A promising first start on Iran


Iran’s interim agreement with six world powers on limiting its nuclear programme in return for easing economic sanctions is a welcome affirmation of diplomacy over war and a promise of longer term change in the Middle East. It took real perseverance and genuine political courage on both sides to reach this agreement. Many sceptics and spoiling interests will have to be further confronted if this first step is to be translated into a durable agreement and wider regional change. But these diplomatic methods and that objective are now more firmly on the international agenda.

The agreement was well prepared, hard fought and is intended to create confidence among those who signed it. News that it was preceded by secret back channel talks between Iran and the United States helps explain the confidence the Obama administration has brought to an engagement considered taboo in its domestic politics. The other powers involved have not been so affected bilaterally, even though they share a concern with Iran’s potential to develop nuclear weapons. Each of them has seen the potential offered by the election of the reformist Iranian president Hassan Rouhani last June and the evident mandate he has for an agreement to end stifling economic sanctions.

There have been substantial concessions by both sides to reach this stage. Iran has agreed to stop enriching uranium over five per cent and dilute its stock of 20 per cent-enriched fuel; not to increase its stock of low-enriched uranium; not to install any more centrifuges, thereby incapacitating much of its existing stock; to freeze work on its heavy-water reactor in Arak; and to accept much more intrusive nuclear inspection. These steps go a long way towards building confidence that “would ensure Iran’s nuclear programme will be exclusively peaceful”, as the opening sentence of the agreement states. Its right to enrich uranium is not stated positively in the agreement, but neither is it denied – a diplomatic ambiguity recognising the reality that such knowledge once achieved cannot be eliminated.

In return, there will be a significant relaxation of sanctions, including on Iran’s crude oil sales, petrochemical exports, precious metals, car and plane parts, food and agriculture, medical supplies and finance industries. Such sanctions have badly deflated its economy and hit its people hard. The promise of lifting them further will encourage its leaders to persevere with reaching a final deal in six months time.

By then opposition to this agreement by Israel and Saudi Arabia will have been tested. So will the region’s attitudes towards a negotiated settlement in Syria. An Iran that feels more secure from attack would have a greater interest in regional stability, opening up the possibility of a larger peace dividend from this promising start.