Future Agreements on Iran’s Nuclear Program


Author: Andrey Baklitsky

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear program has been implemented successfully for a year now. Nonetheless, there are still a number of obstacles barring the path to its complete implementation, and even a fully enforced JSCPOA does not guarantee the stability of Tehran’s nuclear program.

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President of Iran Hassan Rouhani delivers a speech during the ” Implementation of Nuclear deal; New period in the Iranian Economy” conference, at Leaders Conference Hall in Tehran, Iran on January 19, 2016

On July 14, 2015, after more than 10 years of negotiations, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear program was finally concluded. Iran agreed to significantly restrict its nuclear program and to take unprecedented transparency measures. In exchange, a group of six international intermediaries (the US, Russia, China, France, Great Britain, Germany with the EU coordinating) guaranteed to lift the bulk of international and unilateral sanctions related to Tehran’s nuclear program. The IAEA was to verify the agreement. The agreement’s principal stages were planned for fifteen years, but in some aspects, the IAEA had to continue its monitoring for twenty five years.

Immediately after the JSCPOA was concluded, it faced the following key challenges: opposition to the agreements both in Washington and in Tehran, clearing up past and present unresolved issues pertaining to Iran’s nuclear program and the degree of Iran’s readiness to cooperate with the IAEA to verify the agreement. The time Tehran would require to implement its share of obligations was also in question. A year later, we can state that all these issues were resolved far quicker and with far greater efficiency than it could have been expected. On May 27, 2016 the IAEA released its third report confirming that Iran had been successfully carrying out its obligations under the JSCPOA. The bulk of nuclear-related anti-Iran sanctions was lifted.

The agreement on Iran’s nuclear program disappeared from newspapers’ front pages, giving way to the new challenges to the global security and leaving behind a memory of “a key success of multilateral diplomacy.” Without trying to refute this point of view, I would like to say that this story is far from being over, which can be shown by analyzing four typical (yet sadly simplified) tenets of the present and future situation’s stability of Iran’s nuclear program.

Tenet 1: A year of successful implementation means that the principal problems are behind, and the JSCPOA implementation process is now self-sustainable.

From the very beginning, the possibility of the JSCPOA turning into “business as usual” raised certain questions. This is partially related to the fact that the Iran Deal is not an international treaty. It is precisely just a plan of action, agreed upon and approved by the governments of seven countries, yet not signed, not ratified, and not binding. Even Resolution 2231 of the UN Security Council often referred to while discussing the Iran Deal, does not make the JSCPOA legally binding, although the resolution does include the text of the agreement. The resolution only endorses the plan of action and urges its full implementation, but this phrasing is non-binding. Only some of the JSCPOA’s provisions (mostly restrictive for Iran) have been clearly stated in the UN Security Council’s resolution as mandatory for implementation with a reference to Chapter VII of the UN Charter (Actions with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression). Thus, parties to the agreement are not bound by legal obligations to implement it and may easily withdraw, which, compared to classical international treaties, makes the JSCPOA more vulnerable and dependent on the domestic situations in the participating states.

Without any doubt, the further all the parties progress in implementing this agreement and making profit out of it, the more motivation will the states have to continue with it and the more arguments will they use to counteract the domestic opposition. On the whole, currently the JSCPOA is being implemented fairly successfully, without major breaches and subsequent crises, and here lies another trap for the agreement.

A complicated international situation objectively decreases the global community’s interest in the Iran Deal. Russia and NATO continue their confrontation in Europe. China and the US continue their confrontation (even if on a smaller scale) in Asia. The EU’s agenda includes migration and terrorism issues (i.e. Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Turkey) and recently Brexit. London’s withdrawal from the EU will mean not only the formal collapse of the EU Three within the six international intermediaries on Iran’s nuclear program. It will also be symbolic for the negotiations which picked up steam in 2013 under the coordination of Baroness Catherine Ashton, High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy of the EU.

Altogether, these factors may affect the parties’ ability to react in a well-coordinated and timely manner to any crises, the first of which may arrive with the US presidential elections results in November 2016.

Tenet 2: The results of US presidential elections will determine Washington’s stance on the JSCPOA and the fate of the agreement.

It is traditionally believed that Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential elections will mean life or death for the Iran Deal. This opinion does have some truth to it: in March 2016, speaking to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Donald Trump who leads in the Republican primaries, said that his “number-one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” Even though not all the promised made during an election campaign becomes reality, it is apparent that the Republican presidential victory will mean a serious blow to the JSCPOA.

At the same time, we should understand that any US president, including Hillary Clinton, will be a far worse option for going through with the Iran Deal than Barack Obama who invested serious political capital into the JSCPOA. The US foreign policy is still the prerogative of the executive branch which determines the priorities in that area. Even if the previous administration’s foreign policy initiatives are not cancelled completely, they may be scaled down significantly. Experts hold lively discussions on the fate which awaits Obama’s two other important initiatives, the Trans-Pacific and Trans-Atlantic Partnerships after he steps down. The President’s yet other initiative, a series of summits on nuclear security, ended in 2016 for a whole spate of reasons, but it would be difficult to imagine it continue without its originator and moving spirit.

Although President Hillary Clinton will hardly wish to torpedo one of the key foreign policy achievements of her Democrat predecessor, it is quite probable that she decides to demonstrate a hard line in regard to Iran’s breaches of the JSCPOA (be they real or imaginary) and to Iran’s overall behavior in the region. Iran’s continuing launches of ballistic missiles (even though they are not prohibited by the JSCPOA and the the UN Security Council resolutions) would afford her an excellent pretext.

Besides, Congressional elections will also become an important factor in American politics. Even though current polls predict that the Democrats at the very least will retain their representation in the parliament or may even expand it (the scenario where Democrats gain the control of the Senate looks quite realistic), it does not guarantee that the Congress will support implementing the JSCPOA (the deal had long faced bipartisan opposition there) or will look favorably upon Iran’s foreign policy.

In case the number of variables in American politics still does not appear impressive enough, we could recall the regional dimension of the issue. Thus, the state of Texas continues to implement its own sanctions against Iran. On May 16, 2016, the state’s governor denied the Department of State’s request to lift these sanctions.

Tenet 3: President Rouhani and the larger part of Iran’s population support the JSCPOA and will continue to protect it from attacks by the conservatives.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani won the 2013 elections with a program which included an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program and expanding economic cooperation with the international community. This mandate allowed the new President to ensure, however limited, support of Iran’s Supreme Leader, conclude the JSCPOA and implement its first stages.Success of the President’s supporters at the parliamentary elections and the elections to the Assembly of Experts in February 2016 showed the degree of support for Rouhani’s policies.

Still, it is important to remember that the key factor in the JSCPOA support was the promise to improve the country’s economic situation, and in this aspect, things are not quite as bright. Iran succeeded in using the lifting of the sanctions to restore its oil industry. The state brought the oil production to 3.8 million barrels per day and exports about 2 million barrels per day, having regained about 80% of the pre-sanctions market. At the same time, the sanctions were lifted during a record drop in oil prices, which did not allow for a significant growth of budget revenues compared to the peak of the sanctions when oil cost over 100 dollars per barrel.

Most American companies cannot invest into Iran because of those American sanctions which are unrelated to Iran’s nuclear program. Companies and banks of other countries are also in no hurry to start economic relations with Tehran out of fear of being hit with unilateral American sanctions imposed on many Iranian structures, including the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic revolution.

Iran’s access to the US financial system is still blocked, which means Iran cannot use its dollar accounts “unfrozen” under the JSCPOA. The US Supreme Court’s recent ruling mandating that Iran should pay compensations to the victims of the 1983 Beirut terrorist attack put an additional “freeze” on 2 billion dollars in Iran’s accounts abroad.

There is a growing sense in Iran’s society that the other party to the agreement does not fulfill its obligations. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei stated several times that “sanctions had been lifted on paper only.” Public survey held in Iran on July 7, 2016 reflected these sentiments. The majority of the people polled (72%) do not believe that the US will fulfill its obligations under the JSCPOA (a jump from 41% about a year ago), about the same number of people (74.7%) believe that Washington attempts to prevent other countries from normalizing their relations with Iran. 73.7% of the people polled stated that their economic situation did not improve due to the implementation of the JSCPOA. The number of Iran’s citizens who support the Iran Deal dropped from 75.5% to 62.6% over a year.

In 2017, Iran will hold presidential elections. Traditionally, Iran’s Presidents are reelected for the second term, but Iran’s experts voice concerns about Rouhani’s chances as he failed to meet many of his voters’ expectations.

Tenet 4: If the JSCPOA is successfully implemented, the issue of Iran’s nuclear program will be finished with in 15 years

One could certainly get this impression by reading the text of the JSCPOA: “This UN Security Council resolution will also provide for the termination on Implementation Day of provisions imposed under previous resolutions; establishment of specific restrictions; and conclusion of consideration of the Iran nuclear issue by the UN Security Council 10 years after the Adoption Day”. The entire JSCPOA concept was based on a non-apparent presumption that it would be enough to impose 10-15 years of restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program to provide enough time for a strategic resolution of the issue.

One could certainly get this impression by reading the text of the JSCPOA: “This UN Security Council resolution will also provide for the termination on Implementation Day of provisions imposed under previous resolutions; establishment of specific restrictions; and conclusion of consideration of the Iran nuclear issue by the UN Security Council 10 years after the Adoption Day”. The entire JSCPOA concept was based on a non-apparent presumption that it would be enough to impose 10-15 years of restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program to provide enough time for a strategic resolution of the issue.

Specific strategies to achieve this goal have not been made public, but as far as one could understand, for the West, such strategies mostly boiled down to spending these years on integrating Iran into the international community to such a degree that the country would no longer be interested in creating nuclear weapons, which would remove the concerns over Iran’s peaceful nuclear program. At the same time, if the issue of the West mistrusting Iran is not resolved, even the fullest implementation of the JSCPOA will not resolve the problem, it will merely push it 15 years into the future. After that, Iran will have every right to develop its peaceful nuclear program (including the levels and volumes of uranium enrichment) in any way it deems economically justified (quite a loose notion). In fact, the international community may find itself back in the 2012 situation when Israel was planning a strike against Tehran’s peaceful nuclear infrastructure, believing that Iran might adapt it for its military needs in the future.

Under the JSCPOA, Iran will adhere voluntarily to the Additional Protocol on the IAEA’s guarantees, and “Iran will seek, consistent with the Constitutional roles of the President and Parliament, ratification of the Additional Protocol.” The decision to ratify the Additional Protocol will be adopted by Iran’s next parliament which could easily conclude that the protocol will not be in Iran’s best interests. Tehran already applied the Additional Protocol in 2003-2006, and then ceased to apply it, thus sharply reducing the IAEA’s possibilities of verifying the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program.

Thus, ensuring stability of Iran’s nuclear program is the key issue to be faced when the JSCPOA expires, and the search for its solution must be conducted now, and not in ten years.

The Iran Deal resulted from a serious compromise between a large number of players, and, like any compromise, it left all the parties somewhat unhappy. The shadow of this compromise will loom over the agreement during the entire period of its implementation and it will threaten the situation’s stability after the JSCPOA expires.

Diplomats and experts may raise their champagne glasses to toast the first successful year of the agreement’s implementation. Yet everybody has a lot of hard work ahead of them. One thing that we certainly can afford is to believe that the greatest difficulties are behind us.

Source: RIAC

Author: Augaritte

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