With Iran and the P5+1 having finally signed a nuclear deal in Vienna, it is still unclear if the agreement is a breakthrough or a disaster.
After 18 days of intense and often fractious negotiation, world powers and Iran struck a landmark deal Tuesday to curb Iran's nuclear program in exchange for billions of dollars in relief from international sanctions.Photo: AP
July 14 saw the long-awaited announcement of a final agreement between the P5+1 countries (the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) and Iran on Tehran’s nuclear program. Yet does the agreement really represent a qualitative breakthrough for the entire system of international relations?
A difficult compromise for all parties
Several times the announcement of a comprehensive agreement at the talks in the Austrian capital of Vienna was delayed. The long negotiating process (remember, the first international discussions on Iran’s nuclear program started 12 years ago) was conditioned by the deep-rooted contradictions in the approaches of the parties to the talks.
There was no unanimity to speak of among Tehran’s negotiating partners: whereas from the start Russia and China were the most closely aligned to Iran, and the United States and Germany tried to play a constructive role in the later stages, Britain and France, by contrast, took a hardliner approach.
But this historic day in Vienna arrived in the end. As noted by EU diplomacy chief Federica Mogherini, it is a “good agreement for all countries.”
There is no doubt that Iran made concessions. In particular, Tehran is obligated not to enrich uranium for military purposes, to upgrade the Arak heavy water reactor in central Iran to exclude production of military-grade plutonium, and to reduce over the next decade the number of centrifuges at its disposal from today’s nearly 19 million to 5,060.
But the climb down was not one-sided: Iran is allowed to maintain a small uranium enrichment program with the option of later —and perhaps rapid—expansion. Given that pre-2013 the United States had insisted on the complete dismantlement of the uranium enrichment program, that is a significant concession.
“It paved the way for the interim agreement in Lausanne and the current talks in Vienna, but it is basically the weakest link in the entire settlement process,” says Vladimir Frolov, who writes for independent news portal Slon.
It should not be forgotten that Iran was put in the situation when it couldn't help making concessions. In return, Tehran secured the gradual release of around $150 billion worth of Iranian holdings frozen by banks in Western countries, as well as the step-by-step lifting of international sanctions in the spheres of finance, energy and transport. It is vital that the process of lifting these restrictions begin as early as 2016 and that the UN Security Council adopt a resolution on the Iranian nuclear issue that is backed by international law.
Is the agreement a step toward peace in the Greater Middle East?
The Vienna agreement is doubtless a seminal moment in contemporary international relations. But is it positive or negative?
On the one hand, the agreement meets the requirements of the international community on the preservation of the nuclear nonproliferation regime. And, at the same time, it charts a route to removing the yoke of international sanctions from Iranian society, yet stipulates their reintroduction if the Islamic Republic fails to comply with its obligations.
On the other, some analysts share Israel’s concern that the Vienna agreement could give Iran license to pursue a more aggressive policy in the Middle East.
For instance, Kommersant FM commentator Konstantin Eggert believes that “Tehran’s ambition is full control over the Middle East —and the annihilation of Israel.”
“To that aim, in spite of international sanctions, the Iranians have spent billions of dollars on supporting terrorists not only in the Middle East, but also throughout the world,” says the expert.
“All these years the Iranian regime has continuously lied about its nuclear intentions. It argues that they are peaceful, yet in parallel it is developing ballistic missiles whose only purpose can be to carry a nuclear warhead. This dangerous agreement now opens the door to finance, and subsequently to dual-use technology,” warns Eggert.
It is worth noting that both the United States and Russia stopped at nothing to reach an agreement. Washington made concessions in allowing Iran to keep its uranium enrichment program.
Equally, Moscow played an important and constructive role in the negotiating process, and the axis of the agreement is consistent with Moscow’s principled position on the Iranian “nuclear dossier.” From the viewpoint of Russian diplomacy, the time has come to make greater use of Iran’s diplomatic potential in the resolution of other conflicts in the Middle East and to confront international terrorism.
But to say that a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue will automatically defuse the tangled geopolitical situation in the Middle East would be premature in the extreme. First, directly or indirectly, Iran is already embroiled in various conflicts stemming mostly from the so-called Arab Spring (in Syria, Yemen and also Iraq).
Second, the reaction of Tehran’s regional rivals (Israel and Saudi Arabia) to the Vienna agreement shows that detente in the Middle East is still a very distant prospect.
“Obama’s faithful Saudis will want to get their hands on a nuclear bomb,” believes Eggert. “Shia Iraq will turn once and for all into a protectorate of Iran—with the exception of Kurdistan. Yemen and perhaps Bahrain will also come under the control of the Iranian regime. Billions of dollars of newfound wealth will be used to finance terrorists around the world, since Tehran seems willing to throw greenbacks at both Sunnis and Shias.”
The Russia-Iran relationship: New prospects
As already noted, Moscow made a significant contribution to the historic compromise on the Iranian nuclear issue. And it is not just that Russia traditionally assists countries outside the Euro-Atlantic community hit by Western sanctions.
When the Russian president calls Iran a “long-standing partner,” and the foreign minister sees Iran as a “natural ally of Russia” in the struggle against religious terrorism, it is not mere posturing. On a number of critical issues in Asia, such as the legal status of the Caspian Sea, the stability of the South Caucasus and Central Asia, and the evolution of the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, Moscow and Tehran see almost eye to eye.
In the words of Russian expert Nikolay Kojanov, “Moscow has come to see Tehran as an important regional leader able to influence public opinion in the Islamic world.”
It goes without saying that the phasing out of sanctions against Iran in the energy sector will lead to a surge of cheap Iranian oil and gas on the international market, which, objectively, will not benefit Russia. But neither is it ruled out that the geopolitical motives of modern Russian diplomacy override economic self-interest. What’s more, the eventual lifting of international sanctions against Iran opens up new avenues to expand economic relations with the country for Russia, too.
As they stand today, these relations cannot be described as significant. Iran accounts for just 0.2 percent of Russia’s foreign trade turnover, while Russian investments in Iran fall short of $50 billion.
Moreover, since 2011 there has been a noticeable decline in bilateral trade.
At the same time, Iran needs modern engineering and technological support. In November 2014 the two countries signed a package of agreements on Russia’s involvement in the construction of eight nuclear power installations in Iran.
In addition, Russia and Iran have joint projects in the areas of energy, petrochemicals, electronic goods and railway infrastructure. The military-technical dimension of Russian-Iranian cooperation also looks promising: Moscow recently announced the end of a moratorium on the supply of S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems.
If the July 14 Vienna agreement is implemented quickly and efficiently, there is no doubt that Western corporations will soon be beating a path to Iran’s door. But for international relations, the “economic battle for Iran” will be far safer than any military-political confrontation over its nuclear program.