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Iran nuclear deal: the slippery road ahead

The Iran nuclear deal, officially known as Vienna Agreement or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA),  is at best an open ended document allowing varying interpretations of some of the most contentious points. In the immediate perspective, the agreement has brightened the prospects for Iran to enter a new era of progress and development, however, continuity of this trajectory would depend on how the implementation of agreement is perceived by Iran and the US.

Interestingly, no other deal in the contemporary era has stimulated so polarized evaluations. Also no other agreement has been acclaimed as total victory by the parties to the accord with same zeal. Hence, there has to be some loophole, some flaw or an element of deliberate ambiguity in the document, to attract such conflicting perceptions and reactions. The opposing camps are so doggedly pitched against each other that an objective analysis is hard to come by. Notwithstanding, agreement has been described as historic by the World leaders. It is also being termed as the most important event of the century involving all great economic and military powers.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has warned President Hassan Rouhani that “some” world powers are not to be trusted in implementing a nuclear deal, urging vigilance for any breaches. In a letter to Rouhani, Khamenei said, the agreement requires “careful scrutiny” before it is approved. And that Rouhani “must be concerned about possible violation of commitments by the other parties and close paths to it.” The Supreme Leader wrote to President in a letter: “You are well aware that some of the six states participating in negotiations are not trustworthy at all.”

US President Barack Obama said “If 99 percent of the world community and the majority of nuclear experts look at this thing and they say this will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb, and you are arguing either that it does not or that even if it does, it’s temporary… then you should have some alternative.” Obama added: “Even with this deal, we will continue to have profound differences with Iran…Iran still poses challenges to our interests and values…its support of terrorism and its use of proxies to destabilise parts of the Middle East.” Moreover, many in the American national security circles have not downgraded Tehran’s adversary status, such elements stick to their opinion that Iran needs to be contained— with force if necessary.

The monitoring provisions pertaining Uranium enrichment, Plutonium production and reprocessing, as well as R&D on centrifuge designs improvement are quite complex and intrusive. The suspect site provisions are the potential hazard area. According to White House, these ensure timely and effective International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to any site in Iran necessary in order to verify compliance, including military sites such as Parchin. Challenge inspections and their results also have a potential of degenerating into more of a politicized melodrama than the fact finding exercise.

These provisions allow for access to suspect sites following the voting procedures—which may, in all likelihood, yield results in favour of the US and its allies. Moreover, 24 days’ time period between voting and inspection would leave sufficient space for blaming Iran for pre inspection clean-up, if so required for political expediency—and it would often be so required. So Iran may be ridiculed—like Iraq—even if it wholeheartedly implements the agreement. If Iran decides to cheat—midway—even then it would be up to America to challenge or look the other way; and a couple of years down the line’ America may be more inclined to look the other way.
Key to certify the implementation or otherwise has quietly passed on to America dominated Joint Commission comprising of representatives of Iran and the E3/EU+3 (China, France, Germany, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States, with the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy as the Coordinator of the Joint Commission). The members of the Joint Commission, by consensus or by a vote of 5 or more of its 8 members, would advise on the necessary means to resolve the IAEA’s concerns. If the agreement is to be implemented smoothly, then key challenge to the United States and Iran is to resolve compliance related matters rather than banking on the options of challenge inspections.

According to agreement, Iran will permit the IAEA the use of on-line enrichment measurement and electronic seals as well as other IAEA approved and certified modern technologies. It will also allow a long-term IAEA inspectors’ presence and increase in the number of designated IAEA inspectors to the range of 130-150. It shall permit the IAEA monitoring including containment and surveillance measures, for 25 years, and ensure that all Uranium ore concentrate produced in Iran or obtained from any other source, is transferred to the Uranium conversion facility. Iran will permit the IAEA regular access, to relevant buildings at Natanz, including all parts, for 15 years. Requests for access will be kept to the minimum necessary and will not be aimed at interfering with Iranian military or other national security activities.

President Barack Obama termed the agreement as “major step to a more hopeful world”, saying it was a “comprehensive long-term deal with Iran that prevents it from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” Obama administration has expressed hopes that the deal and the economic benefits it could bring will empower Iran’s moderates and make it easier for the United States to work with them on regional issues.

President Hassan Rouhani said Iran sought four objectives in the nuclear talks and all of them have been achieved: The first objective was to continue its nuclear activities, the second was to remove “wrong and cruel” sanctions, the third was to annul all the “illegal” the sanctions resolutions in the UN Security, and the fourth was to remove Iran’s nuclear dossier from the agenda of UN Security Council. He also stated that under the nuclear agreement Iran will have six thousands centrifuges that five thousands of which will operate in the Natanz facility and more than a thousand in Fordo; all the centrifuges in Natanz will continue enriching uranium and those in Fordo will be used for nuclear research and development.

Deal has provoked sharp reactions across the Arab world, where most major players are closely allied with or supported by either Iran or Saudi Arabia, and zero sum is the measuring tool. There is a strong feeling that that Iran will use the economic boost of sanctions relief to ramp up support for its militant proxies. To placate its Middle East allies, the United States is likely to speed up delivery of arms to Arab powers, which have spent tens of billions of dollars in recent years in pursuit of technological superiority over Iran.

After13 years in the wilderness, potentially dangerous row over Iran’s nuclear programme is hopefully coming to a close—at least for the time being. Iran has undertaken to drastically review its programme in return for lifting of crippling economic sanctions. Pakistan has rightly welcomed the accord hoping that it would help resume progress on gas pipeline agreement besides a quantum increase in bilateral trade.

It is too early to have an accurate assessment of the monitoring provisions of Vienna agreement. Even if all actors are presumed to act in good faith—which is not a likely proposition— the slippery provisions of the agreement are rather intricate and circuitous; and hence, their execution is likely to bog down into glitches. Text and its likely diverse interpretations embody endless grounds for sounding Iranian noncompliance.

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