Several years ago in Vienna, a senior Iranian diplomat made clear to me the mixture of pride and fear that drives Iran’s nuclear programme. Angry at the ‘insults’ of Western powers, he said that the programme’s success proved Iran was an ‘intelligent’ nation that would never ‘bow’ to pressure. ‘But that’s not to say a deal can’t be done,’ he added. ‘Though it won’t be easy.’
He wasn’t wrong. A deal has, after more than ten years of negotiations, been agreed between Iran and the P5+1 (the five Security Council powers and Germany) in Geneva. It certainly wasn’t easy, but it has been coming at least since Hassan Rouhani became president in June.
Rouhani’s election gave Iranians hope that an end to international isolation was possible. He vowed to negotiate with the West and he kept his promise. The sense of expectation in Iran before the recent talks was palpable. Iranian journalists went to Geneva en masse to cover the proceedings; Friday prayer leaders in mosques around the country expressed support for the negotiators; Iranian TV ran live rolling feeds from the talks. They were not to be disappointed. In the early hours of Sunday, 24 November, Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif tweeted – the new Iranian administration has embraced social media – that a deal had been reached.
It is very much an interim agreement, outlining a six-month ‘confidence building’ period. Iran has promised to cap uranium enrichment at a low rate (making it more difficult for Iran to build a bomb) and not to install any more enrichment centrifuges. It will suspend work on its heavy water plant at Arak, from which it could conceivably make a bomb through the alternative path of plutonium production. International inspectors will visit the plant next month. In return the P5+1 has allowed Iran access to several billion dollars’ worth of frozen funds and lifted some other peripheral sanctions. If, after six months, each side has fulfilled its obligations, negotiations for a permanent deal will begin.
As ever in diplomacy, the wording was left as vague as possible – allowing the Iranians to claim that a right to enrich uranium was included in the text of the agreement, and John Kerry to claim that it was not. As well he might: all the UN sanctions placed on Iran since 2006 were punishment for its continuing enrichment.
Rouhani has brought a change of tone to Iranian foreign policy, though he came to a deal not only out of a desire to improve Iran’s international relations, but because he had to. Sanctions have severely damaged the Iranian economy. The rial has lost nearly 40 per cent of its value since 2012; people buy US dollars from black market moneychangers in the street to secure their savings. Basic goods and food have doubled in price over the last year. The mullahs fear social unrest. They were badly shaken by the protests following Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s fraudulent re-election to the presidency in 2009, and don’t want a repeat from a population that’s increasingly angry with systemic governmental failure. Fear has trumped pride.
Iranians are delighted. ‘Rouhani is doing what we elected him to do,’ said a Tehrani student I spoke with earlier this week, ‘but no one expected him to do so much so quickly. After eight years of Ahmadinejad, we cannot believe it.’
Not everyone is happy. The deal has brought Saudi Arabia and Israel closer together, as both of them have condemned it. Jerusalem and Riyadh fear Iran and its nuclear ambitions, and believe it is folly to offer sanctions relief just when it is weak and willing to compromise. Binyamin Netanyahu has been especially vociferous in his disgust, describing the deal as disastrous.
He will be even more worried by the recent revelations that much of the preparatory work was done in secret meetings between US and Iranian officials that began earlier in the year. Iran and the US have now spoken more in the last nine months than they did over the previous three decades.
More is at stake than a deal on the nuclear programme. ‘I hope the outcome of this process, in addition to the resolution of the nuclear issue, will be to take concrete steps in the restoration of confidence, particularly the confidence of the Iranian people towards the west,’ Zarif said. Echoing his sentiments, Rouhani later tweeted that ‘Constructive engagement [and] tireless efforts by negotiating teams are [designed] to open new horizons.’