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Geneva Agreement Transforms Iran’s Nuclear Program Into Strictly Political Issue

Over the weekend, Iran and the P5+1 signed their first nuclear agreement since talks began in 2006. With the signing of the Joint Plan of Action in Geneva, the Iranian nuclear program has effectively been transformed into a strictly political, rather than security, issue for at least the next six months. The document, which can be divided into two parts, details the group’s shared vision regarding the end goal of the talks, and outlines the first steps that each side will take in order to provide breathing room for negotiations and build mutual confidence in the process.

End State

Both sides agreed that a final agreement—achieved within a projected timeframe of one year—would include a “mutually defined enrichment programme with practical limits and transparency measures to ensure the peaceful nature of the programme.” While not explicitly stating that Iran has an inalienable right to enrich uranium, which is what the Iranians have been pushing for, the language does leave open the likelihood of future enrichment on Iranian soil. This is important because, for any final agreement to be sustainable, Iran’s negotiators must be able to convince hardliners back home that they have preserved Iran’s rights in the face of Western pressure. Secondly, in order to ensure the permanently peaceful nature of its program, Iran has agreed ultimately to accept substantial limits on its program and allow intrusive inspections of its nuclear installations in exchange for the lifting of all United Nations, European Union, and U.S. nuclear-related sanctions.

First Steps

As a first step, which will last for the next six months (but can be renewed through the mutual consent of all parties), Iran has agreed to take measures that will allay fears over its ability to break out towards a nuclear weapon. Nuclear nonproliferation experts have lauded the deal for this reason. As long as Iran holds to the agreement, it is impossible for it to move towards weaponization. As part of the agreement:

  •  Iran will completely diminish its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20%, which is only a short step removed from bomb-grade material. Iran will convert half of its current stockpile into fuel for its Tehran Research Reactor, which is used to make medical isotopes for cancer patients. The remaining 20% enriched uranium will be diluted to 5% enrichment. Iran has also agreed not to enrich past 5% for the duration of the agreement. The net effect is that this doubles the time needed for Iran to acquire bomb-grade material.
  •  Iran will also halt progress on any of its nuclear installations, and has agreed to even more intrusive inspections than are already in place.


In return, the P5+1 has agreed to:

  • Halt implementing any new nuclear-related sanctions.
  • Allow current buyers of Iranian oil to maintain their purchase volumes.
  • Allow current importers of Iranian oil to buy shipping insurance, sanctions on which have been a major impediment to business.
  • Suspend all sanctions on Iran’s petrochemical, gold, and auto industries, the latter of which employs around half a million Iranians.
  • Allow the supply and installation of spare parts for Iran’s aging civil aircraft.
  • Establish a financial channel that would facilitate trade in food and medication, which has been disrupted due to sanctions on Iran’s banking industry.


Political Implications

One sign of a good deal is that both sides can claim victory back home. Secondly, a sustainable deal is one in which neither side gets everything it wanted. That is, no side feels that it’s been bullied into accepting the agreement.

In Iran, President Hassan Rouhani interpreted the deal’s language to mean that the P5+1 had acknowledged Iran’s right to enrich uranium. Meanwhile, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei congratulated the negotiating team for resisting the West. He most probably will characterize the concession allowing increased inspections as part of the “heroic flexibility” to which he has been referring recently. On the other side, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry explicitly denied that Iran’s right to enrich was mentioned in the agreement, and characterized the deal as a success for the U.S.-led sanctions regime against Iran.

Although necessary for any agreement, each side’s concessions have made them vulnerable to criticism. In Iran, some hardliners attacked the negotiating team for giving any ground to the other side. The Supreme Leader’s current support for the talks likely will keep these hardliners at bay for the time being, however. At the same time, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Iran hawks on Capitol Hill have criticized the deal for not forcing Iran to dismantle its nuclear program prior to sanctions relief. They are calling for increased sanctions, which would be a violation of the Geneva agreement. The Obama administration has asked Congress to hold off on any further sanctions. But some continue to push for them.

Each side’s ability to resist pressure from hardliners for the next six months will be the key to whether this first step will lead to a final agreement. Despite the hard road ahead, it is undeniable that the Geneva deal was momentous. Prior to this weekend, the only meaningful nuclear agreement Iran had signed with the international community was with the Europeans in 2004, when it agreed to halt enriching uranium. Talks broke down in 2006, with Iran claiming that the other side was dragging its feet, and due to the George W. Bush administration’s pressure on the Europeans not to make any further deals with the Iranians. This time, the U.S. played an integral role in furthering the diplomatic track, holding secret one-on-one talks with the Iranians on the sidelines of the P5+1 negotiations in Geneva. In the end, sustained talks between the U.S. and Iran will be essential not only for a final nuclear deal, but in addressing the many other issues plaguing the Middle East.

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