The deal reached in the early hours of the morning in Geneva on 24 November was better than I had expected, and better than would have been the case without France’s last-day intervention at the previous round two weeks earlier. I spent much of Sunday making the rounds of TV studios and fielding print-media interviews, explaining why opponents in Israel, the Gulf and the US Congress should overcome their scepticism. The more I studied the deal, the more apparent it became to me that those who knock it probably did not want any agreement at all – at least not any deal that was within the realm of possibility.
The Geneva agreement is a good deal because Iran’s capabilities in every part of the nuclear programme of concern are capped, with strong verification measures. The terms require that for the next six months, no more centrifuges can be added, none of the advanced models that were previously installed can be turned on, the stockpiles of enriched uranium cannot increase, and work cannot progress on the research reactor at Arak, which is of concern because of the weapons-grade plutonium that would be produced there. Going well beyond normal verification rules, inspectors will be able to visit the key facilities on a daily basis and even have access to centrifuge production and assembly sites.
Moreover, the most worrisome part of the programme is being rolled back. Iran is suspending 20% enrichment, which is on the cusp of being weapons-usable, and neutralising the existing stockpile of 20% product, half through conversion to oxide form and half through blending down. Although the P5+1 had earlier asked for the stockpile to be exported, these measures will virtually accomplish the same purpose by eliminating the stockpile. Reversing these measures would take time.
Time is the essential variable of this deal. The net effect of the limits Iran has accepted is to double the time it would take for it to make a dash to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. Without a deal, the break-out time might instead soon have been halved.
Opponents are correct, of course, that an end to enrichment and dismantlement of facilities would be far better. Those who call for more sanctions in the mistaken belief that adding more pressure will induce Iran to cry uncle and give up uranium enrichment do not understand Iran well at all. Political and social dynamics make such capitulation impossible. Short of being on the losing end of a war of annihilation, proud countries do not succumb to pressure by giving up the technology that has become a symbol of national sovereignty.
Effective though the sanctions have been in halving Iran’s oil sales, the nation is far from being brought to its knees. Iran has too diverse an economy and too many trading partners for sanctions to effect a stranglehold. In fact, the existing sanctions are already nearing their limit as China refuses to further cut back oil purchases and EU sanctions are increasingly losing court challenges. If the P5+1 had not agreed to a deal in Geneva despite all of Iran’s concessions, the international tide of opinion would have turned against sanctions.
A final deal, which is to be negotiated within the next six months, may produce dismantlement of some facilities, such as the enrichment plant at Fordow. It is regrettable that the Geneva deal did not require decommissioning of that deeply buried facility. Persuading Iran to take this step would have required more sanctions relief than the six powers were willing to offer this time.
As it was, most of the compromises undertaken at Geneva were made by the Iranian negotiators. In addition to freezing enrichment, Iran bent to the two conditions that France insisted upon earlier this month: agreeing to halt construction of the Arak reactor and to forgo its long-standing demand for recognition of a right to enrichment. On the latter issue, the two sides employed classic diplomatic fudge by each claiming a different interpretation. Most of the fudging is taking place in Tehran, because the agreement obviously does not include the word ‘right’. What Iran can cling to is the clear indication that enrichment will continue to some degree, now and later. Allowing some level of enrichment was inevitable, even if it is not specified as a right.
The sanctions relief that Iran will receive from these concessions is real, but relatively minor: about $7 billion. Meanwhile, Iran will continue to lose US$30bn in oil sales over the next six months because of the continuing bite of oil sanctions. The fear that the entire sanctions regime will now collapse because some minor elements of it have been relaxed is not grounded in reality. As explained by an American sanctions expert, companies that might otherwise want to resume trade in areas still covered by sanctions will remain dissuaded from doing so by the large fines that US authorities have imposed on violators.
The sanctions relief offered by the Geneva deal will have one knock-on effect, in that it will reduce the impact of indirect sanctions. To date, many companies have refrained from engaging in any trade at all with Iran, even in areas not covered by sanctions, just to be sure that they don’t run afoul of US law and in order to avoid any possible reputational risk. The Geneva deal actually encourages trade in food, medicine and other humanitarian forms of commerce.
In addition to media interviews on Sunday, I offered commentary about the deal on Twitter, with an impact that surprised me. My tweets were retweeted dozens of times and one went viral, with almost 200 retweets and counting.There was also a fair amount of hostile mail, naturally, but some netizens commented that although they shared Israel’s scepticism, they trusted my vote of confidence in the deal.
In my last tweet, I noted my discomfort in rebutting, on three BBC programmes, Israel’s exaggerated criticisms of the deal. I can understand Israel’s concerns and I usually back what Israel has to say about Iran. This time, however, Netanyahu’s government is wrong to condemn a deal that stops Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Seeking to undermine the deal would bring benefit to no party except those who prefer war.
Mark Fitzpatrick is Director of the IISS Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme