The gap between Tehran’s stance on nuclear proliferation and the P5+1 position is too deep to bridge
Previous agreements point to a possible failure of the Iran deal
Iran’s domestic politics will be the crucial factor in determining the future of the interim nuclear agreement between the Islamic Republic of Iran and P5+1. Since the details of the deal were released on Fars news last month, reaction from Iranian hardliners has added another layer of complexity to the prospects of turning this six-month nuclear deal into a more comprehensive, final deal.
Iran’s hardliners have already launched a political campaign to reverse the agreement. Kayhan newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Hossein Shariatmadari (a hardliner appointed by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei), wrote about the impracticality and possible failure of the six-month deal. He wrote: “This [nuclear] agreement is temporary and for six months. It is not unusual that Iran has previously made such an agreement at least three times,” adding, “[this agreement] is a gradual process which depends on next steps and next negotiations.”
Although Mr Khamenei has presented the efforts of his nuclear team as a success by stating that “achieving what you have written is worth appreciation and praise to the nuclear negotiating team and other relevant officials and can be the basis for future smart moves”, it would not be totally unprecedented for the leader to reverse his position.
In his book National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy, published in 2011, Hassan Rouhani includes a letter from Mr Khamenei approving the efforts of Iran’s nuclear team in 2003 (when Mr Rouhani served as chief nuclear adviser) that reached a deal with the P5+1. But, at the same time, hardliners launched their criticism against that deal, arguing that Iran should continue enriching at the former level of 20 per cent and install new nuclear sites. Eventually, Mr Khamenei changed his position and criticised the deal.
The shift in Mr Khamenei’s tone is already evident in his latest remarks. Mr Khamenei said: “God willing, resistance against greediness [of the other sides] should always remain as an indicator showing that the officials in this sector are moving on a correct path.”
Observers of Iran’s nuclear programme for the last decade would be cognisant of the fact that although initial agreements were often reached, these interim deals later fell through as parties failed to agree on the fundamental details.
The eagerness and pressure from both sides, along with the generality and ambiguity in interpreting the interim texts, were some of the main reasons that led to the signing of these deals, including the latest one. For example, this interim deal does not call for the dismantling of any of Iran’s nuclear sites or for the rollback of the number of centrifuges (currently around 19,000).
Should the Fordow nuclear site be dismantled? How about the heavy water reactor, which can produce plutonium in Arak? What of the nearly 440 pounds of highly enriched uranium? Iran also interpreted some of the texts as recognition from the West for Tehran’s right to enrich uranium, while the United States rejects that interpretation.
When the more fundamental issues will be discussed in the next phase of negotiations, unresolvable challenges will emerge. Iran’s stance has been very clear. The first message that Mr Rouhani, Mr Khamenei and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif gave was that Iran scored a victory by making the West recognise its nuclear rights to keep its nuclear infrastructure and continue enriching. Mr Rouhani specifically pointed out: “Recognition of Iran’s nuclear rights and safeguarding Iran’s nuclear achievements” combined with the removal of the cruel economic sanctions are Iran’s main victories in this deal.
Across Iran’s political spectrum (hardliners, reformists and moderates), there is a high level of consensus that Tehran will not give up its rights to enrich uranium. Also, Iran will not dismantle its nuclear sites.
As a result, the concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear defiance or Iran as a nuclear threat will remain for as long as the ruling clerics maintain their staunch position to continue enriching. The gap between Tehran’s stance on nuclear proliferation, and the P5+1 position is too wide to bridge.
Dr Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American scholar and political analyst, is president of the International American Council on the Middle East