Iran: It’s the Final Countdown.

Leaders of the E3+3 and Iran are working towards crafting a binding agreement aimed at increasing controls on Iran’s nuclear program that would impact upon the time it would take for Iran to create a nuclear bomb, and reducing sanctions.

Having achieved the preliminary outline of a deal back in April 2015, the task is to turn this into a long term concrete agreement, with a deadline less than one week away. One obvious stumbling block is the demand by the E3+3 (also P5+1) for unfettered inspection of Iran’s military facilities. Foreign minister Laurent Fabius has declared that France will not accept a deal under which Iran is able to deny military site inspections, with the US echoing this sentiment. Iran has maintained it will not commit to a long term agreement under these terms.

This reflects a deeper challenge between the parties, the lack of trust. Some in the E3+3 appear to believe that it is Iran’s responsibility to fully assure them there is no military dimension to its nuclear program before they are willing to lift sanctions. From their perspective Iran has shown deep reluctance to assure, citing past experience where Iran has shown poor faith. They believe that even with this new agreement Iran will still be able to develop its technology in a manner that will lead to an enhanced nuclear weapon capability in time.

But in order to gain confidence, given the current lack of trust, Iran is being asked to surrender its sovereignty over the most sensitive of sites and lay itself vulnerable to attack. Given its legacy with Iraq in the 1980s, and more recently its exposure to attacks on military sites and scientists, and living under the threat of military action by its adversaries, there is little appetite within Iran to comply with these demands. The request of ‘anywhere any time’ inspections for verification is unrealistic, and is more than likely to fuel Iranian perceptions of insecurity. No state – especially those within the E3+3 – would themselves contemplate agreeing to such demands.

Iran has agreed to reduce its centrifuges by approximately two thirds, to maintain uranium enrichment levels below 3.67%, and not build any new enrichment facilities for 15 years. The technical agreements reached thus far set the foundations for the political discussion that will only succeed with a level of empathy and understanding around what are reasonable demands of any sovereign state.

Whilst the E3+3 negotiators will need to maintain realistic expectations of verification measures if a deal is to be completed, Iran will also need to ensure flexibility on its approach to sanctions relief, knowing that the E3+3 are going to need more than token demonstrations and verbal assurances. Both sides will need to iron out an agreed timeframe for action to avoid a stalemate occurring. Without sanctions relief Iran is unlikely to commit to necessary assurance measures; without major assurance (and verification) the E3+3 will not engage with sanctions relief. If the negotiators can agree a timeline that can accommodate all parties, non-proliferation really will have taken a positive turn.

Whilst much of the focus is on a comprehensive agreement, recognition that this must be an ongoing process is necessary. Diplomacy appears to be the only credible and worthwhile option for non-proliferation, and if a deal is to be reached and sustained, channels must be kept open at all times.

Currently, the talks have made strong progress for the global non-proliferation regime. They have been able to demonstrate how, on a multilateral level, states can come together from opposing viewpoints and reach some level of agreement on the future. If a deal can be reached, and sustained, a new opportunity will be presented for non-proliferation to come to the forefront once again. The gains will spread beyond the current talks, not only in managing the relationship with Iran, but also in demonstrating the direction that non-proliferation needs to go in other states, establishing an inclusive process aiming for universal procedures.


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