Monday, 25 November 2013

U.S.-IRAN: Geneva Deal & Obama's Presidency

The historic nuclear deal Iran signed with the United States and five other world powers early Sunday morning represents the biggest gamble of President Barack Obama's presidency, and the success or failure of that bet will have serious repercussions for the administration's standing on Capitol Hill and Washington's relationships with Israel.

The deal painstakingly assembled during four days of marathon negotiations calls for Iran to halt most of its uranium enrichment efforts, eliminate its stockpiles of uranium already purified to near weapons grade quality, open its facilities to daily monitoring by international inspectors and significantly slow the construction of the Arak plutonium reactor. Nuclear weapons can be assembled using either enriched uranium or plutonium, and the new pact is designed to make it difficult, if not impossible, for Iran to gain enough of either material for a bomb.

In exchange, Iran would gain some relief from the punishing economic sanctions that had been leveled by Washington and its allies in recent years, freeing up roughly $7 billion. Tehran also won a commitment that the so-called P5+1 nations - the United States, Russia, China, France, Germany and Britain - wouldn't impose any new sanctions for the next six months. That was an important win for the Iranians since the existing measures have cut its oil exports in half and driven the price of its currency down to a historic low.

President Obama, speaking from the White House, said the deal "halted the progress of the Iranian nuclear program" and "cut off Iran's most likely paths to a bomb." He also stressed that the agreement was an interim measure designed to give negotiators from both sides six months to work towards a broader, permanent nuclear agreement. If a deal couldn't be reached - or if the United States found evidence that Iran was trying to secretly continue work on its nuclear weapons program - Obama promised to restore the sanctions that had been lifted and impose harsh new ones.

The details of the agreement are troublesome. Even while Iran gets a significant cash gift in terms of billions of dollars of unfrozen funds, its centrifuges will not be dismantled and it will be allowed to go on enriching uranium ( only to 5 per cent, a far cry from the 90 per cent needed for the construction of an atomic bomb). Its nuclear facilities will stay open, including the plutonium plant under construction. Its stockpile of enriched uranium will be diluted or converted into oxide, but that is nothing more than a storage option since the administration knows very well it could quickly be restored to its former state. Iran will have inspections, but they will be limited and there is little doubt that the IAEA, which has met every possible obstacle and obstruction to its work in Iran, will go on being stiffed.

Far more important than even these points, Iran has effectively won its diplomatic objective of getting the US/West to recognize its “right” to enrich uranium. Though the U.S. is saying the two sides have agreed to disagree on this point, by signing a deal that allows Iran to go on enriching the question is now off the table in perpetuity. Iran’s nuclear program is effectively rendered legal by this deal.

''The agreement means that “we agree with the necessity to recognize Iran’s right to the peaceful atom, including the right to enrichment, with the understanding that all questions we currently have for the program will be [settled] and the whole program will be put under the IAEA’s strict control,” he said. “It’s the final aim, but it’s already fixed in today’s document.” The agreement was based on the “concept promoted by the Russian president and fixed in Russia’s foreign policy,” Russia's foreign Minister Lavrov said.  

In contrast Washington said that while it accepted Tehran’s right to a “peaceful nuclear program,” its right to enrichment had not been acknowledged.

With the agreement in place, the administration is now gambling that it can overcome three distinct challenges: First, the White House has to persuade skeptical lawmakers to hold off on imposing new sanctions on Iran during the next six months. That may be a hard sell given the number of lawmakers from both parties who want to increase the sanctions on Iran rather than softening or relieving any of the existing measures.

The European Union will ease sanctions imposed on Tehran “in December,” the French foreign minister told radio Europe 1 on Monday. Fabius added that a meeting between EU foreign ministers had been scheduled for the coming weeks to discuss the lightening of the sanctions.  

Second, the administration faces the tough task of convincing Israel that the deal does enough to constrain Iran's nuclear program that Israel should give the administration more time to work out a permanent pact with Tehran rather than resorting to unilateral military strikes. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was harshly critical of earlier iterations of the nuclear deal and has promised to do whatever is necessary to protect his country.

If President Obama can follow up the nuclear deal with Iran that he announced last night with another one in the next year that will dramatically roll back the Islamist regime’s nuclear progress achieved on his watch, then this event will be remembered as a diplomatic triumph that made the world safer.

In order for this to happen he will have to hope that Iran does not follow up this negotiation with more stalling tactics and settle for more limited agreements that do not do anything more than add a few weeks at most to the amount of time needed for them to “break out” and convert their nuclear stockpile into weapons-grade material. He will have to count on the Iranians not following the North Korean model of making nuclear deals only to break them once they are ready to put a nuclear site online. He will also have to hope that there are no secret underground sites in Iran that are not covered by the agreement though.

It must be conceded that the chances that this agreement will make it less likely that Iran will eventually reach its nuclear goal are not zero. It may be that Iran has truly abandoned its goal of a weapon, that it will negotiate in good faith and won’t cheat, and that there are no secret nuclear facilities in the country even though just about everyone in the intelligence world assumes there are. If so the world is safer, and many years from now, the president will go down in history as a great peacemaker worthy of a Nobel Prize.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

Photo-Credit: AFP--(L to R) EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle , Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reacts after a statement on early November 24, 2013 in Geneva.