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Case Analysis 06 December, 2013

The Nuclear Agreement: A First Step toward Long-term Iranian Rehabilitation

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The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 


After a four-day round of strenuous negotiations between Iran and Western powers, and following 19 rounds of multilateral negotiations extending over the course of a decade, negotiations finally concluded in a preliminary agreement to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis on Sunday, November 24 in Geneva. The agreement took place under Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and European Commissioner for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton, in the presence of the foreign ministers of the six countries—members of the UN Security Council plus Germany—participating in the negotiations. This deal had been widely expected to occur following a public relations campaign carried out by the Iranians and the Americans to prepare their respective publics for a rapprochement between the historic rivals in the wake of President Rouhani’s victory in Iran’s last presidential elections.[1]


The Agreement

The Geneva agreement is considered a temporary transitional agreement, lasting six months and subject to renewal given the mutual consent of both parties. During this time, the countries are allowed the opportunity to build trust and launch serious negotiations to reach an ultimate comprehensive agreement on the Iranian nuclear program. According to its operative, this deal aims to ensure the peacefulness of the Iranian nuclear program, and from this standpoint, Tehran has pledged to significantly reduce its nuclear activity, most notably the pledge to neutralize its stores of enriched uranium by 20 percent by converting half of it to oxide, which would meet the fuel production needs for the Tehran Research Reactor, and by reducing the concentration of uranium in the other half to less than 5 percent, provided there will be no use of rehabilitation technology.

Iran has also committed to refrain from engaging in uranium enrichment activities by more than 5 percent during the duration of the agreement, in addition to halting any development of its nuclear fuel production facilities in Natanz and Fordo. Iran has also agreed to stop building the Arak reactor, which works with heavy water and specializes in the production of plutonium, and to stop the manufacture of the fuel needed to run it. Additionally, Iran will not construct any new nuclear facilities, especially for uranium enrichment, and refrain from undertaking any rehabilitation activity for nuclear materials or construction of any facilities that would have the capacity for rehabilitation.

The agreement also ensures that Tehran will commit to accepting increased international surveillance of its nuclear activity, starting by its providing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with specific information on the designs of its nuclear facilities, the buildings constructed in each of these facilities, and the nuclear activity ongoing within them, in addition to information on mining, extraction operations, and primary sources. The country has also agreed to provide the agency with technical information on the Arak reactors.

In return, the group of six countries has committed to relieving economic sanctions on Iran in a manner that is “limited, temporary, with fixed goals, and open to cancellation” if the agreement is not abided by.  However, the majority of sanctions on the petroleum, monetary, and banking sectors will remain, meaning that Western countries will release around 7 billion dollars of frozen Iranian funds in the West.[2] The six countries also commit to suspending any new sanctions[3] from the Security Council, the EU, or the US during the term of the agreement.


Differences from Previous Agreement Attempts

Iran has signed previous agreements with France, Germany, and the United Kingdom to resolve the nuclear crisis, all of which were reached during the US’s invasion of Iraq, when the US became Iran’s neighbor and Washington deployed no less than 200,000 soldiers to Iran’s borders with Afghanistan to the east and with Iraq to the west. The US military presence raised Iran’s fears of being targeted following Iraq and Afghanistan. Such a threat became even more plausible following former US president George Bush’s inclusion of Iran in the Axis of Evil in the Bush Security Doctrine of September 2002. Accordingly, Iran coordinated security concerns with the US in Afghanistan and Iraq. During its negotiations with the three western countries, Iran proposed certain understandings on its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions and acknowledgement of its regional role.

The first Iranian-Western nuclear understanding goes back to 2003, when the Saadabad statement was announced in Tehran after a meeting between Kamal Kharazi, Iran’s foreign minister at the time, and the foreign ministers of the European troika. The statement included Iran’s voluntary commitment to suspend uranium enrichment and allow international inspectors to visit its nuclear facilities in Natanz. In return, France, the UK, and Germany pledged to keep the Iranian nuclear dossier out of the UN Security Council. On February 24, 2004, Iran signed another agreement with the European countries in Brussels, whereby Iran committed to stop building centrifuges and to suspend manufacture of spare parts for these devices. Hassan Rouhani headed the Iranian negotiation delegation, while Javier Solana headed the European delegation. The third agreement between the two parties was signed in Paris on November 14, 2004. In this agreement, Iran voluntarily committed to suspending all nuclear activities, including uranium enrichment and the building and manufacture of the hardware and facilities related to it, in addition to suspending all experimentation connected to nuclear activity. In return, the European countries pledged to accept Iran’s membership in the World Trade Organization.

The Bush administration, however, was not interested in Iranian offers, and felt that it was not obliged to make concessions, no matter how small, to the Iranians. Washington’s insistence on ignoring Iranian negotiation offers led Ahmadinejad’s administration, which came into power in the summer of 2005, to resume work on the nuclear program, taking advantage of the difficulties the Americans were facing in Iraq and Afghanistan. This pushed the IAEA to turn the Iranian file over to the Security Council, which issued its first warning to Iran in July 2006, calling on the country to cease uranium enrichment. In December of the same year, the Security Council issued its first resolution to impose financial, commercial, and military sanctions on Iran.  

In spite of the above maneuver, and the issuance of multiple resolutions regarding Iran, the chain of negotiations continued in numerous conferences: Geneva 1 (June 2008), Geneva 2 (October 2009), Geneva 3 (December 2010), Istanbul 1 (February 2011), Istanbul 2 (April 2012), Baghdad (May 2012), Moscow (June 2012), Almaty 1 (February 2013), and Almaty 2 (April 2013). Of these, the Istanbul 2 negotiations was one of the most important since they created the foundation for negotiations between the parties. During this time, Catherine Ashton acknowledged Iran’s right to enrich uranium given a commitment to the limitations set by the International Atomic Energy Agency, in exchange for economic incentives to be further negotiated. In the Almaty 2 round in April 2013, the world powers renewed their offer to partially lift sanctions against Iran in exchange for adherence to three conditions: suspension of all nuclear activities in Fordo, acceptance of increased International Atomic Energy Agency surveillance for all nuclear activities, and neutralizing enriched uranium by 20 percent.

Negotiations were suspended while awaiting the Iranian presidential election results in the summer of 2013. With the announcement of Hassan Rouhani’s victory and the change in the negotiation delegation, a new round commenced in New York (September 2013), followed by two rounds in Geneva (November 2013). Meanwhile, secret negotiations mediated by Oman were underway between Washington and Tehran, which were made public during the final Geneva round at the end of November 2013, when it was announced that a transitional agreement had been reached.


The Agreement as a Profit and Loss Balance

President Rouhani’s administration strove to present the latest agreement as a major accomplishment; however, it realistically represents a great concession from the Iranian side. There is no doubt that the Americans agreed to grant Iran important symbolic gains that enable President Rouhani to defend his position domestically, in the face of hardcore skeptics who doubt the feasibility of his approaches to the West. The agreement, even if it does not expressly grant Iran the right to enrich uranium, enables Rouhani to claim that this deal acknowledges Iran’s right to enrichment because it stipulates that Iran cease enrichment activities exceeding 5 percent. However, this was something previously agreed upon once Iran abided by the limits set by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Otherwise, it seems clear that the terms of the agreement that Iran has approved show its dire need for a settlement, even if a temporary one, that will open a niche in the unyielding wall of international isolation, blockades, and sanctions. Thus, concessions in exchange for simple economic gains offered by the West that were unthinkable even in the recent past were made. While most of the sanctions on the oil and banking sectors are still effective, it is unlikely that the economic sanction system would collapse, as Teheran had envisaged, particularly considering that the agreement would lead to the dismantling of the international consensus over it, thus providing a pretext for its opponents to trespass it. On the other hand, Iran’s agreement to rein in its nuclear activities in such an expansive way expresses definite effort from the Rouhani-Rafsanjani administration, with clear support from Khamenei for deliverance from the Nejadi legacy and opening the country to reformative development internationally and domestically.

It seems reasonable, then, for one to claim that Rouhani’s nomination and election were linked to the harshness of economic sanctions and the necessity of reaching an agreement with the West. More importantly, it might also be the case that Iran has signed an agreement that it could find difficult to escape, even if it would benefit the country, because any breach of the agreement would weaken Iran’s international position, as well as its position among its allies since Russia and China are signatories and guarantors of the agreement. In such a case, it would be easier to go back to the Security Council to issue new resolutions that would impose harsher sanctions on Iran.

Finally, even if Iran decides not to extend the agreement at the end of the six months, the IAEA will have obtained information regarding Iran during its inspection visits, in addition to the information Iran has already pledged to present. This information will give the world a clearer picture of the truth behind Iran’s nuclear program and the stages it has reached, making it quite difficult to hide some of the most important and sensitive aspects of its nuclear program.

Though Tehran’s short-term concessions may seem substantial, there are long-term gains that should not be ignored. According to reformists, the agreement strives to rescue the country from sure economic collapse, and removes the justifications of US congressional hawks to impose even harsher economic sanctions upon Iran. The reformists insist that this agreement “has saved Iran from dire crisis” in reference to the fears of the country’s economic collapse. Politically, the nuclear negotiations’ capacity to extricate the country from a state of blockade represents the new Iranian government’s first goal, particularly since President Rouhani would not be able to realize his reformist programs under the shadow of a continued state of international isolation and economic sanctions. Thus, the agreement represents a transitional success upon which greater success—lifting all political and economic sanctions from Iran as a whole—can be built. However, this also means that internal conflict and foreign concessions have barely begun in the pursuit of transforming the transitional agreement into a comprehensive agreement for solving the Iranian crisis from within and without.

There is no doubt that Iran will initially strive to tout the agreement as it if were a victory, especially in light of what is sees as an increasing influence among Arabs. In the Arab world, there are those who tout everything Iran does as victory. However, this seems to be insignificant in the face of what Tehran will attempt: to compensate for its concessions in the nuclear dossier with international acknowledgement of Iran’s regional role. In the long term, there is no doubt that any progression in Iran will result in the erosion of its ideological, religious totalitarianism, as occurred in socialist countries. Ultimately, this is what the reformists in Iran hope for.

*This Assessment was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version published on December 4th, 2013 can be found here.


[1] Laurence Norman, “Two-Track Negotiations Led to Iran Nuclear Deal,” the Wall Street Journal, November 24, 2013, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304281004579218343099984808. In fact, the agreement was ready to be signed during the previous negotiation rounds in early November 2013, but it was delayed until the final round as a result of emerging obstacles. On this occasion, the French refused the agreement due to their delayed knowledge of the degree of progress secret American-Iranian negotiations had made. Thus, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius took advantage of the Arak facility’s omission in the agreement’s text and refused the agreement unless work constructing that facility, which uses heavy water to produce plutonium for use in the manufacture of nuclear weaponry. For more on the secret American-Iranian negotiations.

[2] This proportion is minimal in comparison to the total amount of frozen Iranian funds in the West—approximately 100 billion dollars.

[3] Randa Taqi Al-Din “Introductory ‘nuclear’ agreement between Iran and the six countries, and Khamenei sees in it ‘a basis for future intelligent measures,’” Al-Hayat, November 25, 2013, http://alhayat.com/Details/575416.  

According to the text distributed by the White House, Iran has agreed to stop all uranium enrichment activities “in rates exceeding 5 percent, and [to] dismantle[e] the technical processes needed for enrichment at those rates,” and to refrain from increasing its stores of enriched uranium by more than 3.5 percent. It also pledged to get rid of its stockpile of enriched uranium by 20 percent, refrain from manufacturing new centrifuges for enrichment, and halt around half of its current centrifuges in the Natanz facility and three-quarters of the ones in the Fordo facility. The text added that Tehran would refrain from constructing any additional facilities for enrichment, stop work in the Arak facility capable of producing plutonium, and provide the plans of its construction, which will provide detailed sensitive information about it, in addition to providing more opportunities for inspectors to enter it. The text also indicated that Iran will allow experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency daily access to its nuclear locations, among which are Natanz and Fordo, the facilities assembling centrifuges, and the uranium mines and preparation stations. In return, the six countries agree to lessen sanctions in a manner that is “limited, temporary, with fixed goals, and open to cancellation.” The majority of American commercial and monetary sanctions will remain, in addition to all the sanctions enforced by the resolutions of the Security Council, including sanctions on the petroleum, monetary, and banking sectors. The six countries will also commit to refraining from increasing sanctions during the six month interval provided that Tehran honors its pledges. Additionally, “some sanctions on gold, precious metals, the automotive sector, and Iranian petrochemical exports” will be temporarily relieved, allowing Tehran revenues of about 1.5 billion dollars. According to the text, Iranian oil purchases will remain at their current low levels, which are 60 percent less than they were before sanctions were enforced around two years ago, but the transfer of around 4.2 billion dollars from sales of oil subject to sanction will be permitted, provided that Iran keeps its commitments. The text says “if Iran is unable to address our concerns, we are prepared to increase sanctions and pressure” upon it.