Thursday, 28 November 2013

Tactical Retreat, Strategic Victory

There have been a number of articles discussing the recent nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1*, with conclusions ranging from one extreme to the other – that Iran capitulated through to Iran got the deal of the century. My belief is that the deal was good for both sides, and I will lay out why I think this below.

Firstly, a couple of assumptions must be made – that Iran doesn’t want to produce nuclear weapons but desires a civilian nuclear program (this is supported by repeated government statements as well as Ayatollah Khamenei’s fatwa again nuclear weapons); and that all parties participating in the negotiations are genuine and will uphold the deal.

Limitations imposed upon Iran
  • Iran cannot expand its nuclear enrichment activities. This means not constructing any more facilities and not introducing any more centrifuges beyond what they are already operating. It also means not starting up the heavy water reactor at Arak (which uses plutonium).
  • Iran will reduce its stockpile of >5% enriched uranium. This stockpile was enriched to 20% for medical use when Iran was unable to source the necessary uranium isotopes from the world market.
  • Iran must provide updated information on all nuclear facilities and mines.
  • Iranian nuclear facilities will be subject to daily inspections.

The first two points should not be a problem for energy and research and as long as Iran can buy the medical isotopes from world markets. The final two points should not be a problem if Iran has nothing to hide.

So in a nutshell, Iran has given up their stockpile of >5% enriched uranium, further nuclear expansion, and some sovereignty in having rigorous nuclear inspections. Again, none of this should be a problem if Iran is not planning on producing nuclear weapons.

What does Iran gain from the deal?
  • There will be no new nuclear-related sanctions from the United Nations, the United States, or the European Union.
  • Iran will be able to sell oil at its current rates, with sanctions being lifted on transportation and insurance services.
  • A small percentage of frozen Iranian assets will be made available (apparently $8b worth).
  • Sanctions on several industries will be suspended, including petrochemical, gold, auto, and civil aviation.
  • A financial channel will be opened for Iran to purchase humanitarian goods such as food and agricultural products and medicine, as well as enabling Iran to fund overseas students.

Although much of the media regarding the deal has focused on the trade in oil and gold, and the relatively small amount of unfrozen assets, the suspension of sanctions on the civil aviation and humanitarian goods should not be underestimated. These two industries have been at the forefront of Iranian complaints against sanctions, as they largely affect innocent people through a lack of medical equipment and medications and modern aviation safety standards.

A comprehensive solution

The deal also outlines what a comprehensive solution would look like after this deal has succeeded and further negotiations have taken place.
  • Lifting of all nuclear-related sanctions.
  • No reprocessing at the Arak heavy water facility.
  • Gain international civil nuclear cooperation on acquiring new reactors, equipment, technology and fuel.
  • Finally, “the Iranian nuclear programme will be treated in the same manner as that of any non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT.”


Although it may seem that the Iranian government has capitulated, it really has not given up anything that was of primary concern to Iran’s civilian nuclear programme. In fact, it is possible that Iran only proceeded to enrich beyond 5%, and even tripled production of 20% enriched uranium in 2011, to be able to sacrifice it at a later date to appear to be providing a concession.

It may also seem as though Iran has surrendered its sovereignty by agreeing to further inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). However, Iran is already under some of the most rigorous nuclear-related inspections of any country, so this is a largely symbolic measure. At any rate, inspections should not matter for a peaceful programme. 

It has also been asked why a similar deal could not be reached years ago, in 2003 and again in 2006, before further sanctions had been enacted and the Iranian economy burdened. At these two moments in time the Iranian nuclear programme was not as advanced, and any such deal involving the ‘freezing’ of Iran’s nuclear programme would have been premature from Iran’s point of view, halting work before the country was truly nuclear-ready.

Finally, it is important to remember that this deal is only a first step toward a comprehensive deal, where Iran’s programme will be treated like any other. This has long been Iran’s goal, to have their right to enrichment recognised.


Strategically, this deal has not altered Iran’s capabilities or long-term goals. From Iran’s perspective, the deal seems to be leading to what they have asked for all along – a native, civilian nuclear programme. It temporarily lifts sanctions on some important industries, and will lead to a final deal which will see the removal of all nuclear-related sanctions. The deal may be the ‘heroic flexibility’ that Ayatollah Khamenei referred to in September 2013 - a tactical retreat to gain a strategic victory.

The deal makes breakout capability more difficult, as Iran would have to build up >5% enriched stockpiles again or use the Arak heavy water reactor; either of these options will be detectable because of the IAEA inspections. Therefore the deal is a step toward safeguarding against potential nuclear proliferation, which is what the P5+1 desired.

As Iran receives some benefits for very little concessions, can continue with a civilian nuclear programme, and has been prevented from a secret breakout to nuclear weapons, the deal seems to be advantageous to all parties.

However, it is likely the significance of this deal is not in the details, but in the fact that all parties negotiated and a deal was actually agreed upon.

* The P5+1 consists of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, as well as Germany. It is also referred to as the EU3+3.

1 comment:

  1. Mahmoud Reza Golshanpazhooh has written an article 12 Positive Outcomes of Geneva Nuclear Deal for Iran over at Iran Review. Golshanpazhooh makes several of the same points I make in this post, but expands upon each one.