A deal with Iran was always Obama's goal

This agreement fails to address the wider political issues

July 14, 2015
President Obama with Vice President Joe Biden speaks in the White House after the landmark deal was struck ©Andrew Harnik/Pool via CNP
President Obama with Vice President Joe Biden speaks in the White House after the landmark deal was struck ©Andrew Harnik/Pool via CNP

"This deal offers an opportunity to move in a new direction; we should seize it." Bold words. And spoken by a US President who has, since his first attempts to reach out to Iran in 2008, faced enormous criticism, both domestically and internationally, for what has been since its beginnings the central foreign policy goal of his administration: détente with Iran.

That has not come yet. A nuclear deal is just that: the wider problems between Iran and the West have not yet been resolved. Iran has not become Switzerland. To his credit, President Obama seems aware of this fact. “Our differences are real and the history between our nations cannot be ignored...but it is possible to change,” he continued.

But if the last round of nuclear talks are anything to go by change is going to come slowly. The original deadline for a deal was 30th June—a wishful date, as it turned out. It took, in fact, 18 days to reach an agreement, which is hardly surprising given what was at stake.

The P5+1 (the five Security Council powers plus Germany) set out to do one simple thing: to stop, as far as possible, an Iranian bomb. Iran has two paths to a nuclear bomb. The first is uranium enrichment at its Natanz and Fordow sites; and the second: plutonium production, which would take place at its Heavy Water facility at Arak, once it is completed.

Uranium enrichment has always been the focal point of international anxiety because it is the centerpiece of the Iranian nuclear programme and, accordingly, the its most developed area. It also makes no sense. Iran claims it is enriching uranium to build nuclear fuel to power nuclear plants. The problem is that Iran doesn’t have any nuclear power plants that need the fuel it produces. The only plant it does have, at Bushehr, in the southwestern part of the country is still not online (after over 30 years) and will be fuelled by Russia, which is (still) building it.

Despite this the Iranians have spent years building up the amount of centrifuges used to enrich uranium and hoarding an ever increasing stockpile of low enriched uranium, which could eventually be enriched to weapons-grade levels for use in a bomb. Iran has around 20,000 centrifuges in operation. The deal limits these to just over 6000. And the oldest and least effective, to boot. Meanwhile, Iran has agreed to reduce its uranium stockpile by 98 per cent for 15 years. It has also agreed to stick to enrichment levels of just under four per cent—suitable for civil purposes but way below the 80 per cent or above it would ideally need for weapons-grade use. Caps on research and development as well as ban on enriching at Fordow are also a part of the deal.

As far as plutonium production is concerned Iran could feasibly use the spent fuel from the Arak reactor to make a bomb. Under the deal, Iran has agreed to alter the design specs of the reactor so it can’t produce fuel suitable for weapons purposes.

In return, Iran has received the promise of sanctions relief that—despite its bluster to the contrary—it severely needs. And that is essentially the quid pro quo upon which the deal rests.

The problem is, as I have written many times before, that the Iranian nuclear crisis has never been about uranium or plutonium, it is about politics. It is an expression of both Iran’s aggressiveness and a symptom of the international community’s fears over Iranian behaviour and trustworthiness.

The deal focuses on the narrow technical issues but it fails to address the wider political ones. There may have been two sides at the negotiations—Iran and the P5+1 but there are two ghosts at this particular feast: Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, described the deal as a “mistake of historic proportions”. The Saudis have so far kept a lower profile but they have repeatedly made clear their fear of Iran’s expansionist regional ambitions as the Middle East cleaves further along a Sunni-Shia divide. Both countries fear that the billions of dollars freed up for Iranian use that comes with the lifting of the sanctions will bring greater instability to the region. The view from both Jerusalem and Riyadh is plain: more money for Iran means more money for Hezbollah, for the Shia militias in Iraq and for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.

The P5+1 was right to make the deal. It was the least bad option. Nothing short of military force by the US could stop the progress of Iran’s nuclear programme—a scenario neither likely nor desirable. But it is incomplete—and in that real danger lies.