As the US Congress starts debating ways and means of “improving” the controversial nuclear deal with Iran, one thing is certain: the scheme worked out by former US President Barack Obama and launched more than two years ago has not achieved any of its claimed objectives.
As far as the 5+1 power that negotiated with Iran were concerned, the non-binding “deal” had three key objectives: The first, in Obama’s words was to “block Iran’s paths to developing nuclear weapons.”
Iran had opened two paths in that direction, via uranium enrichment and through plutonium production. Under the “deal” Iran continues its uranium enrichment but, for a period of 10 years, at a lower level. It must also reduce the number of centrifuges that enrich uranium. This Iran has done but the new centrifuges it has installed are more productive than the old ones. In other words, numbers are reduced but production potential has increased.
The plutonium plant in Arak has been shut down but not decommissioned. As Iran’s Atomic Agency director Ali-Akbar Salehi says, the plant could be back in operation “with the turning of a faucet.”
The third objective was to put all of Iran’s suspected sites under permanent control of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). That, too, hasn’t happened as Iran has opened only 22 out of 32 sites to inspection, and even then under strict limitations.
Iran has its own objectives from the non-binding deal. The first was to have all sanctions imposed because of its violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) canceled. That hasn’t happened as the “deal” envisages only the suspension of sanctions, not their cancellation. Even then, the suspension of some sanctions has not produced the desired results because international business, worried about the snap-back provision under which any sanctions could be immediately restored, hesitate to do business with Iran.
According to President Hassan Rouhani’s First Assistant Eshaq Jahangiri, since the “deal” was launched, Iran has negotiated $11.6 billion worth of contracts with more than two dozen foreign businesses. But of these less than 10 per cent have materialized.
Iran’s next objective was to regain access to its frozen assets across the globe. Thanks to oil exports Iran has a constant flow of revenue in more than 50 countries across the globe. But because of sanctions, it cannot use those revenues, blocked in foreign banks, the way it wants. Obama tried to help Tehran by arranging for the de-freezing of $700 million a month. He also rushed some $1.7 billion to Tehran as an emergency relief. But those figures reflect only a fraction of what the Tehran needs to run its affairs and export its revolution.
Many countries ask Iran to use its frozen assets to buy goods and services from them. This means that a huge chunk of Iranian economy is linked to the medieval system of barter trade. India, for example, owes Iran $18 billion but is unable to release it in cash because of sanctions. Therefore, it asks Iran to buy Indian goods that Tehran may not want. There is a similar situation with China which has around $20 billion of Iranian frozen assets.
European Union members have benefited from the situation.
British exports to Iran have risen by 200 per cent, a jump impressive enough to persuade Prime Minister Theresa May to appoint former Chancellor of Exchequer Norman Lamont as “Special Trade Envoy” to Tehran.
Exports from Germany, Iran’s biggest trading partner, have risen by 50 percent while French exports to Iran have seen a 150 percent increase. Italy and Holland have respectively enjoyed 60 and 110 percent rises in their exports to Iran.
“All in all Iran emerges as the loser in this deal” says Saeed Jalili who was Iran’s chief negotiator until he was replaced by Rouhani. Jalili’s analysis may be prompted by sour grapes. But his demand that the various texts of the “deal” be examined at Iranian universities, if not parliament itself, may indicate a genuine concern.
President Trump’s recent dramatic move on the “Iran deal” has reopened the debate on the wisdom and efficacy of Obama’s method of burying difficult issues under an avalanche of fudge. Trump has not “walked out” of the deal, because the non-binding arrangement has no mechanism for doing so. Interestingly, Iran’s “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei, too, has not “walked out” of the deal. In a surprisingly mild manner he said that as long as others had not denounced the deal he would remain bound by it. He clearly believes that a little easing of pressure on his regime, provided by the “deal,” is better than no easing at all.
Does this mean that Trump’s call for “improving” the deal may not be so far-fetched?
French President Emmanuel Macron clearly thinks so. His Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian is expected to visit Tehran soon to explore the situation on that issue. If he finds Tehran willing to consider “improvements”, he could be followed by Macron paying the first state visit to Iran by a major EU member.
But how would such improvements work?
“The first thing needed is to give the deal a legal foundation,” says Ramin Bigdeli, an Iranian researcher. “The best way to do that is in the framework of the United Nations Security Council.”
Iran’s quarrel was initially with the IAEA and, through it with the UN as a whole, not with an informal group of nations calling itself 5+1, and lacking any legitimacy. The Security Council could pass a resolution mandating the 5+1 to negotiate a deal with Iran within the parameters of the seven resolutions the council has passed on the subject.
The new “improved” text would have to truly block Iran’s path to making nuclear weapons if that is what Iran truly promises. To be sure, Tehran could always leave the NPT and produce atomic bombs as it pleases, exactly as North Korea did. What Iran cannot do is diplomatic “taqiyeh” (duplicity), remaining in NPT while pursuing the bomb on the side.
Over the last two decades several countries have voluntarily renounced the production of nuclear weapons and closed their atomic programs, among them Argentina, South Africa, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. With hem, there has been no hitches along the way because none of them tried to cheat as Iran and North Korea have done.
In exchange, the sanctions imposed on those countries have been fully canceled, without any “ifs” and “buts” and snap-backs.
“The Iran problem can be solved if Tehran leaders stop thinking that they can pick-and-choose in international law because they are a special breed,” says Darius Badi’i, who is writing a book on the subject. “At present, Iran tries to deceive the 5+1 and the 5+1 hits back by deceiving Iran.”
A transparent arrangement would address the suspicions evoked by Trump.
Why is Iran enriching uranium when it has no obvious use for it? Iran has one nuclear power station built by Russia, which is also contracted to provide the uranium fuel needed for the duration of its life, around 38 years. And why does Iran need a plutonium plant when it doesn’t even have a plan for a heavy-water power station?
Maybe it is only for fun, for science or even prestige that Iran is spending huge sums of money on the uranium and plutonium it doesn’t need. But it may also be with the aim of one day making nuclear weapons. The concern cannot be lightly dismissed.
And why is Iran developing medium and long-range missiles and working on Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) with warheads of relatively light payload? It makes no sense to send a missile 2000 or more kilometers away only to carry a small amount of TNT. But it makes sense if the warhead has a deadly nuclear payload.
Again, maybe Tehran is developing these missile just to have fun, to further its technology or to play “big power”. But the concern that the missile project is aimed at using nuclear and/or chemical warheads cannot be lightly dismissed.
To be sure, Iran has its own concerns. The Obama deal puts much of Iran’s economy under indirect tutelage of the P5+1. It is a true humiliation for Tehran to have to spend its own money with the permission of a handful of foreign powers. The Obama-deal keeps the Sword of Damocles hanging above Iran’s head, as the suspended sanctions could be re-imposed at any time. Iran is one of few countries shut out of the global capital markets because of its nuclear dispute with the UN, something that the Obama deal cannot address.
Under Trump’s proposed “improvements” those Iranian concerns could also be addressed in honest and open way, not fudged in the way Obama operated.
Many analysts are surprised that Trump’s move, though countered by the usual abuse from parts of the Tehran ruling elite, has also received a cautious welcome in Iran’s business and academic circles which desire a true normalization with the outside world rather than a fake reconciliation of which the non-binding Obama “deal” has become a symbol.