Nuclear deal done – so what next for Iran?

Taking a look at Iran’s Bushehr nuclear plant. EPA/Abedin Taherkenareh

The P5+1 powers have concluded a historic deal with Iran to curtail its progress towards nuclear enrichment. The significance of this news should not be underestimated; concerns over Iran’s nuclear activities have ranked high on the international agenda for over a decade now, and the latest series of talks has been ongoing since 2013. And while a political framework was agreed in Lausanne in April 2015, the prospect of a final, detailed agreement was never assured.

On both sides, domestic opposition from hardline political groups has threatened to derail the talks; at the negotiating table, diplomats have delicately probed the limits of compromise on issues ranging from the possible military dimensions to Iran’s past activities to the timing of sanctions relief. Indeed only the week before the deal was done, US Secretary of State John Kerry claimed that the talks could go either way.

But the parties have nonetheless produced an agreement that will both limit Iran’s nuclear activities and facilitate Iran’s economic re-engagement with the international community. What, then, does the deal actually involve?

From Lausanne to Vienna

The contours of the deal set in Lausanne remain largely unchanged. We already knew, for example, that Iran has agreed to reduce by its number of installed centrifuges by approximately two thirds, to reduce its stockpile of low enriched uranium by over 90%, and to limit its uranium enrichment to 3.67% for some 15 years.

We knew that Iran has agreed to redesign the heavy water reactor at Arak so it produces a greatly reduced amount of plutonium (another potential route to the bomb), and submit to a wide-ranging inspection and verification regime overseen by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

We also knew that, in return, the P5+1 has agreed that all nuclear-related sanctions on Iran will be lifted. UN Security Council Resolutions will also be replaced once Iran has addressed key concerns.

But while the political framework agreed in Lausanne comprised a couple of pages of broad points, the Vienna agreement is a lengthy document that includes five annexes.

The nitty-gritty

Of the many issues covered in the deal, three deserve particular attention: the oversight and verification regime that will monitor Iran’s activities and ensure it adheres to its commitments; the possible military dimensions to Iran’s past activities; and the timing of sanctions relief.

Clearly the issue of oversight is crucial. If the deal is to hold, the international community must have full confidence that Iran is adhering to its commitments. Under the terms of the deal, Iran has agreed to an inspection regime that goes beyond anything in place in other countries – and yet, the agreement does leave it room for manoeuvre.

Iran will allow inspectors access to sites of interest, including military sites, where inspectors have grounds to suspect undeclared or illicit activities are taking place. In the case of Iranian objections, the particulars will be referred to a new Joint Commission composed of representatives of the P5+1 and Iran where a majority vote will determine the outcome.

The possible military dimensions to Iran’s past activities represent another key issue that has long been a source of controversy and debate. To date, opinion has largely been divided between two camps: those who believe that progress towards a solution cannot be achieved until Iran comes clean on past weaponisation activities, and those who think past activities simply don’t matter as much as future behaviour.

This issue has always been a catch-22 for Iran. Having built a narrative around peaceful nuclear activities for decades, the government would find it almost impossible to acknowledge any past work on nuclear weapons. On this issue, the agreement refers to the newly agreed Roadmap for the clarification of past and present outstanding issues regarding Iran’s nuclear programme. Under the terms of this roadmap, all outstanding issues will be resolved by the end of the year. It is not clear if and how questionable past activities will be revealed.

Job done? Hardly. EPA/Herbert Neubauer

Finally, a major sticking point in the negotiations has been the timing and structure of sanctions relief. Iranian negotiators have been pushing for all sanctions to be lifted as soon as an agreement is signed. On the other side, the P5+1 have sought a phased removal of sanctions that would align with the implementation of specific aspects of the deal by Iran. The P5+1’s thinking has also been influenced by the possibility that sanctions might need to be rapidly reimposed if Iran were caught cheating.

According to the deal, a new UN Security Council Resolution will be sought promptly to replace previous ones related to Iran’s nuclear programme. This will form part of a broader move to lift all national and multilateral sanctions relating to Iran’s nuclear programme on “Implementation Day”, the point at which IAEA-verified implementation of agreed nuclear-related measures to limit the Iranian programme is achieved.

These measures are wide-ranging and are set out in one of the annexes to the agreement. The agreement makes no mention of the conditions under which sanctions might be reimposed, but presumably this will be included in the new UN Security Council Resolutions.

A lasting solution?

Even as the deal was announced, critics were clamouring to attack it. In Israel, prime minister Netanyahu described the deal as “an historic mistake for the world”, while in Washington, Republican Senator Tom Cotton decried it as a “terrible, dangerous mistake”. And despite the optimism around the deal, there are challenging days ahead. The US Congress, for example, has 90 days to consider the terms of the agreement and may well move to block it.

But the dissenters’ criticisms are vastly outweighed by the deal’s positive aspects. No side views the deal as perfect, but perhaps that is the clearest sign of successful negotiations. And what was the alternative? Allowing the Iranian nuclear programme to progress unfettered? Engaging in military action to slow the programme down? Neither of these options is realistic or desirable.

The deal is a triumph of diplomacy. The international community has established the basis for a peaceful and lasting solution to a pressing security issue in the world’s most volatile region. Of course, the announcement of a deal is only the first stage in a lengthy process, and implementation is the only real measure of success here.

The deal’s consequences will have to be managed carefully; Iran’s illicit behaviour over the past decade has implicitly been recognised and legitimised, and this is not be lost on its neighbours. On the whole, however, the deal should be acknowledged for the positive step it represents.