Iran and Nuclear Energy: ‘To Deal or Not to Deal’?

Historical Currents

In 2002, an Iranian opposition group named the National Council of Resistance of Iran, gave details of nuclear fuel production at a facility in Natanz. This prompted a visit by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to the site; which concluded in the summer of 2003 that Iran had failed to meet its obligations under the safeguards agreement. Although this led to the Tehran Declaration of October of that year, in which Iran agreed to suspend enrichment, this broke down after the rise to power of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Throughout 2006 – 2010 there Iran has been subjected to sanctions. It was in November 2013 that an initial agreement took shape in the Joint Plan of Action. This was an agreement between Iran and China, Russia, France, America, France, and the United Kingdom: sanctions are partially lifted in exchange for depleting its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium.

Why has this path been so rocky? There are a host of traditional problems. Firstly, Iran’s size means it is difficult to police – the IAEA has limited resources, and samples have a delay before the results of the anlaysis can be returned so controlling such a massive territory. Secondly, Iran has a real domestic need for nuclear fuel – thus limitations are seen as hobbling the sovereignty of the nation. This is particularly the case giving growing threats in the region. Thirdly, access to sites requires a delicate balance – between permitting a country to maintain national defence secrets, but not permitting it to shield its nuclear potential.

Iran has enriched uranium to 20%. The growing instability of the Middle East has increased the pressure on ensuring that a deal regarding this concentration is reached – because it is the concentration of the uranium which determines the ‘breakout time’.

In April 2015, a preliminary framework to bring the situation under control was outlined with some success. The framework is centred on the two routes to nuclear weapons. To enrich uranium ore it must either be passed through a centrifuge, or through a reactor, in order to increase the concentration of U-235. Bomb grade uranium requires concentrations above 90%. The Iranians have agreed to limit enrichment to 3.7% and to reduce stockpile of low-enriched uranium from 10,000 kilograms to 300 kilograms, for the next 15 years. The access issue is purportedly being addressed through a ‘managed access’ process. It seems, following initial reports, that this functions by permitting blanket access to military sites, with Iran being able to challenge the classification of certain areas.

The American Dream?

Stability in the  Middle East is one of the few strategic policies American has maintained since its emergence from isolationism. There is certainly significant scope to argue that it has not achieved this. Diplomatic relations with Iran fit into the American dream of a stable Middle East, by seeking to ensure that the tension between it and Israel do not manifest. It also provides America with an ally on the ground, against the growing threat of Islamic State expansion.

At the same time, if a deal is struck America would have to relieve its sanctions. This would open Iran as a market for arms trade – particularly for Russia, with whom there is a close allegiance. A heavily armed Iran would not contribute to the stability of the region.

A new wind?

It seems that many cats have lent their lives to the altar of ‘the Iran Nuclear Deal’. The New York times drew attention to the fact, when reporting on this latest round of talks. On one level, and as argued in the cited article, it is part of the negotiating technique. Showing that you are willing to walk away from the deal is only as important as showing that you are interested in concluding a deal.

Much can be said for the idiom that ‘a good compromise leaves nobody happy’. Conservative Americans and radical Iranians are certainly unhappy – they view any compromise as weakness. But there is very little they can do. The US congress can reject a deal, but the President of the United States (who is pro-deal) can veto such a rejection. To overrule the president a two-thirds majority is required, which is unlikely.

Agreement in Vienna has been reached, along those lines outlined above. It will be interesting to see, moving forward, how the deal is used by Russia and America to achieve their respect aims of peace and trade.

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