Sunday 25 February 2018

Iran: Framework will defuse tensions - but it still poses risks

Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif gestures as he speaks during a news conference at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. Photo: Reuters
Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif gestures as he speaks during a news conference at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. Photo: Reuters
People in Tehran celebrate the agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme
Women in a car flash the ‘V for Victory’ sign as they celebrate on Valiasr street in northern Tehran on Thursday night after the announcement of an agreement on the nuclear issue (Getty Images)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks in a news briefing at the Saadabad palace in Tehran, Iran. Photo: AP
US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to the press following Iranian nuclear talks at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. Photo: Reuters
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the framework agreement on Iran's nuclear program announced by negotiators in Switzerland during a statement in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on Thursday (REUTERS/Mike Theiler)

Wyn Bowen and Matthew Bowen in London

An important milestone in the Iranian nuclear saga was reached this week. While the finer details have yet to be elaborated, the significance of this deal should not be underestimated. It will do much to defuse tensions around the Iranian nuclear programme and represents the culmination of more than a decade of political wrangling.

While it is far from a perfect deal - many will argue that it rewards Iranian bad behaviour - the alternative would have been no deal at all and a significant deterioration of the diplomatic and security context.

For Western powers, the agreement will roll back elements of the Iranian programme and maintain an acceptable distance between Tehran and the bomb.

Among the measures announced, Iran's 19,000 centrifuges will be reduced by two-thirds and the underground enrichment facility at Fordow will be converted into a research facility with enrichment activity confined purely to Natanz alone.

For Iran, the deal allows it to keep a good amount of its nuclear programme while providing phased relief from economic sanctions as Tehran takes steps to implement the final deal if it is agreed by the end of June.

If Iran fails to implement a deal then the sanctions will 'snap back' into place. Crucially, a delicate dance of diplomacy has allowed both sides to present the outcome as a victory to domestic audiences, even if the naysayers - particularly in Tehran and Washington - will remain potential thorns in the side of successful implementation of the deal.

But if the deal constitutes a pragmatic solution to a complex problem, it is also something of a Faustian bargain. While limiting Tehran's nuclear activities and providing for an intrusive inspection regime, the deal also leaves Iran with a considerable enrichment capacity and the technical know-how to advance its nuclear programme at speed.

Iran's nuclear programme is best described in terms of nuclear hedging, a strategy based on the ability to acquire nuclear weapons relatively quickly should Tehran decide to do so.

The agreement reached in Lausanne implicitly recognises and gives legitimacy to this strategy. One might think that a comprehensive agreement that constrained Iran's nuclear weapon potential would do much to address the fears of its neighbours.


But this is not necessarily the case, as the uncertainty associated with nuclear hedging, even at a relatively low level, poses almost as many challenges as the certainty of nuclear weapons acquisition.

The problem is that the value of hedging is a matter of perception. Certainly, hedging holds some weight as a tool of coercion or deterrence, but there is no absolute truth here and the value that Iran attributes to its position may well differ from how, say, Riyadh views the situation. What Tehran's neighbours will agree on is that the legitimacy given to Iranian hedging by the new deal demands a tangible response.

At the least, Iranian hedging could add symbolic weight to Iran's aspirations to regional hegemony. At worst, an inflated sense of the value of its position could embolden Iran in a conventional military sense and contribute to further conflict in the region, potentially pitting Shia Iran against its Sunni Arab neighbours. The recent announcement of a new joint Arab military force amidst what many describe as a proxy conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Yemen is of particular concern in this regard.

Longer term, the likely response to the new deal is a hedging 'cascade' in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is already investing significantly in nuclear development and, in a recent interview, its former chief of intelligence, Prince Turki al-Faisal, hinted at this very scenario: "whatever comes out of these talks, we will want the same" and "if Iran has the ability to enrich uranium to whatever level, it's not just Saudi Arabia that's going to ask for that".

This is not a quick solution - none of the Arab states currently have any significant nuclear infrastructure to speak of - but the Iranian approach will certainly provide regional players with food for thought.


Israel has long been aware that prolonged Iranian hedging was the most likely outcome of diplomatic engagement with Iran. Indeed, a recent study suggested that Israel has been "reconciling itself to the idea of Iran as a nuclear 'threshold state' - and is preparing to make the best of the situation."

Israel will continue to monitor Iran's nuclear activities closely, looking for any suggestion that Iran is trying to reduce its distance from the bomb. In practice, however, the low level of hedging that the deal affords Iran should have little effect on Israeli red lines regarding stockpiles of enriched uranium.

Under the terms of the deal, Iran will not have anything like the stockpiles of enriched uranium that caused such concern prior to the 2013 interim agreement.

Of more concern to Israel are the possible secondary effects of hedging; the conflict with Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), and Iran's central role in combatting this non-state actor, is already providing Tehran with the means to increase its influence in the region and hedging may compound this. Beyond the regional context, the deal sets a precedent that has important implications.Tehran has highlighted the potential for a state to use civil nuclear development as a cover for a proliferation strategy that brings it relatively close to the bomb while remaining a member of the Non Proliferation Treaty. (© Daily Telegraph London)

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