The Iran N-challenge

Of course the nuclear talks between the P5+1 and Iran missed the March 31 deadline for a framework agreement, but not the target: general accord on “all key aspects” has been reached. An agreed draft on preliminary agreement is expected to be signed in a day or two, clearing the way for final deal by the end-June deadline. “We have made enough progress in the last days to merit staying until Wednesday. There are several difficult issues still remaining,” said the White House. But what seems to have prevailed at the talks is the political will on both sides to reach the deal. Both sides are keen on ending this 12-year-old standoff, though resistance persists against clearing this critical handicap to restoring productive bilateralism between the United States and Iran. The framework as agreed is expected to have reached unanimity on three so-called sticking points: removal of UN sanctions, Iran’s right to unfettered nuclear research and introduction of advanced nuclear centrifuges. Quintessentially, Iran wants instant lifting of economic sanctions, and once lifted these should not be subject to ‘automatic’ revival in case Tehran runs afoul of the deal. Iran is also sticking to its stand that its nuclear programme is in line with its basic right to exploit nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, recognised by the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Therefore, it should remain uncompromised by the agreement envisaged by the world powers. On the other hand, the P5+1’s main objective behind the deal is to keep Iran one year away from producing a nuclear weapon at least for 10 years. If and as talks go into the second phase, which seems quite likely, the issues before the interlocutors would be the fate of the existing Iranian nuclear stockpile, number of centrifuges that would continue operating and monitoring of Iran’s nuclear programme.

But that said the fact cannot be ignored that the deal between the world powers and Iran is under an incisive watch by many others, both in Iran’s neighbourhood and beyond. How this deal would ultimately affect them, there are a number of observations, public comments and official positions. There is growing international consensus that ‘no deal is better than bad deal’. The Middle East countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, (initially the nuclear talks with Iran had the Saudi support), would like to have a similar deal should it find that the one being clich├ęd with Tehran tends to grant its regional rival the status of ‘threshold-nuclear state’. Given that quite a number of Arab states have the desired know-how of nuclear technology they would take the deal as vicarious international recognition of right to exploit nuclear technology. Another country in the region, Israel that itself is a nuclear-weapon state and spied on P5+1 talks with Iran at Lausanne, Switzerland, is doubtful if Iran would give up its search for a nuclear option. And in that it finds itself in the company of Saudi Arabia; officials in Tel Aviv are reported to have said “necessity creates alliances”. No less challenging is the mindset in some quarters, both political and public, that the deal as being finalized lacks enough leverage with world powers to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear weapon state. The pro-deal public opinion holds the field, as indicated by an opinion poll which found 59-31 support in favour of lifting economic sanctions in exchange for Iran’s agreeing to restrict its nuclear programme that would make it harder to produce nuclear weapons. But the problem may be in the US Congress which may not veto lifting of sanctions but not pass it either, by subjecting the bill to an extensive filibustering. But all that’s said above is in the context of state-to-state relationship, bereft of growing sentiment against the use of nuclear technology irrespective of its application as a meaningful source of energy or a weapon of war. The people in the world are rightly fearful of the possibility of its genie coming out of a seemingly tightly corked bottle.