Friday, 29 November 2013

The Geneva Treaty on Iran's nuclear programmes

A preliminary treaty would seem to have been negotiated and signed, last weekend in Geneva, between Iran and the 'P5+1' i.e. the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (Russia, America, France, Britain and China) plus Germany (plus the EU represented by Caroline Ashton).  This is strikingly significant in itself, and also in what it reveals about cleavages and shifts in the international politics of the Middle East.

The treaty requires that Iran down-scale its uranium enrichment activities (highly enriched - and therefore highly fissile - uranium  being necessary for both reactor construction, and the creation of nuclear munitions).   It offers the lifting of various economic sanctions which have been imposed upon Iran, and crucially on its very large and very formidable oil industries, for the last number of years. This is important for Iran, as its economy has felt the pinch of these sanctions in very serious and damaging ways.

Negative reaction to the treaty has come most obviously from Israel, and, in tones rather less shrill, from Saudi Arabia.  Israel and Saudi Arabia have, to a limited degree, made common cause on this matter (yet another example of the willingness of Israel, 'the only democracy in the Middle East', to enter alliances with the most repulsive regimes for the purpose of political and strategic convenience).  Yet inevitably Israel and Saudi Arabia also have sharply divergent interests in many other respects, and most of the time.  This alliance is not likely to be long-lived.

Any stock-taking must begin with the deal itself. What does it entail?

1) Iran will cease enrichment of uranium above 5% - as compared to the 90% required for weapons-grade material;

2) Iran's stockpile of 20% enriched uranium will be wound down - that is, it will either be diluted to 5% or below, or it can be turned into fuel for Iran's reactor at Bushehr, effectively ending its potential for further enrichment;

3) Iran agrees to construct no new centrifuges (the key apparatus for the enrichment of uranium) for the next six months;

4) Iran suspends work on the Arak heavy-water reactor.  Arak would run on non-enriched uranium, were it to be brought into service. It also produces high-grade plutonium as a by-product, which can be used in the manufacture of weapons.  Agreeing to suspend work on the plant cuts directly into Iran's weapons programmes;

5) Iran has pledged to reconsider the matter of IAEA access to the Parchin military site.  Currently the IAEA is banned from this site, but wants to re-visit it, to assess whether it was used for nuclear tests of a kind directed towards the development of weapons.

For these concessions, Iran wins benefits principally consisting in the unfreezing or unblocking of assets held abroad: $4.2 billion in oil sales revenues in accounts now to be unblocked; $1 billion in repatriated petrochemical sales; $500 million in sales and production in the Iranian motor industry, due to the unblocking of car parts imports; the unblocking of $400 million in Iranian assets used to pay for students abroad; and the lifting of bans on Iranian trade in precious metals.

Of course, no sooner has this deal been put in place, than the jockeying has begun for the ensuing discussions on the future of the Iranian nuclear programmes.  It's reckoned that the Parchin base and its history, much of it murky, may be a sticking point in the coming negotiations.

Meanwhile, the Geneva deal has ramifications right across the Middle East, and in America.  It's a substantial foreign-policy success for the Obama Administration and for Secretary Kerry.   That it's been prepared by secret contacts between the American and Iranian governments for the last several months only goes to reinforce the drama of very highlevel contact and negotiation between political elites which have been labelling each other 'the great Satan' (or its cognates) since 1979.  But it could yet be derailed, or produce knock-on effects as yet unexpected. An angry Israeli government reaction might produce even more intransigence on the Palestine issue (though that might be hard to imagine).   Iranian hardliners may try to rein in the negotiators who have struck the current deal, foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif chief among them.  The Saudis also feel the terrain of Middle East power shifting under their feet, seeing an American focus on rapprochement with the most powerful state in the Gulf, and are alarmed.

The deal is historic, however, not only in what it concretely tackles, but also in its dramatisation of the tectonic movements of power and influence in the Middle East.  In the years of the Cold War, American influence in the region was mediated principally through three 'pillar' countries: Israel, a useful if maverick Spartan military ally; Saudi Arabia, with which the United States has had a close alliance since the days of FDR; and Iran under the rule of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah. When the latter was overthrown in 1979, one of the pillars of American policy was shattered, and a powerful, rich and hostile Iran became in fact the United States' chief enemy in the Middle East.  The new Iran also propagated a radical ideology, represented in the work of its principal thinker, the brilliant sociologist Ali Shariati, an ideology composed not only from Shi'ism, but also from elements of Western Marxism and Third World anti-imperialist nationalism, and thus represented an extraordinary challenge to Western hegemony in the Gulf and beyond.  Iran was the sponsor and supporter of Shia movements in Lebanon, of various Palestinian factions, of the Iraqi majority as the Bush Administration found to its cost after the invasion of 2003, and of significant minorities in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.  Accordingly, a rapprochement between the United States and Iran, if that is indeed what we are seeing, is a policy/alliance shift of a kind one only sees every few decades.  Watch this space.

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