The Joint Cooperative Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed with Iran by the UN Security Council’s five Permanent members, plus Germany and the EU, (Vienna, July 14th), is unprecedented. No comparable arms control plan has been as detailed or thorough. Above all, it is vastly preferable to any of the proposed alternative approaches, the main one of which has been war.
If the negotiation of this agreement had failed, there would have been further proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, in addition to whatever Iranian capability may have emerged. Israel already has them and Saudi Arabia has been contemplating them. Then, war with Iran, the preferred option in US Republican circles and Israel, would have almost certainly ensued with devastating and global effects, and, war would not have prevented Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability thereafter, for which it would have been given a massive incentive.
The Plan and its technical annexes comprise some 150 pages. At root, it establishes four pillars:
- Cutting off Iran’s access to the weapons grade fissile material needed for a nuclear explosive device. 98% of the relevant material it now holds will be removed, 65% of the centrifuges it has employed to enrich uranium will be removed and the core of its reactor at Arak will be modified to remove its ability to make plutonium.
- The UN’s nuclear Agency (IAEA) will be given an unprecedented level and extent of access to all relevant materials and technologies within Iran to verify its compliance with the Plan. This access by the Agency exceeds the level given to the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) to disarm Iraq.
- Sanctions on Iran will be phased out.
- A review and dispute settlement process has been established comprised of the parties to the Plan and the role of the UN Security Council in seeking to enforce compliance with its decisions. The Council already exercises a similar role with respect to reports to it on compliance with the Treaty on the Non Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). It was such reports that triggered the existing sanctions on Iran.
JCPOA states that Iran “ reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons”.
On the face of it and in its text, JCPOA is very much an agreement on material and technical matters, but it is overwhelmingly a political agreement. It is for this reason that if it is to be correctly understood and its chances for success are to be usefully assessed, a little of the relevant history needs to be recalled.
The discussion/negotiation on the subject of Iran’s possible attempts to develop nuclear weapons has been going on for 12 years. This originated in the IAEA reporting that it was having difficulty in verifying Iran’s compliance with its obligations as a non nuclear weapon state party to the NPT. The main such obligation is the one Iran has reaffirmed in JCPOA, quoted above: Never to acquire nuclear weapons.
Iran’s conduct had been disturbing and uncooperative and when this was reported to the UN Security Council, sanctions were imposed upon it. The US and the EU also imposed severe sanctions. These significantly harmed the Iranian economy.
On the other hand no unambiguous report that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons had been produced. Indeed, the CIA, in its last two major reports to the US government has stated that it has no evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program.
The motivations to find a negotiated solution to the Iranian problem have been various, but two concerns have been dominant: the wish of the Iranians to bring the sanctions to an end and, the wish of the Obama administration to avoid yet another war in the Middle East and to prevent Israel, from dragging it into a war with Iran.
Back a little further, in 1953, the UK and US external intelligence Agencies staged a coup in Iran removing its democratically elected government. They did this to protect the interests of their oil companies in Iran. They then propped up the Shah of Iran as their preferred Iranian leader until the Iranian Revolution overthrew him in 1979, The revolution instituted an Islamic government and installed Ayatollah Khomenei as supreme leader. Later that year the US Embassy hostage crisis began, lasting 444 days.
The Islamic Republic of Iran retains the system of government established by the Revolution, and continues to insist that the US is hostile to it and has a policy of seeking regime change in Tehran. It has also repeatedly expressed extreme, sometimes terminal hostility, towards Israel.
The Obama Administration has attempted to reset US relations with Iran, but its attempts to do so have been strongly opposed by Republican, Congressional, pro-Israel, and media circles, mainly Murdoch outlets in the US. Their stated preference is clearly for war with Iran. It has been farcical and deceitful that, in such circles, the past role of the US within Iran is never mentioned.
The negotiation of JCPOA also had at least surreal, if not farcical aspects. On one side of the table there were five nations, all nuclear armed. Two of them, the US and Russia possess tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, representing 90% of such weapons in existence globally, and as the negotiations proceeded they each announced plans to enhance their nuclear arsenals.
The position of each of the five, with varying degrees of emphasis, was that it was of supreme importance that Iran not become anything remotely like them. While they insist that their national security demands retention of these weapons, it is inadmissible for Iran to think the same.
Strictly excluded, not simply physically, but also as a subject for deliberation, was the only regional country possessing nuclear weapons – Israel. The staunchest defender of this abuse of the logic of proliferation is the US, which rejects any suggestion that Israel’s nuclear weapons status might encourage others in the region, including Iran, to obtain such weapons.
For reasons such as these, the agreement of Vienna represented a triumph of pragmatism.
The two main motivations, mentioned above, were satisfied, concessions were made all round, none proved to be deal breakers, and a basically sound set of behavioural conditions was established, designed to verify that Iran is not making nuclear weapons.
But, within hours of the agreement being announced, but not yet published, the Prime Minister of Israel denounced it as a mistake of historic proportions, the Republican leadership in the US Congress pledged to reject it, President Obama stated that he would veto any legislation that sought to reject the agreement, and a few days later, in a statement made at the end of Ramadan, the Supreme Leader of Iran said Iran would honor the agreement but did not intend to change any of its other policies, particularly given US arrogance. There was dancing in the streets of Tehran at the prospect of the lifting of sanctions.
It will be a rough ride in the US Congress, Iran will continue to support Shia causes in the region, including the Assad regime in Syria, and the P5+1 and the IAEA will try to make the agreement work in order to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, all the while continuing to refuse to address the elemental hypocrisy of their own possession of nuclear weapons.
The central lesson of UNSCOM’s experience in Iraq was that the arms control system will work reliably if the subject country will let it work.
So, the outcome for the Vienna Plan will largely be in Iran’s hands.
It will work, if Iran wants to make it so and provided that some others are prepared to let that unfold, given the difficulty that they will clearly have at taking yes for an answer.
Richard Butler AC, Former Head of the UN Special Commission to disarm Iraq, (UNSCOM) appointed by Prime Minister Keating, Convenor of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.