Third time lucky in Geneva

The E3+3 and Iran met for a third time in Geneva to sign an interim agreement on the future of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. While not perfect, the deal is a springboard for future negotiations and sets a solid foundation for talks between the E3+3 and Iran to continue.

At 3 a.m. on Sunday morning, nuclear negotiators in Geneva called out, “white smoke!” on the fifth day of intensive talks over Iran’s nuclear programme. The E3+3 (comprising the UK, France, Germany, US, Russia, and China) and Iran met for a third time in Geneva to mark a historical moment by signing an interim agreement regarding the future of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. This pledge is a small part of the roadmap to a comprehensive deal that is expected to take a minimum of six months to negotiate. Although it is an “interim” deal, the agreement has immediate consequences for Iran. It also has the potential to steer the trajectory of the sectarian divide currently shaping the wider Middle East region.

It will be a long time before anyone signs, seals, and delivers a deal on this issue. As EU High Representative Catherine Ashton noted, there were many instances in which problems arose, even in trying to reach an interim deal, not only between Iran and the E3+3, but also amongst the E3+3 themselves. However, in the end, a crucial deal was struck – a deal that is not perfect, but one that, in the words of US President Barack Obama, involved the “most significant and tangible” progress in resolving the nuclear issue.

Interim implications

Some immediate implications of the Joint Agreement signed by Iran and the E3+3 include:

(i) Assumptions challenged: for those (from both sides) who warned of the risks of dialogue between the E3+3 and the Iranian government over its nuclear programme, this deal is an encouraging example of what can be achieved through diplomacy. To watch E3+3 foreign ministers shake hands with their Iranian counterpart on a nuclear deal is simply unprecedented.

As US Secretary of State John Kerry reflected, for those who think this is a bad or dangerous deal, they are urged to offer the E3+3 a realistic and workable alternative. The diplomatic channel was successful in part because of an E3+3 distaste for a military attack on Iran. In addition, there is a general recognition that sanctions, which have led to an exponential increase in centrifuges spinning in Iran, cannot by themselves do enough to resolve the nuclear issue.

This deal is a springboard for future negotiations and sets a solid foundation for talks between the E3+3 and Iran to continue. Diplomacy is not only crucial in resolving the concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme but also increasingly relevant to the escalating sectarian divides undermining the security of the Middle East.

(ii) Break-out capability halted: the restrictions placed on Iran eliminate its ability to secretly take the road to perdition through weaponisation. This should be achieved through the requirement that during the next six months Iran shall (1) neutralise its existing 20 percent enriched uranium stockpile (capable of rapid conversion into a nuclear bomb) to a diluted level of 5 percent, (2) suspend all uranium enrichment above 5 percent, (3) not make any advances at its nuclear sites in Natanz, Fordow, and Arak (the latter site having been a point of contention in the Geneva II discussions), (4) not build any new reprocessing sites, and (5) allow daily inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Steps taken by Iran, in particular its agreement to allow the daily monitoring of its nuclear facilities, are robust confidence-building measures not only for the E3+3 but also for Israel and Saudi Arabia, which greatly fear a nuclear Iran. For the Iranians, this is a positive conciliatory measure, which (a) does not require it to shut down its nuclear facilities altogether nor ship out its stockpiles and (b) will not hinder its route to peaceful nuclear energy.

(iii) Ceasefire: the risk of a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities has been significantly reduced for the interim period, during which time the IAEA will closely monitor Iran’s “breakout capability”. Unless there is a drastic shift in Iran’s co-operation on this deal, the E3+3 are likely to strongly oppose any military action by third parties against Iran. In addition, the interim deal has effectively secured ceasefires from all sides, which will undoubtedly influence the atmosphere of separate talks on the Syrian crisis.

The Israeli government, meanwhile, was quick to label the agreement as a “historic mistake”, reiterating that it remains under direct threat from Iran. If Israel takes steps towards a military strike on Iran, it will not only face the wrath of Iran and other nations for sabotaging a comprehensive deal but it will likely destabilise the security of Israeli borders for years to come.

This ceasefire is a blessing for the E3+3 who are not willing to engage in another military attack in an already unstable region with unknown risks. For the 77 million Iranians who have been living under the shadow of war over the last year, this deal reinforces their trust in Hassan Rouhani’s campaign pledges to be advanced during his first 100 days as president.

(iii) Sanctions relief: the E3+3 has promised discrete sanctions relief yielding around $7 billion for Iran during the interim period by (1) pausing efforts to reduce Iran’s crude oil sales, (2) allowing Iran to access approximately $4.2 billion of its revenues held in offshore accounts, (3) suspending EU and US sanctions on insurance and shipping services linked to Iran’s oil industry, (4) suspending EU and US sanctions on Iran’s petrochemical exports, (5) suspending sanctions on Iran’s gold and precious metals trade, (6) suspending sanctions on Iran’s auto industry, (7) licensing the supply and installation of spare parts for Iran’s aviation sector, and (8) facilitating transactions related to humanitarian relief in Iran and payment of tuition fees for Iranian students abroad.  

For the Iranians, these are the initial measures aimed at reaching an agreement to lift all UN, EU, and unilateral sanctions against Iran (expressly noted in the agreement’s preamble). While Iran’s hardliners may question why substantive relief was not offered from European sanctions on financial institutions, in reality, this would currently have little impact given that banking institutions would be extremely cautious in switching their regulations only to have to revert to a different position in six months.

The concessions offered by the E3+3 do not undermine the architecture of pressure placed on Iran through harsher oil and banking sanctions. The suspension on further sanctions can be lifted if no comprehensive deal is struck or if Iran fails to uphold its end of the bargain. The US Congress should place some faith in the IAEA, which will be inspecting Iran’s centrifuges on a daily basis in order to notify the E3+3 of any changes that would justify tightening sanctions.

Future hurdles

Unsurprisingly, there will be many hurdles for both the E3+3 and Iran to overcome before reaching a comprehensive deal, including:

(i) Allaying the concerns of naysayers: all sides will need to address the concerns of hardliners at home and abroad. This is particularly the case for the US in the context of its relationship with Israel and the Gulf states, who have insisted that this interim deal is a defeat. Although it is far from clear whether Congress will pass new sanctions during the interim period, Obama would likely exercise his presidential authority to veto them if it does.

It is worth noting that the Gulf states, unlike the Israeli camp, have until today remained rather quiet in their comments on the interim deal. The UAE was the first Arab state to welcome the nuclear deal on Sunday, and this is a positive sign. Iran must immediately enhance its trust-building efforts with the Gulf states, which would not only be a good thing for the nuclear talks but also for the Syrian peace talks.

President Rouhani will also have to deal with domestic hardliners, who have already called Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to appear before parliament to fully explain the details of the deal. However, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei received Rouhani’s letter updating him on the nuclear talks with thanks and encouragement, which will likely hush any serious objection to the deal, at least in the near future.

(ii) Right to enrichment: a game of interpretation over Iran’s right to enrich uranium played out between Kerry and Zarif in their joint press conference, an issue that was not expressly referenced in the Joint Agreement. Zarif noted that Iran’s right to enrichment was an “inalienable right”, implicit in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to which Iran is a party. Zarif went on to say that references in the text recognised this right by stipulating that Iran’s enrichment programme will continue as part of any comprehensive deal. But Kerry rejected Iran’s inherent right to enrichment at this stage of the deal, stating that the NPT merely created a right to access peaceful nuclear energy. Under the US’s interpretation, the right to enrichment was one that could only be recognised as part of a comprehensive deal with Iran. These interpretations, although seemingly semantic and legalistic, could create bumps in the road map to a comprehensive deal if Iran insists on an express recognition of its “inalienable right” to uranium enrichment.

(iii) Phase two agreement: a Joint Commission will be established under the interim deal to lead negotiations for a comprehensive agreement. Many variables could change the trajectory of these talks going forward. In particular, the Syrian crisis, Congressional pressure on Obama, and the stance of Israel and Saudi Arabia could all impact the time scale and potential resolution of the nuclear issue. These talks are part of a much bigger picture that will undoubtedly influence the future of Iran, the Gulf, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon; the E3+3 should bear this in mind when assessing their individual national interests.

The difficulties of diplomacy can be managed through careful balancing of competing interests and an understanding that proportionate compromises must be made by all sides. Many more sleepless nights will be spent trying to negotiate a comprehensive agreement on a political and technical level. As Lady Ashton announced the interim deal while standing on a Persian carpet amongst seven foreign ministers, she reiterated that the deal owed its success to the mutual respect and good faith in which it was conducted. These are qualities that must be sustained throughout the next phase of negotiations.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Deputy Director, Middle East and North Africa programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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