The nuclear deal between Iran and the P5 plus Germany/the EU, as concluded on July 14, is a truly historic and landmark achievement, not only for non-proliferation but also for diplomacy and multilateralism. The joint comprehensive plan of action (JCPOA) is the first of its kind in the annals of non-proliferation and arms control. It is based on the non-proliferation treaty and Iran’s associated safeguards agreement. However, it is unique in the extraordinary sweep of Iran’s negotiated yet voluntary commitments on closing the pathways to nuclear-weapon capability, as also in the drastic scaling down and dismantling of its uranium enrichment programme under the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA’s) most intensive protocols for monitoring, verification and control. The text of the JCPOA and the five annexes can be likened to the extensive arms control treaties of the Cold War years in leaving virtually nothing to ambiguity.
In fact, Iran has agreed to go so much out of its way in assuming the obligations under the JCPOA that the document has an explicit disclaimer clause to affirm that it would not be precedent-setting in any manner. While due to diverse domestic pressures, the deal’s interlocutors might claim the breakthrough to be a vindication of a rigorous sanctions-driven approach, the immense diplomatic worth of the success of negotiations that lasted almost a decade far exceeds the detailed minutiae of the deal. At the same time, no matter how delicately the protagonists in the West, led by US President Barack Obama, might describe their achievement, it is bound to be seen as a trigger for a far-reaching diplomatic transformation. It will serve to dispel the stigma on a major power like Iran as it progressively and with dignity breaks through the haze of suspicion that surrounds it. Because IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano expects results by next December, it will give a bigger boost to the credibility and effectiveness of the IAEA than the Nobel prize of a decade ago. It also demonstrates the confluence of the vital interests of the P5+1, given that their top diplomats relentlessly strove through a hard process right until the end. It will add respectability to the UN Security Council, whose reputation, in the Middle East in particular, has suffered due to a chequered record. Even coming as it does at a time that is particularly bleak for arms control and non-proliferation, the deal is much more than a mere silver lining. Its annexes raise the standard for a cooperative process of non-proliferation in one of the more difficult regions in the world.
When the agreed parameters of the JCPOA came out last April, the US factsheets appeared to show a comprehensive plan that the sceptics dismissed as being at variance with Iran’s version. The final text now bears out those factsheets almost to their entirety and it is still acceptable to Iran. Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, in his address, went to considerable lengths to emphasise the commitments assumed, the timeframes of restraints and reductions, the durability of the IAEA’s role and even the duration of embargoes on arms and ballistic missiles. This also demonstrated Iran’s confidence in the process, which was formally launched after Rouhani’s victory in 2013.
Rouhani’s address was couched in the language of the deep value in Iranian culture of politeness, logic, patience and forbearance. But he gave the pride of place to his government’s success in securing the removal of sanctions under the accord. He conceded that sanctions, even though unsuccessful in stopping Iranian resolve, did adversely affect the people. This gives insight into an Iran that is ready to engage with the world but is maintaining its dignity — rather different from North Korea. His address was understated in detailing the limits imposed on the technological capability of his nation by the final accord. Iran has, no doubt, stuck to its right to qualified retention and development of capacity and research, which the JCPOA does not challenge. However, that Iran will voluntarily reduce its capacity considerably for a decade under strict inspections, as prescribed in the JCPOA, would have been inconceivable in the past for Majlis hardliners. Rouhani’s address acknowledged that the JCPOA paved the way for UNSC action as the first step, and visualised, in a few months, the beginning of the abrogation of sanctions. Does this show a softening in its stance towards UNSC resolutions which it earlier rejected, although a disclaimer in the JCPOA footnote weakly insists on it? Or, as Obama said he expected in his latest interview to Thomas Friedman, will the clarity in the text be respected by Iran?
As for reactions, Israel arguably loathes Iran’s emergence from its long isolation more than it fears its residual nuclear capacity, while the Gulf states were slow to react. But their marked unease was reflected in their response in April to Obama’s Camp David invitation. In his latest interview, Obama duly heeds his Gulf allies’ concerns by eschewing any sugarcoating of Iran’s regional policies and the possibility of rapprochement with it, even as he contextualised this deal with the past historic initiatives of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan with China and the Soviet Union, respectively, with whom there was also little trust. China’s top leadership has not issued immediate comments, even though the Global Times and People’s Daily have given the deal a rousing welcome. Russian President Vladimir Putin, in contrast, has promptly conveyed strong support for the deal in a lengthy comment. Obama has also acknowledged Russia’s contribution during talks. An account of the penultimate hour of uncertainty revealed that the Russian foreign minister and the EU foreign policy chief were with the US secretary of state before Iran’s foreign minister joined them to take the final steps to sign the accord. In the end, it’s the US Congress that might pass or fail the deal. Obama’s vow of a veto is contingent on support from his own party. The annexes to the JCPOA, however, are carefully elaborated and allow few loopholes that can be held up to denounce them. American non-proliferation experts, too, support the deal.
The writer is a former ambassador to the IAEA in Vienna
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