Signed recently by the P-5+1 (US, UK, France, China, Russia+Germany) and Iran, the agreement, officially titled the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” (JCPOA), took 20 tortuous months to negotiate, including 18 consecutive days of meetings, some of them into the night, during the run-up to its signing. That’s how high the stakes are.
By virtue of the deal, Iran will reduce by 98 percent its hoard of low-enriched uranium, the raw material for a nuclear bomb. Iran will also cut the number of its active centrifuges, the equipment for enriching uranium, by two-thirds, to 5,060.
These and other restrictions, effective 10 to 25 years, will stretch the break-out time Iran needs to make one nuclear bomb from the present estimated three months to one year. That’s time enough for the other contracting parties to stop Iran from completing the break-out if it made an attempt.
Rigorous and intrusive, technologically advanced monitoring of Iran’s nuclear activities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will be in force indefinitely. This — and not Western intelligence — is the guarantee that the deal will work. The moment Iran made it difficult for the IAEA to do its job, it would be reasonable to assume that Iran was embarking on a break-out.
In return for these restrictions, Iran gets its hands on $100 billion to $150 billion in funds frozen by sanctions relevant to its nuclear program. Sanctions for Iran’s human rights violations and other issues are another matter. But in the hands of Iran, that much wealth could change the political dynamics of the Middle East.
A conventional weapons embargo on Iran will be lifted after five years. A missiles ban will be lifted after eight years.
US President Obama is pleased with this deal. It’s his baby, his main legacy in the making. One pundit has likened it to the “leap of faith” that former US President Nixon made when, in the midst of the Cold War, he decided to strike up a working relationship with a nuclear China that already had ambitions of becoming a hegemon.
Was that a winning bet? So far, China’s rise has been peaceful, except for some shenanigans in the South China Sea.
But don’t expect an Iranian transformation in the next several years. You can even expect an increase in tension in the Middle East as its Saudi-led Arab opponents brace themselves militarily against a wealthy Iran that has more robust support to give to its proxies: Al-Assad of Syria, the Hezbollah of Lebanon, the Houthis of Yemen.
This is balanced by a surge of Iranian trade with its Arab economic partners, with China, Russia and Europe, and even with Indonesia. Perhaps that long delayed joint venture for an oil refinery in Java will finally push through.
The idea and the hope is that in the span of a generation in which Iran, no longer embittered by sanctions, enjoys the fruits of engagement with the rest of the world, the country’s moderates will get confident and influential enough to engineer a strategic shift.
Not everybody is so impressed. Israel’s Bibi Netanyahu calls the deal a historic mistake that makes Iran a nuclear terrorist superpower. Other critics say it concedes too much for a delay, not a dismantling, of Iran’s nuclear program. The Republicans in US Congress would kill it outright if they could.
What do Bibi and other critics want? Obviously they want Iran to completely keep its hands off nuclear energy. They want no less than total surrender. That won’t happen. Iran, you see, isn’t Greece. So helpless was Greece that it was willing to trade its sovereignty for the bread of a bailout. Iran wasn’t negotiating from a similar position of helplessness.
No, Iran will keep its sovereignty. Thank you.
Jamil Maidan Flores is a Jakarta-based literary writer whose interests include philosophy and foreign policy. The views expressed here are his own. He may be contacted at email@example.com.