The Middle East Channel

A First Step in Geneva

The Geneva nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 (United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, plus Germany) is the first real positive development in the Iranian nuclear crisis in at least 10 years. The 2002 revelation of Iran's nuclear facilities spawned a decade of increased hostility between the United States and Iran, not to mention a heated rivalry between Tehran on one hand, and Tel Aviv and Riyadh on the other. In the past decade, Iran has not only faced the threat of war, but also the reality of sanctions that have caused untold misery among the Iranian population. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's (2005 to 2013) often vitriolic rhetoric and policies proved a stumbling block to a negotiated settlement of the nuclear crisis. But Hassan Rouhani's election as president this summer has provided a path forward.

The Geneva agreement is only a first step toward a comprehensive deal. But it is an important achievement. Iran's ability to move toward a nuclear weapons breakout capability has been halted in return for limited sanctions relief. The next six months will be crucial as Iran and the P5+1 negotiate a comprehensive deal; Israel, Saudi Arabia, and much of the U.S. Congress are highly skeptical of Iran's intentions, and the overall U.S. approach. And Iranian hardliners may stand ready for an opportunity to pounce on Rouhani. Nevertheless, the Geneva deal is a positive development for all parties, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, even if they do not recognize it as such. 

The agreement imposes significant limitations on the Iranian nuclear program. Tehran has agreed to halt the construction of the heavy water reactor in Arak; oxidize 20 percent enriched uranium which is just steps away from the level necessary to be used for a weapon; stop installment of more advanced centrifuges; and perhaps most importantly, allow daily inspection of its enrichment facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), ensuring that it cannot move toward a weapons capability using its declared facilities without the knowledge of the international community.

In return, Iran will be provided with limited and reversible sanctions relief, including access to frozen funds, easing of sanctions on the auto industry, and the ability to sell petrochemicals. The sanctions relief package is estimated to total between $6 and $7 billion, a rather modest concession given the accepted limits on the nuclear program. The P5+1, while not explicitly recognizing Iran's declared right to enrich uranium, nevertheless appears to have implicitly acknowledged the reality of Iran's advanced uranium enrichment program. Tehran will still enrich uranium at lower levels, a "red line" the Iranian regime vowed it would not cross.

The end of the Ahmadinejad presidency facilitated the current deal. But the intense pressures faced by the Iranian regime no doubt played a major role. In the past four years, the Islamic Republic has suffered one blow after another: the 2009 Green uprising and major divisions within the regime; the possible loss of its ally in Syria and the endangerment of Hezbollah, Iran's closest ally in the Middle East; crippling sanctions against the Iranian central bank and energy sector; and increasing popular dissatisfaction with Iran's failing political and economic system.

Rouhani, a relatively moderate conservative, won the presidential election by promising an improved economy, which could only be achieved through the lifting of sanctions via a nuclear deal. He was one of eight candidates allowed to run by the watchdog Guardian Council, and was widely viewed as the more pragmatic choice. Rouhani has thus far not seriously addressed Iran's abysmal human rights record, or its relative lack of social and political freedoms. It remains to be seen whether he has the authority or will to address issues beyond the nuclear program. But on the latter, he appears to have the backing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards. They badly needed a deal. The regime, which is highly dependent on oil revenue, faced an impending economic crisis, and possibly the wrath of its own people.

Khamenei, a famously inflexible leader, adopted a policy of "heroic flexibility" and urged Iran's negotiating team, including the suave Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, to find a way out of Iran's impasse while protecting Iran's "nuclear rights." Khamenei ordered the conservative establishment not to criticize the negotiators. So far, Iranian hardliners, especially those associated with the Revolutionary Guards and security establishment, have reason not to undermine Rouhani or the Geneva deal. But a failure to achieve a comprehensive deal, especially due to new congressional sanctions, could mobilize them against more pragmatic factions associated with Rouhani.

The Israeli government, along with Saudi Arabia, has vociferously opposed the Geneva deal. The Israeli response is motivated by a largely justifiable deep sense of distrust and skepticism toward Iran. The Islamic Republic's historical pattern of deception on the nuclear program cannot be discounted, and even a comprehensive deal will not end Tehran's support for anti-Israeli and anti-Saudi groups such as Hezbollah or the Syrian Assad regime. However, the Geneva deal provides a verifiable mechanism that can detect an Iranian breakout capability. Neither Tel Aviv, nor Washington for that matter, can ignore the possibility of undeclared secret nuclear facilities, or of Iran reneging on a deal. But Rouhani's election and the immense pressures faced by Khamenei indicate a real willingness to be flexible on the nuclear program.

Geneva is a first step in what may prove to be a long road ahead. Israeli opposition and the possibility of new sanctions by the U.S. Congress can complicate or even derail a comprehensive deal. And Iran, a long rival to U.S. influence in the Middle East, will not change overnight. Khamenei's concept of "heroic flexibility" does not equal surrender, nor does it suggest a wholesale change in behavior. But for now, the Iranian nuclear program has been halted, and the possibility of a military conflict between Iran and the United States has diminished. Additionally, the suffering people of Iran will have a bit more space to breathe. Nevertheless, an ideal Iran -- a country at peace with its own people and the world -- is still a distant reality. We can hope Geneva is the first step in that direction.

Alireza Nader is a senior international policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

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The Middle East Channel

World Powers Reach Historic Nuclear Deal With Iran

World powers reached a historic deal with Iran on its nuclear program early Sunday, but will face challenges ahead as they work to develop a comprehensive agreement. The United States, China, Russia, France, Britain, and Germany reached the six-month interim deal with Iran after days of negotiations in Geneva. The agreement included up to $7 billion in "limited, temporary, and reversible relief" in sanctions for Iran in exchange for several measures targeting Iran's nuclear program including suspension of higher-grade uranium enrichment, halting of construction of its Arak plant, and daily access for inspectors to the nuclear sites at Natanz and Fordo. Israel has denounced the deal with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling it a "historic mistake." However, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei endorsed the deal and Iranian negotiators were met with praise upon their return to Tehran. Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's chief negotiator, said Tehran would begin implementing the agreement in the coming weeks and said Iranians are ready to "begin negotiations for a final resolution as of tomorrow." French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said some E.U. sanctions could be lifted as early as December. With the announcement of the deal, crude oil prices dropped by an estimated $2 and the value of Iran's currency, the rial, increased by over 3 percent.

Syria

The United Nations has announced Jan. 22 for the beginning of an international peace conference on Syria to be held in Geneva. The announcement came as Lakhdar Brahimi, U.N. and Arab League envoy to Syria, met with U.S. and Russian officials to discuss negotiations. The conference is aimed at bringing together Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and members of the opposition. One of the main goals is "the establishment, based on mutual consent, of a transitional governing body with full executive powers, including over military and security entities." Meanwhile, opposition fighters have launched a counter-offensive in the past three days, taking over some villages and checkpoints east of Damascus and southeast of Aleppo. Opposition activists said they were working to break a siege in the suburbs of the Syrian capital, including Eastern Ghouta, where an estimated 160 Syrian troops and rebel forces were killed over the weekend. On Saturday, several government airstrikes killed at least 40 people in and near Aleppo.

Headlines

  • Libya's army has declared a "state of alert" after clashes with the Islamist militia Ansar al-Sharia killed an estimated nine people in Benghazi Monday.
  • Human rights groups are condemning a new "protest law" signed by Egyptian interim President Adly Mansour Sunday requiring Egyptians to seek permission for demonstrations.
  • Lebanese authorities have reportedly identified the two suicide bombers in the Nov. 19 attack on the Iranian Embassy in Beirut.
  • A Saudi Arabian court has sentenced 20 men for a 2004 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah that killed nine people.
  • Mauritania's election commission said ballot counting from Saturday's election has been delayed, but definitive results may be available in the middle of the week. 

Arguments and Analysis

'Iran: a historic deal worth defending' (The Guardian)

"The strongest argument against the nay-sayers -- the hawks in Congress, Israel, some Gulf states and also in Iran -- is to question what alternative they offer, apart from propelling the Middle East into another war. Like it or not, the chemical weapons deal with Bashar al-Assad was far more intrusive and effective in ridding Syria of these hideous weapons than a tokenistic cruise missile strike would have been, and yet the Saudi government was openly contemptuous of its US ally for not bombing. Similarly, the ubiquitous presence of inspectors will make sure that Iran abides by its commitments in a way that the assassination of nuclear scientists can not.

The use of force can delay but it cannot stop the inevitable. That can only be done with the consent of the Iranian leadership. If Congress goes on to pass another round of punitive sanctions, or Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli premier, makes good on his explicit military threats -- he said on Sunday that Israel would not allow Iran to develop a military nuclear capability, period -- the first casualty of militarism would be the current moderate leadership of Iran. Mr Zarif got the latitude he had in negotiating a deal with Mr Kerry only because the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, had President Hassan Rouhani's back. That can change. Other advisers can come to the fore, arguing (with some justice) that Colonel Gaddafi's Libya only became vulnerable to regime change once he had handed over his weapons of mass destruction.

The virtuous circle started at Geneva can easily unwind, and it is in no one's interests, particularly Iran's neighbours in the Gulf, that that should happen."

'Let's Not Celebrate This Iran Deal...Yet' (Aaron David Miller, Politico Magazine)

"In the end, whatever develops, we need to be honest with ourselves about what's achievable. We need to stop deluding ourselves that negotiations will produce a final agreement that will end Iran's aspirations for a nuclear weapons capacity. Iran has come too far in its nuclear program for the United States and Israel ever to have that kind of certainty or finality. The advocates of cutting a deal with Iran, including smart and cool heads in Israel, are right that the best you might be able to do is to put more time back on the Iranian nuclear program's clock so that the world will have enough warning to detect and deal with an effort to break out and weaponize.

That's not terribly comforting. But that's what happens when the mullahs play three-dimensional chess and we play checkers.

This accord is less worrisome than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes, but not as compelling and reassuring as U.S. officials maintain. Using it to our advantage depends on keeping sanctions tight, monitoring intrusive and a credible military option on the table. Then there's figuring out exactly what we do six months from now if no comprehensive deal materializes? That would help too."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

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