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Iran sanctions: journey’s end

More than three years ago, I wrote in my column for Gateway House, that “There are signs that the U.S., UK and Germany, if not France under President Sarkozy, are moving towards the Russian and Chinese position of accepting Iranian enrichment as long as Iran offers the best possible guarantees that all its nuclear material will remain in non-military use.”

The journey on which those states embarked in Istanbul in April 2012 came to an end, at last, in Vienna, the home of the International Atomic Energy Agency, on the morning of 14 July, 2015.

This is cause for celebration, as millions in Iran, Europe and the United States have shown themselves to recognise.

What caused the Western powers to abandon the policy of coercing Iran into dismantling its uranium enrichment plants and closing down its enrichment programme? With hindsight, one can say that it was helpful that the Republican candidates in the 2012 U.S. presidential primaries wanted to bomb the hell out of Iran. This left open to President Obama an alternative that would be electorally more popular than yet another deployment of U.S. forces to South West Asia, and that resonated with his personal convictions.

The nuclear talks then received a shot in the arm with the election in June 2013 of an Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, with whom Western leaders could afford, politically, to be seen to be doing business, and with the appointment of Mohammad Javad Zarif as Foreign Minister of one of the ablest diplomats of his generation.

Even so, the journey has been fraught with difficulty. Israel and Saudi Arabia, and their malleable friends in the U.S. Congress, have opposed the enterprise at every turn– even signing an alliance in June– fearing that a nuclear agreement would strengthen Iran’s regional position at their expense. Their opposition has obliged Secretary Kerry and his negotiating team to exact concessions from Iran that Iran’s negotiators could have perceived as an affront to national dignity, and therefore refused.

In the event, though, the outcome can fairly be described as well-balanced.

Iran has obtained recognition of its right to enrich uranium for the supply of fuel to nuclear reactors. It has been promised cooperation in fuel fabrication, light water reactor technology, nuclear safety and security, spent fuel disposal, and modifying the heavy water reactor under construction at Arak. And it can look forward to the lifting of all economic and financial sanctions, and the unfreezing of financial assets, within a matter of a few months.

The U.S. and its partners have obtained a reaffirmation of Iran’s commitment, in perpetuity, to its non-nuclear-weapon status. They have secured international monitoring of Iran’s nuclear activities of a nature to deter any Iranian temptation to revisit the Supreme Leader’s prohibition on the acquisition of nuclear weapons. And they have persuaded Iran to offer changes to its enrichment plans that will give the West ten years to grow confident in the peaceful nature of Iran’s long-term nuclear intentions.

The sanctions provisions mean that four to six months from now, Iran will be reintegrated into the global trading and financial systems. Iran will once more compete to supply oil markets with 2.5 million b/d or more of crude. Iranian banks will once more transact business with foreign counterparts and use the SWIFT financial messaging service. Iranian aircraft will once more deliver cargo to European airports. And financial assets estimated at $100 billion or more and frozen abroad will once more be accessible.

Meanwhile, probably as early as next week, all relevant UN Security Council resolutions will have been repealed. A new resolution will have been adopted, however. It will endorse the 14 July Vienna Plan of Action. It is also expected to maintain an embargo on the supply to Iran, of certain categories of military equipment and of proliferation-sensitive goods.

So far, so good. But can things still go wrong?

The greatest threat to this agreement will come from the U.S. Congress, between now and the third week of September. It is very probable that there will be majorities in both houses of Congress, at the end of this 60-day review period, to pass a resolution of disapproval—in effect, a rejection of the agreement. This, despite Americans having told pollsters that they favour a “deal” by a margin of two to one. And despite the huge effort that the administration will make to counter the influence on Congress of pro-Israeli campaign contributors. And despite support for the administration’s endeavours from all major allies of the U.S.

However, it will be open to President Obama to veto that rejection, and his veto can be sustained by one-third or more of the members of one of the two houses. Securing the votes of one third of the US Senate will be a “damned close-run thing” as the Duke of Wellington said of the Battle of Waterloo. But in April, over 150 members of the lower house, out of a total of 435, wrote to the President to encourage him to persevere down the diplomatic track. It seems unlikely that those supporters of diplomacy will defect in the coming weeks, given the quality of the agreement that the President’s negotiators have obtained.

That last phrase is a cue to end with praise for Secretary of State John Kerry. All the signs are that he has proved himself to be both a born diplomat and a statesman. He may have broken a leg in a cycling accident in the French Alps, but, diplomatically, he has not put a foot wrong.

Ambassador Peter Jenkins is a former British diplomat who worked on the Iranian nuclear issue while ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna (2001-06).

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