s perspective, the lifting of sanctions as soon as possible remains a priority.
Saudi Arabia and Israel are strongly opposed to the deal. They fear that once sanctions are lifted and relations with the US and other Western powers are normalised in due course, Iran’s power will increase. Its economy and geopolitical position will considerably improve, altering the balance of power in the region. Already, the country has considerably expanded its influence in the Middle East, with its sphere of influence including Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Iran’s relatively better educated and homogenous society and a democratic political system, despite its imperfections due to the overriding power of the clergy, gives it an edge over its Arab rivals. Moreover, it is expected that the deal will empower moderates, reduce the power of the clergy and increase President Rouhani’s authority.
Israel has joined Saudi Arabia in opposing the deal for it feels that if there is any country in the Middle East that can challenge its power, it is Iran. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has used the strong Jewish lobby in the US, and especially in Congress, to create impediments for President Barack Obama. His address to the joint session of Congress in March 2015 was a desperate attempt at moulding public opinion against the deal. Netanyahu took the extreme hawkish position that the deal should be scrapped and Iran’s entire nuclear infrastructure dismantled. This is regrettable, as President Obama has made sincere and tangible efforts to protect the interests of these countries while negotiating the deal. External pressures and domestic lobbies are, however, unlikely to succeed in blocking the deal in Congress. It is ironic and hypocritical that Israel, which has been a covert nuclear power for years, is the deal’s fiercest opponent.
Saudi Arabia needs to revisit its opposition to the deal as well. Looking at the whole scenario more positively, rapprochement between Iran and the West should be a catalyst for political and economic reform in the Arab world. Of course, Iran, too, has to alter its expansionist agenda to inspire confidence among its Arab neighbours.
If as a consequence of the deal, relations between Tehran and Washington improve, it is possible that its positive impact will be reflected in better understanding and cooperation in matters related to Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. On a broader front, Iran and the US could also cooperate in dealing with the Taliban, the Islamic State and other militant groups that are their common enemies. At a personal level, a successful nuclear deal will ensure that President Obama and Secretary John Kerry leave a profound legacy behind them.
For Pakistan, the deal will open up new opportunities while introducing a different set of challenges. The removal of sanctions from Iran would allow the Pakistan-Iran pipeline project to be implemented, as well as create additional areas for expanding trade, commerce and cultural interaction. This will, however, require Islamabad to balance its policy in the Middle East and maintain and accord a high priority to its relations with its traditional and strategic partner Saudi Arabia.
It is quite possible that once the attention of the anti-nuclear deal lobbies in the US and the West is lifted from Iran, it could turn towards Pakistan, especially in the context of the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, even though the two cases are very different as Iran, being a member of the NPT, presumably had transcended on its obligations, while Pakistan, along with India and Israel, is outside the NPT, and has conducted itself very responsibly. However, there are certain lobbies in the West that have never reconciled to the reality of Pakistan as a nuclear power and miss no opportunity to target it.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 8th, 2015.
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