With or without the deal, Iran is going to be a nuclear power in a matter of years. What Obama has done is to take a pragmatic position, keeping in mind the realities.
From that fateful November morning in 1979, when hundreds of young Iranians forced their way into the US embassy in Tehran, taking hundreds of hostages and keeping them there for 444 days, Iran has been the mortal enemy of the United States. Perhaps, it was the humiliation inflicted by a former client state that forced the US to forget the dictum that there are no permanent foes in politics and loath Iran with bipartisan fervour, a rarity in American politics. So, when Barack Obama took the initiative to open a dialogue with Iran on the nuclear issue, it came as a shock to most. The talks that began in November 2013 have reached a critical stage now with the US-led delegation, which includes the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, have agreed upon a prospective deal at the quiet resort town of Lausanne in Switzerland.
Under the framework agreement, a final nuclear deal will have to be reached by June 30. By then, according to an American version of the framework, in the next 10 years Iran will have to reduce its number of centrifuges to around 6,000 from 19,000 of which only 5,060 will be allowed to enrich uranium. For 15 years, the enrichment can be done only up to 3.67 per cent, which falls short of the threshold of building the bomb. Moreover, in these 15 years, Iran can keep only 300 kilograms of low-enriched uranium, down from 10 tonnes, which is under its possession now.
The deal extends Iran's breakout period (the time it takes to acquire the material needed to make a nuclear weapon) to one year, which at present is believed to be a couple of months. The deal also places a number of restrictions on Fordo, one of the Iran's biggest reactors. The reactor in Fordo is buried deep down on a mountain side and can be targeted only by massive bunker buster bombs. It had remained a secret facility till the Americans found out about it in 2009. Under the deal, Fordow will stop enriching uranium for 15 years and will not keep any fissile material. To ensure that Iran keeps its word, the deal allows inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency access to all of Iran's declared nuclear facilities.
While the framework agreement is a good place to start, it is important to note that it is essentially an American interpretation of the key points of the negotiation. Iran has already said some of the points were just “spin.” And, the critics of the deal, in Iran, in the US and in the Middle East are far too many.
In fact, both sides are trying their best to prove to their domestic constituencies that the deal was far more favourable to them compared with the other. Iran, for instance, points to the fact that deal will lead to the end of the punitive sanctions regime, while the US says Iran will limit uranium enrichment and the number of centrifuges. While Iran advertises that it can continue research on the centrifuges, the US says the breakout period for Iran has been extended to a year. In a way, going by the claims of both countries, an independent observer may feel that they are speaking about two different deals.
Such a confusion, however, is natural. Because for both Iran and the US, especially for Obama, who is desperate to leave a lasting legacy, the deal is more about reordering Iran's position in the global order than counting the number of centrifuges or the percentage of uranium enrichment. That is why even great statesmen and scholars like Henry Kissinger and Brent Schultz could be wrong on the issue. "The gradual expiration of the framework agreement, beginning in a decade, will enable Iran to become a significant nuclear, industrial and military power after that time," wrote Kissinger and Schultz in a joint op ed for The Wallstreet Journal. However, with or without the deal, Iran is going to be a nuclear power in a matter of years. What Obama has done is to take a pragmatic position, keeping in mind the realities. And he has been careful to keep it a multilateral initiative by asking the P-5 countries and Germany to join it, although it is, for all practical purposes, a US-Iran attempt at rapprochement.
The US sees multiple benefits in such a course correction. The international sanctions regime against Iran is already fraying at the edges. Many countries, such as India, China, Japan and South Korea, which do not feel threatened by an Iranian nuclear weapon, are ready to do business with it, especially in the energy sector. The US may not be able to maintain the sanctions for long. The deal is also an acceptance from the part of the US that its efforts to keep Iran on the opposite side on the Middle Eastern high table have failed. On a range of issues today, from stability in Iraq and Syria to thwarting the evil designs of the Islamic State, the US requires Iran's support.
Finally, the US could also be in search of the missing pole in the Middle East. After the Islamic Revolution, the US has put all its eggs in the Saudi basket, despite the many differences it has with Riyadh on a number of issues. Compared with Saudi Arabia, most Iranians are supportive of the US, are well educated and have a much better appreciation of democratic values. The nuclear deal is perhaps an attempt to tap into such sentiments.
Yet, the deal's chances of success does not look too good. Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran's supreme head, said the sanctions will have to go the day the deal becomes operational. The US is considering only gradual easing of sanctions. An ever bigger threat for Obama is the opposition of the Congress. The senate is considering a bill which would force Obama to send the deal for its approval. If passed, it could virtually kill the bill. Israel, which against the deal, is also working to scuttle the deal through multiple fronts and efforts. Finally, even if Obama manages to formalise the deal by an executive order, its validity may last only till the end of his presidency.