Originally Published 2015-04-04 00:00:00 Published on Apr 04, 2015
Iran and the major powers have reached a very preliminary and extremely vague agreement on principles for an agreement, released in the form of a brief joint statement of less than 500 words. Whether this 'agreement about an agreement' would lead to an actual deal is anybody's guess, but it's not going to be easy.
Iran nuclear agreement: Unclear and extremely vague

Iran and the major powers (EU3+3) have reached a very preliminary and extremely vague agreement on principles for an agreement, released in the form of an exceedingly brief joint statement of less than 500 words. Whether this ’agreement about an agreement’ would lead to an actual deal is anybody’s guess, but it’s not going to be easy. Both sides have agreed it will be done by June 30, but no one should be surprised if this self-imposed is missed.

One reason for the difficulty in reaching an actual deal is that in their desire to conclude this political framework, a lot has been left fuzzy which will need to be clarified in the actual deal. The advantage of leaving things unclear is that both sides can claim victory (and they are), but the problem is that they are already disagreeing in their interpretation of what has been agreed. Within hours of the joint statement being released, the Iranians criticised the Obama administration for ’spinning’ the deal in a factsheet the White House released. For their part, the Iranians also released their own ’factsheet’, with their interpretation of the agreement.

The joint statement released by Iran and the EU3+3 provides few details. The White House factsheet is three times longer and provides specifics, but it’s a US interpretation of what was agreed, parts of which Teheran has already dismissed. For example, the White House factsheet specifies durations for the deal: number of centrifuges will be limited for 10 years, uranium enrichment will be limited for 15, no new enrichment facilities for 15 years and so on. But the official joint statement mentions no time limits for the agreement, using phrases such as ’specified duration’ and ’mutually agreed period of time’.

The lack of some details is particularly troubling. A key issue is how Iranian behaviour is to be monitored, which is the task of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The joint statement is equivocal on this, talking about the ’provisional application’ of the IAEA ’Additional Protocol’ (AP). The AP does permit quite intrusive inspections, including challenge inspections if there is intelligence of covert nuclear activities, but it is unclear what ’provisional application’ means or whether Iran has actually agreed to challenge inspections. For example, a key dispute between the IAEA and Iran has been Teheran’s refusal to allow inspections at Parchin, a military base near Teheran, where the IAEA suspects Iran conducted tests related to nuclear weapons. Whether Iran will permit such inspections now is unclear.

As important as the limits on Iran’s nuclear programme are, it is probably even more important that IAEA have unbridled rights to inspect Iran’s compliance, especially considering that Iran has yet to fully answer questions about its past nuclear activities, called ’Possible Military Dimensions’ (PMD) in the IAEA parlance. Both the joint statement and the White House factsheet is vague on this issue too, suggesting that Iran has not agreed to intrusive challenge inspections. Any agreement would be meaningless without this.

For Teheran, the key issue is the lifting of sanctions and there are significant differences between the two sides on this too. Iranian leaders have insisted that their understanding is that sanctions will be lifted from day one, while US Secretary of State John Kerry has written in an article in the Boston Globe that sanctions relief will be given "only if Iran lives up to its obligations, as verified by the IAEA and by our own eyes and ears."

In short, the available details say very little about any actual deal, which means that much of the deal either still remains to be negotiated or is in too preliminary (or too explosive) a state for public consumption. What this suggests is that the Iranians are correct about Obama and Kerry trying to spin what has been agreed to, which does not bode well for a comprehensive final deal.

Beyond the implications of the deal for settling the Iran nuclear case file, it is unlikely that it will mean much for the increasingly brutal politics in the region or even for the global nuclear order. Saudi Arabia has reacted cautiously while Israel has rejected the deal, noting that most restrictions will end in 10-15 years, leaving Iran with a capacity for a fairly large nuclear sector. Both Israel and the Sunni powers in the region face an increasingly aggressive Iran which they fear will now become bolder, and with sanctions removed and a nascent nuclear capability, more capable of mischief.

For the non-proliferation order, what the negotiations have revealed yet again is that great powers are today far too divided to maintain any global order. Combined with American reluctance to support even its closest allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia, the attraction of nuclear weapons will increase for those now dependent on American protection. A good deal can settle some of these anxieties, but this preliminary agreement does not suggest much hope.

For the full text of the Joint Statement, please click here http://www.eeas.europa.eu/statements-eeas/2015/150402_03_en.htm.

(Dr. Rajesh Rajagopalan is a professor at the Centre for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament, Jawaharlal Nehru University)

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