Alphen, Netherlands. 16 July. The “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” agreed on 14 July in Vienna between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the E3/EU+3 states: “The E3/EU3+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) with the Islamic Republic of Iran welcomes the historic Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which will ensure that Iran’s nuclear programme will be exclusively peaceful, and mark a fundamental shift in their approach to this issue”. Whilst the JCPOA concerns the nature and scope of Iran’s ambitions to build nuclear weapons the Accord is also about contemporary geopolitics and the regional-strategic security and stability of the Middle East.
The Accord: The JCPOA is 159 pages long which attests to its complexity and builds on the November 2013 Geneva Accord or Joint Plan of Action. The main aim of the Accord is to reaffirm the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as the essential benchmark for preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to so-called non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS). Under the agreement Iran is to be transformed from a so-called ‘threshold state’ into a NNWS. Central to the Accord are strengthened safeguards and a verification and inspection regime that is intrusive even if it stops short of ‘no warning inspections’.
Specific Measures: The focus of the Accord is on preventing the weapons-grade enrichment of both uranium 235 and plutonium. Uranium enrichment will be curtailed by reducing the number of operational centrifuges from 19,000 to 5000 and limiting Iran to the use of short lifespan first generation centrifuges. Medium-enriched uranium will be rendered unfit for use in weapons. Some 9700 kg of Iran’s 10,000 kg low-enriched uranium will also be shipped abroad. Fordow, one of two main research and development sites, will cease all enrichment and become a physics research centre with no access to fissile material for at least 15 years. The Arak heavy water reactor vital to the development of weapons grade plutonium will have its core destroyed and Iran will seek no heavy water production again for at least 15 years.
Verification and Inspection: Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) inspectors will have the right to inspect so-called ‘suspicious facilities’. The so-called Safeguards Regime is based on but more extensive than those agreed under the NPT. However, the inspectors will be unable to carry out snap exercises. Iran will also be required to address so-called “possible military dimensions” of its nuclear programme.
Sanctions Relief: In return for compliance with the terms of the Accord the EU, US and United Nations Security Council will lift a range of trade sanctions and unfreeze some $150bn of Iranian oil assets currently held in foreign banks. However, sanctions relief is linked to Iran’s compliance over time and thus will take place in stages. Critically, there will be no complete relief from sanctions until the agreement has been implemented in full and the Arak reactor destroyed. There is a strong ‘snap back’ regime in place that allows for sanctions to be re-imposed quickly if the Accord is breached and without a further UNSC Resolution.
Analysis: A key phrase in the Accord reads, “They [the Parties to the Accord] anticipate that full implementation of this JCPOA will contribute to regional and international peace and security”. Indeed, the Accord reflects a rapidly changing region and wider world and a battle over the conduct of international relations that goes far beyond the issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Specifically, a global struggle is underway over between a legalised order and Machtpolitik and between globalisation and Islamisation.
In Iran there is clearly some tension between relative moderates around President Rouhani who believe that Iran’s changing society must accommodate itself with globalisation and hard-liners in and around the powerful Revolutionary Guard who see themselves as the guardians of the 1979 Revolution. However, it would be far too simplistic to suggest there is a split between Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and President Rouhani. Iran remains first and foremost an Islamic Republic with clerical power still the deciding force in Iranian policy-making. The Accord would seem to reflect an accommodation between the two factions both of which believe they can gain.
Tehran has signed up to the Accord because it it believes it has the upper hand in the struggle for regional dominance in the Middle East. Indeed, Persian Iran is at one and the same time confident in its ability to influence the by and large Arab region in which it sits. Equally, Shia Tehran is deeply concerned by the rise of Sunni Islamic State and pragmatists clearly believe some form of accommodation will be needed with all anti-IS forces across the region. However, a temporary suspension of competition with peer competitors such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States does not mean that competition over regional-strategic supremacy has been postponed indefinitely. Indeed, suspension of Iran’s nuclear ambitions over the short-term would help forge an implicit anti-IS ‘coalition’ which perversely could help weaken regimes such as the Saudi monarchy because of the split within the Arab-Sunni world that would ensue between leaders and led. Iran is also fully aware that Saudi money paid for much of Pakistan’s nuclear programme and Riyadh is quite capable of rapidly becoming a nuclear power should the Accord falter.
Israel is of course key. There is as yet no sign that the Accord will lead to a shift in Tehran on its long-standing and extreme hostility to Israel. Indeed, with significant funds about to be released to Iran one of the key tests of of the Accord concerns the impact it will have on wider Iranian policy. If Hezbollah is restocked and re-supplied and President Assad in Syria bolstered it will be clear that Iran is just as committed as ever to an eventual showdown with Israel and that hard-liners still drive much of Iranian foreign policy. However, if that money instead goes into supporting the hard-pressed Iranian population then some moderating of Iran’s position may be underway.
The geopolitics of the Accord are equally fascinating. After a bruising couple of years which saw Russia use force in Ukraine and China seize territory (and build it) in the South China Sea the Accord demonstrates that a legalised systems of international relations is still workable and that some semblance of ‘international community’ still exists. Arms control (for that is what the Accord is) is unlike disarmament in that whilst the latter is part of an ideal the former is a pragmatic function of security and defence policy, i.e. the more arms are limited by accord the less likely they will be built and the more likely legal solutions to disputes will be sought. The world is in the balance between a treaty-based system of world order and a new balance of power. The Accord is a modest but important step back from the brink of Real and Machtpolitik and new regional and global arms races and a strengthening of the regimes and international institutions that underpin a legalised world order.
Assessment: As ever with such accords the devil will be in the demonstrable upholding of the detail with political and strategic implications that go far beyond the many technical pages of the Accord. It Iran adheres to the Accord in full some semblance of trust will be established which in time may allow for the establishment of shared interests and actions. If Iran seeks to use the very detail of the Accord to split the fractious coalition that negotiated it then the there is a very real danger of treaty breakout and a defection that will make the current fragile situation even worse.
President Obama is surely right to make the effort implicit in the Accord for all the reasons laid out above. However, neither the White House nor the EU powers can dismiss the stated concerns of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. This Accord might not be the “historic mistake” he claims it to be but unless a clear determination to uphold it to the letter is apparent from Day One then the very real danger exists that Iran will out-manoeuvre a naïve Administration and a Europe that really does not want to be bothered right now. As former US President Teddy Roosevelt once said, now is the time to speak softly but carry a big stick.