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Commentary | 7 April 2015

Hope returns after Iran deal

Image of Tarja Cronberg

Tarja Cronberg |Former Member of the European Parliament, Distinguished Associate Fellow at SIPRI

EU Iran JCPOA Middle East Nuclear Weapons Security Global Security

President Obama has called the agreement reached in Lausanne on 2 April a historic understanding, a good deal and “our best bet”. His Iranian counterpart, President Rouhani sees it as “the surrender of the West” and a victory for the great Iranian nation. Israel´s Prime Minister Netanyahu sees it as a dangerous deal, which will lead to war. People on the streets of Tehran see hope for the future and European companies anticipate their return to the Iranian market.

The deal is a political understanding and a first step to reach a binding agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, a source of conflict since 2002. It confirms Iran´s right to the peaceful use of nuclear technology while at the same time submitting the country to the strictest possible controls. Iran will remain a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which will give the international community the right to monitor its program and intervene in the case of non-compliance. A ‘breakout time’ of one year to produce nuclear weapons will be enough to do so. But the military option is off the table, at least for now.

The next three months will show whether there is the political will to reach a permanent deal. The first test will come on April 13th when the U.S. Congress returns from its Easter recess. Legislation is prepared both for introducing additional sanctions and for obliging President Obama to submit the agreement to congressional approval. Congressional disapproval of the deal and additional sanctions would destroy the prospects for a final deal. Also the Iranian parliament, Majlis, is demanding the agreement to be submitted for its approval. In both the U.S. Senate and the Iranian Majlis it is a power play related to who wins the next elections rather than a question of the scope of uranium enrichment.

The most critical issue during the next three months will be sanctions relief. The parties disagreed on this point immediately after making the deal public. The U.S. understanding is that sanctions relief will be related to Iran´s performance. If Iran abides by the rules, sanctions will be lifted in a step by step process. If Iran breaks the rules, sanctions will return. The Iranian understanding is that after the initial time (estimated at six months to a year) needed to prepare the technical setting for implementation of the deal, the sanctions will all be lifted permanently and simultaneously.

All sides seem to agree that not all sanctions will be lifted. Of the UN sanctions, only those not related to proliferation will be lifted, while sanctions related to ballistic missiles for example will remain in place. For dual-use technology, a special procurement channel will be established to make sure that the technology purchased by the Iranians will be for peaceful not military uses. Of U.S. sanctions, only nuclear-related sanctions will be lifted. The U.S. has a tightly woven web of sanctions on Iran related to terrorism and human rights, which will remain in place. According to the experts in Congress I have spoken with, it will not always be easy to define which sanctions are “nuclear-related”. EU sanctions will be lifted, but as some American banking sanctions will remain in place, companies may still avoid trade with Iran. As one U.S. experts in Washington quipped to me, European companies will need a lot of sanction lawyers in the years to come.

The negotiations have only focused on Iran´s nuclear program. This has been a deliberate choice by the western negotiators, who have feared that other issues would blur the focus and even increase Iranian leverage. But if a permanent deal is achieved by July 1st, the regional aspects can no longer be ignored. There are already claims that both a deal and failure to reach one will destabilise the region. Prime Minister Netanyahu claims that a deal will pave the way for an Iranian bomb and ultimately lead to war. The failure of the negotiations, on the other hand, might provoke Iran to leave the NPT and to build a bomb. This, in turn, would lead to further proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East and increase the threats related, such as accidental use or terrorist access to these weapons.

While none of these forecasts can be ignored, the most likely effect of a deal is that a new security regime in the region will emerge. The U.S. will strengthen its security guarantees to Israel and its Sunni allies. This should dispel some of the fears of opponents to a deal. A less hostile relationship between the U.S. and Iran could, as a minimum, lead to Iran being invited to the table when critical issues of the Middle East such as Syria and ISIS are dealt with. There is a long history of isolating Iran from these negotiations, which has been one of the causes of Iran-sponsored terrorism. Iran´s behaviour may not change, but the risk is worth taking. After all, “good relations with neighbours” is the declared objective of Iran´s foreign policy.

Europe should have a vigorous discussion in a multitude of fora about what kind of relationship between the EU and Iran would be most desirable. In 2002, when the issue of possible military dimension of the Iranian nuclear program was first raised publicly, the EU had ongoing exchanges with Tehran not only on trade and cooperation but also on ‘dialogue of civilisations’ and even human rights matters. Furthermore, the EU was the initiator of nuclear negotiations with Iran at a time when the U.S. policy was one of isolation. The negotiations have been coordinated by the EU, even if the current progress is largely a result of bilateral talks between the U.S. and Iran. Now is the time to capitalise on the past history and define a European strategy for relations with Iran.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.