An agreement of Iran’s nuclear programme: convergence but not detente

Published in Iran

By Afro-Middle East Centre

With the 31 March deadline for the conclusion of a framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme with the P5+1 looming, stakeholders have increased contact visits and interested actors have become more wary. Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, have begun building a unified bloc to respond to the negotiations, while Israel has ratcheted up its rhetoric and used its congressional support in the USA to lobby against a deal. However, convergences – especially those resulting from US and Iranian attempts to defeat the Islamic State group (IS) and the tactical astuteness of the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani – have increased the probability of an agreement. To paraphrase the German minister of foreign affairs, Guido Westerwelle, more has been achieved in the past few months than in the previous ten years of negotiations.

If concluded, the deal will, however, result in only a limited change in the regional balance of power, and is more akin to an arms control treaty. Further, an agreement will not immediately lead to detente between Iran and the West. Iran’s support for Hizbullah and Hamas will remain an area of dispute between the two parties. Moreover, the phased nature of relief, coupled with the structural impediments to the Iranian economy will likely mean that the lifting of sanctions will not immediately drastically improve economic growth in the Islamic Republic. However, the political capital gained will provide space for the Rouhani administration to implement many policies, especially those concerning the increase of civil rights.


Stumbling blocks

<Technical and sequencing

Much of the agreement has been settled, but specific problems remain. The P5+1 has conceded Iran’s right to pursue the nuclear fuel cycle. The group is now attempting to increase Iran’s breakout capacity – the time it would take to produce a weapon – to twelve months from the current three. Further, the repurposing of the Fordo nuclear facility and the conversion of the Arak heavy water reactor, which produces plutonium, is almost settled.

Stumbling blocks to the agreement include the number of centrifuges Iran will be allowed to operate, and the sequencing of sanctions relief.

The sequencing and extent of sanctions relief are proving obdurate. Iran seeks the removal of all sanctions upon signing of the agreement; the Rouhani administration is hoping for a spurt in economic growth to render the agreement positive and acceptable to Iranians. The P5+1, and the USA in particular, is in favour of a phased reduction of sanctions and has even proposed a mere suspension of sanctions.

Furthermore, the duration of the agreement is contested. Iran wants it to remain in place for only five to seven years, after which the Islamic Republic would be allowed to expand its nuclear programme unhindered. The USA is calling for a ten-year minimum freeze. A compromise is likely, with the parties agreeing to a phased expansion, allowing Iran to increase its centrifuge capacity during the latter years of the agreement.

Lastly, disagreements over International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access and Iran’s missile programme have hindered negotiations. Iran had allowed IAEA inspectors intrusive access to industries related to its nuclear programme. The agency, however, unsuccessfully sought access to Iran’s Parchin military base. IAEA officials believe that the facility was used in 2002 to test devices that would enable a nuclear weapon to be fitted to a missile warhead. While these are only suspicions, and although Iran had possessed less than 100 operational centrifuges at the time (not enough to even contemplate a nuclear weapon), the agency is unlikely to budge on this demand. Notably, for sanctions to be eased the agency needs to confirm that the country had not sought to develop a nuclear weapon. The US administration also wants a cap on Iran’s extensive missile programme. Although Iran capped its range to 2 000 kilometres, arguing that the programme is defensive in nature, the USA has been wary about its increased efficiency and the fact that most Middle Eastern capitals fall within this range.

Domestic opposition

Opposition to a deal exists in both Iran and the USA. Within Iran, those opposing the deal have been vocal in denouncing its constraints. Many, especially from within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), fear losing the benefits they had accrued during the Ahmadinejad era, chiefly in the energy and construction sectors. Furthermore, there are many Iranians that believe that Iran has relinquished a disproportionate amount of its power and that the deal is a bad one. Some of these factions are close to the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, who has grown increasingly wary of negotiating a deal. However, he has expressed tacit support for Rouhani, mainly to retain the regime’s legitimacy. Khamenei is tactically astute, and has realised that most Rouhani voters in the 2013 election are hopeful of sanctions relief. He therefore decided to allow Rouhani the space for negotiation.

The US president, Barack Obama, faces similar constraints. With the US congress and the senate in Republican hands, further sanctions legislation is being formulated. The house is attempting to constrain and reduce the powers of the executive. Obama will likely veto any new sanctions passed; he will then require a thirty-four per cent margin to ensure that the veto is not overturned. Obama is likely to secure this, despite the dominance of the Republicans and the strong influence of the Israeli lobby.

Regional alignment

The agreement also faces opposition in the Middle East region. Israel and most Gulf states oppose the deal. They view it as exhibiting Iranian strength and fear that Iran will gain recognition by the West in a context where its strength in the region has been increasing. Iran’s ties with the Iraqi regime have strengthened – with US complicity, and the Asad regime in Syria is consolidating control. In Lebanon, Hizbullah has increased its tactical readiness as a result of its operations in Syria, and in Yemen the Iranian-aligned Houthi regime took over the capital, Sana'a.

Israel and the Gulf states fear a nuclear agreement will allow Iran further space to increase its influence. Many argue that the agreement will only stall Iran’s nuclear programme, especially since the negotiations occur in a setting where the USA is pivoting eastward. They have become especially wary after the Obama administration refused to directly intervene in Syria over the Asad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons. Moreover, they see US-Iran coordination in the fight against IS as normalisation of relations. Thus, Israel and these Gulf states have acted to scuttle the deal. The Israelis have been the most inflammatory, with Netanyahu excoriating the Obama administration. The Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, nearly thwarted the interim agreement by using the leverage they gained through arms deals with the French to get the latter to harden their position. More recently, the Gulf states sought to create a unified bloc under Saudi leadership. Saudi Arabia also renewed its strong relationship with Pakistan, and it is believed that the improved relations have a nuclear component in the event that Iran develops nuclear weapons.

Pull factors


Various pull factors affecting the negotiations have converged. Chief amongst these is the rise of IS. The group’s rapid success threatens both the USA and Iran, especially concerning the survival of the Syrian and Iraqi regimes. Thus, both states have assisted the Iraqi government; the USA has undertaken airstrikes, while Iran is providing Iraq with equipment and has deployed troops against IS. US-Iranian relations on the ground, though still strained, have thus become interest-based rather than ideologically driven. John Kerry, the US secretary of state, acknowledged Iranian assistance to the Iraqi regime and argued that the two states share a ‘mutual’ interest in weakening IS.


The conflict over Ukraine has strained US-Russian relations and facilitated a slippage in sanctions against Iran from Russia; the Islamic Republic and Russia have signed various military partnerships including a reported agreement for the sale of a modified S300 anti-missile defence system, which had previously been halted owing to Israeli and sanctions-related pressure. The position of China has also been altered in line with the Russian position. Thus, western powers believe that were negotiations unsuccessful and the Iranian regime seen as the victim, sanctions would be further contravened. Moreover, many states are of the view that sanctions against Iran have been ineffective since the mid-2000s, when a deal could have been signed that would have seen Iran manufacture and operate a much smaller number of centrifuges, and agree to drastically constrain its embryonic nuclear energy programme. US opposition and the application of sanctions have resulted in Iran’s nuclear programme expanding to where it is currently: the country now possesses over 20 000 centrifuges, and has developed the capability for twenty per cent enrichment of uranium.


Domestically, the Rouhani government’s legitimacy and popularity will depend on economic growth. The sanctions – which resulted in the contraction of the Iranian economy by over five per cent in 2013, cost the country over half of its foreign currency, increased inflation to over sixty per cent in 2012, and increased unemployment to around twenty per cent – meant that much of the population sought change. These factors were pre-eminent in leading to the Rouhani’s victory in the 2013 presidential election, when he campaigned on a platform of constructive engagement and the removal of sanctions as means to increase the country’s economic growth. The administration has thus accepted disproportional demands to realise this; it resolved to freeze work on the Arak reactor and agreed to a one-year rollover of sanctions despite only being provided around seven hundred million dollars per month of its frozen reserves which totals over one hundred billion dollars.

Looking forward

An agreement over Iran’s nuclear programme will be signed soon – if not by the end of June, then soon after. The presence of US energy secretary Ernest Moniz and Iranian atomic energy agency head Ali Akbar Salehi in the latest round of negotiations have made many believe that the only remaining parts to the agreement are technical specificities. However, when signed, the agreement is not likely to herald an immediate rapprochement between the USA and Iran. The USA remains wary of Iran’s support for Hamas and Hizbullah. Moreover, US allies such as the Gulf countries and Israel will not easily accept an agreement. The Iranian regime, especially Khamenei, will remain sceptical of US intentions. The agreement is a result of the convergence of numerous factors, and much time will need to pass before the parties trust each other enough to begin the process of detente.

Domestically, there will be little change within Iran. Sanctions relief will allow the economy to strengthen, but this will be constrained by the phased lifting of sanctions. Moreover, many sanctions, especially those applied unilaterally by the USA and European Union, will remain in place since most deal with the nuclear programme in combination with the regime’s sponsoring of Hamas and Hizbullah. The 100 billion dollars in frozen reserves will provide an immediate benefit to Iran’s economy. The agreement will grant the regime, especially Rouhani, much political capital. This may be able to fill the gap that will be formed by the regime’s inability to satisfy the population’s economic expectations.

Last modified on Friday, 28 August 2015 15:43

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