In the third round of nuclear talks, since Iranian President Hassan Rohani took office back in August 2013, and after five days of intense negotiations in Geneva, the E3+3 (comprising the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the United States, China and Russia) and Iran finally reached an agreement on the nuclear issue.
The Joint Plan of Action, which was signed on 24 November 2013, is an interim first step agreement, which will substantially halt activities across the Iranian nuclear programme and introduce intrusive monitoring of its facilities for six months, while talks on a comprehensive accord take place. Iran has in fact agreed to suspend all enrichment of uranium above 5 percent, dilute or convert its entire stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium, not increase its stockpile of 3.5 percent lower-enriched uranium, not construct additional enrichment facilities, and finally not commission or fuel the Arak heavy water reactor, a point which raised tensions with the French negotiating team during the previous round of talks two weeks ago. To ensure its commitment to the above steps, Iran also agreed to submit its programme to unprecedented monitoring to be conducted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
In return for the concessions made by Iran on its nuclear programme, the country will gain modest sanctions relief, assessed by the US administration to be worth in total about $6-7 billion, together with the promise that the US, the UN and the EU will refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions over the six-month period. The relief package also includes the licensing of safety-related repairs for Iranian civilian aircrafts and the establishment of a financial channel to facilitate non-sanctioned and humanitarian trade. The easing measures, which are temporary and can be reversed at any time should Iran fail to comply with the terms of the agreement or should the two sides fail to reach a comprehensive accord, do not alter the bulk of international sanctions in place against Iran nor do they remove Iran’s oil and banking sanctions, which severely crippled the country’s economy. However, for the first time in two years of negotiations, Iran was offered unprecedented incentives in return for the limitations to its nuclear programme that the E3+3 were demanding.
Therefore, despite the deal’s narrow economic components and the unlikelihood of dramatically change to Iran’s economic situation in the next six months, the political implications of the agreement reached are on the other hand remarkable.
The Plan of Action constitutes the first accord between the negotiating parties since 2004, when the former E3 foreign ministers, together with former High Representative for the European Union’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana, signed the Paris agreement with Rohani, who at the time was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator.
The Plan of Action is therefore the first deal reached under the E3+3 umbrella, a framework implemented since 2006, when the nuclear dossier was deferred to the United Nations Security Council. The historic importance of the agreement reached during the weekend, consequently, lies not only on the achievement per se, which translates into a necessary de-escalation of the nuclear crisis, but also on what it represents: the first direct accord between Tehran and Washington since the nuclear issue emerged in 2002.
The Geneva agreement is the outcome of months of intense secret bilateral talks between Iran and the US held on the sides of the E3+3 nuclear negotiations, following the empowerment of the new Iranian administration and the “charm offensive” toward the West and the United States, which characterised the rhetoric of Rohani, to which Barack Obama responded, indicating his readiness to resolve the nuclear issue diplomatically. The deal therefore marks a potential turning point in relations between the US and Iran after more than three decades of hostility, consequently opening the way for Tehran’s cooperation with the international community also on the resolution of outstanding regional issues, such as the civil war in Syria.
Of course, as Kerry said in occasion of a meeting with British Foreign Minister, William Hague, in London, "Now the really hard part begins and that is the effort to get the comprehensive agreement, which will require enormous steps in terms of verification, transparency and accountability". Such task might prove even more difficult given that Israel, the US Congress and Iranian hardliners might attempt to derail the accord, taking advantage of every opportunity to spoil a peaceful resolution via a comprehensive agreement.
In an attempt to create tensions between the two sides, hardline representatives in Iran emphasised the differences emerged in the public statements released by Iranian and American diplomats with regard to the key part of the deal concerning whether or not Iran preserved the right to enrich uranium, a red-line Iran presented in negotiating its nuclear programme. However, those welcoming the outcome of the Geneva talks have so far outnumbered critics of Rohani’s diplomatic outreach toward the West and those against the nuclear accord reached with the E3+3. Iranian Foreign Minister and chief negotiator, Mohammad Javad Zarif, was in fact welcomed by a cheering crowd, whilst Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei expressed his blessing stating that “the nuclear negotiating team should be thanked and appreciated for this achievement”.
In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu marked the deal as a “historic mistake”, whilst continuing to call for a total dismantling of Iran’s nuclear enrichment capabilities. The pressure he will be able to exercise on countries in the region and on member of the US Congress, traditionally inclined toward increasing economic pressure via additional sanctions against Iran, will be key in outlining the success or failure of the interim agreement.
Therefore, although Zarif stated that “We are ready to begin the final stage of nuclear agreement from tomorrow”, what achieved in Geneva is just the beginning, albeit a historic one, of a long path in the resolution of the nuclear issue. The good news is that, as Obama said, “What we will know after six months is whether there can be a solution”.
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Photo 1: P5+1 Talks With Iran in Geneva, Switzerland. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his fellow P5+1 foreign ministers, as well as Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, center, listen as European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton speaks at United Nations Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, after the group concluded negotiations about Iran's nuclear capabilities on November 24, 2013. Source: State Department photo/ Public Domain
Photo 2: P5+1 Talks With Iran in Geneva, Switzerland. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif after the P5+1 and Iran concluded negotiations about Iran's nuclear capabilities on November 24, 2013. Source: State Department photo/ Public Domain