By Sheel Kant Sharma*
But for the Iran nuclear accord, the year 2015 would have been a wasted year for arms control and non-proliferation. All high praise and superlatives marking Iran’s implementation of the nuclear deal with P5+1, are fully apt. Iran’s entry into the global nuclear community was sealed on 19 January 2016 in the statement by the Director General of the IAEA that ‘Iran is a normal state’. The IAEA’s professional contribution in this context has been outstanding. The tireless diplomatic marathon that brought this about and the leadership provided by US and its partners in P5+1 have been unprecedented. They would not have made headway without the sagacity, wisdom and forward looking disposition of the leadership in Tehran, particularly after the 2013 elections. In terms of dispelling war clouds and letting diplomacy win in the Middle East, one can find in it shades of Anwar Sadat’s fateful diplomatic offensive resulting in the peace treaty with Israel in 1979, which too, in a sense, had foreclosed repetition of a full scale war. However, the peaceful resolution of the Iranian nuclear imbroglio is truly in a class of its own, without a parallel.
Its larger political impact will take time to show. However, to fully grasp the importance of the nuclear accord, a brief historical prelude may be pertinent. The nuclear file on Iran which the IAEA scrambled to construct in 2002 has grown over the past decade plus, and has entirely new features different from past experience with proliferation. The 1990 disclosures about Saddam Hussain’s clandestine nuclear weapons program had already led to substantial strengthening of IAEA safeguards through the 1990s under the Non-proliferation Treaty, including the Additional Protocol to the mandatory comprehensive safeguards.
After a series of undeclared and suspicion-causing nuclear activities in Iran came to light in 2002-03, the IAEA prepared a questionnaire and sought closer engagement under its Statute to come to grips with the implications of Iran’s actions. Iran responded by fielding a team of negotiators with IAEA as well as the EU-3, namely, France, Germany and UK. This team was then led by present President Rouhani in his earlier avatar as Chief Negotiator. With efforts on EU’s part, there seemed a chance and a fledgling hope in late 2003 of Iran resolving the issues and coming clean. However, the opening up and readiness of Iran to accept obligations under the Additional Protocol, pending ratification – which Rouhani was able to do – was not enough for its interlocutors. They conveyed the strict US demand for a complete cessation of suspicious activities, total transparency about what was underway and unhindered access to sites in Iran to IAEA inspectors for monitoring and verification of Iran’s compliance with enhanced safeguards obligations under a provisional Additional Protocol.
This was a tall order for Iran and failed to get any traction whereas new evidence surfaced from Libya about Iran’s forays into nuclear weapon design and related work. By the end of 2004, a downward spiral set in on Iran’s engagement with the EU interlocutors and the IAEA. What followed 2005 onwards was massive and defiant escalation of all nuclear activities in Iran even as it carried on with implementing the IAEA’s NPT safeguards minus the Additional Protocol. Thus the Iran file gathered mass through monitoring, inspections, and analyses as well as open source and intelligence inputs by several states – all of which figured in the regular reports to the Board of Governors under a special agenda item on Iran every quarter. In addition, Iran’s alleged breach of safeguards obligations was referred to the UN Security Council, much to Iran’s annoyance.
While negotiations, in spite of the shadow of Security Council sanctions, still continued from 2005 till 2012, they were marred by upsets. The upsets were caused by revelations of undeclared nuclear activities such as a huge new underground centrifuge plant for uranium enrichment, a plutonium reactor project, heavy water production and trappings of a range of processes dealing with uranium metal in chemical forms suitable for possible weapons purpose. On the other hand, as Iran’s credibility dipped, the UN Security Council kept up with more censure and tighter sanctions; also covering Iran’s ballistic missiles program. Iran chose defiance and set on course to build, operate and refine thousands of centrifuges and amass tons of low enriched uranium by 2011, as its right under the NPT, even while complying with the IAEA’s inspections and verification. There was increasing clamour during 2011-12 about military solution and resort to force alongside sabotage of Iran’s nuclear program. The vice grip of tighter sanctions by the US, UN and EU became nastier on Iranian society.
The challenge for diplomacy to find a modus vivendi in this difficult situation was twofold. First, Iran’s interlocutors sought to compel it into full compliance with obligations under the NPT, to roll back its huge enrichment venture at every place, and to abandon the plutonium reactor project and all suspected activities with possible military use. Second, to reduce all capacity and capability of Iran to a level which would rule out a ‘break out’ scenario under which, like North Korea, Iran too could at some point in time scrap engagement with the IAEA, expel inspectors, terminate safeguards and give up on the NPT to proceed to weaponisation. Since Iran, however, held that its nuclear program was permissible under the NPT, that it remained in compliance with the NPT and that it had no weapons program, the interlocutors’ demands were dismissed as being without any justification based on facts.
The stalemate hardened and led to mounting threats of the exercise of a military option both by Israel and the US. It is in this scary backdrop that a change of guard took place after general elections in Iran in 2013 and President Rouhani assumed office, with blessings of Supreme leader Khamenei.
As it turned out, informally and through back channels with the US, President Rouhani’s team was already exploring options to turn the page on the impasse and to explore negotiating options for lifting of sanctions. A very consistent and serious endeavour, therefore, was made on the part of all sides to seek a breakthrough by talks not just under the P5+1 format but also bilaterally between the US and Iran.
This endeavour bore early results by November 2013: Iran accepted a specified scaling down and verifiable freeze of all its alleged nuclear activities in return for limited sanctions’ relief; pending time-bound pursuit of a comprehensive solution through intensive negotiations under agreed terms of reference.
First taste of success was in the outlines of a comprehensive deal which emerged by April 2015 even though it faced sustained opposition from hardliners in the US, Israel and in the Gulf states as also by the religious orthodoxy in Iran. The outlines indicated that both sides had bridged the gaps substantially on multiple aspects to block all pathways for Iran to acquire a bomb in return for lifting of all nuclear related sanctions. The mainstay of the vehement campaign against an accord was the breakout scenario – i.e. regardless of the nature of Iran’s expanded commitments, what if Iran were to rescind them all at the time of its choosing and rush for the weapon?
The accord at hand today has effectively addressed this breakout dimension and it is here that the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (JCPOA) marks another leap on the non-proliferation front. This leap goes further than the mandate of the Additional Protocol and comprises closer, continuous monitoring of the permissible running of about 6000 centrifuges for 3.6 per cent enrichment at Natanz by, among other things, latest equipment capable of real time data transmission; the IAEA’s control on dismantled parts of more than 12000 centrifuges and the plugging of all gaps in the IAEA’s information base about military dimension of Iran’s activities – none of this was hitherto imagined within the NPT’s legal remit. Iran has demonstrated its resolve and openness by accepting this vastly expanded IAEA role, albeit only within a specified and limited timeframe. The IAEA’s 15 December 2015 report is a landmark on non-proliferation annals in that it brings out in the open Iran’s past undeclared dabbling into military use of nuclear technology and details how that has ceased.
There were instances after the Cold War, of South Africa, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus returning to the NPT as non-nuclear weapon states but the IAEA’s verification of that transformation was nowhere as intrusive and extensive as it is in Iran’s case. It is here that the disclaimer in the JCPOA as well as the related Security Council resolution that the agreement with Iran does not set a precedent is pertinent. This protects Iran’s emergence, by and by, as a ‘normal’ member of international community, as the timelines set by the JCPOA kick in and sanctions are lifted. It possibly also sets at rest apprehensions about the IAEA’s expanded non-proliferation mandate being applied elsewhere.
Nonetheless, in terms of new and advanced verification and compliance activities by the IAEA – and that too with a cooperative negotiated process bearing the UNSC’s stamp – the Iran agreement has scaled new frontiers and established new benchmarks.
No wonder that the successful implementation of the deal has engendered an all-round trust that underpins the mainstreaming of Iran not only within the nuclear community but also the global economy and trade. Iran is confident that it richly deserves the end of its isolation even as it voices its undiminished scepticism about the West and eschews broader cooperation. The US too remains careful and delicately balances claims about success of diplomacy with good deal of caution; particularly not to let die hard domestic critics of the JCPOA impede implementation of the deal in this election year. Hence the broader political ramifications would need to be harnessed with a calibrated pace.
Ruffled sensitivities are in full display among Iran’s neighbours who in these past several decades became confident of a new regional dispensation against Iran whereby even the Persian Gulf of all history was being rechristened as mere ‘Gulf’, if not Arab Gulf. Iran’s emerging from isolation in the new avatar seems set to shatter that confidence. With the nuclear shadow out of way Iran’s allegations against its detractors may not be so easy to dismiss, especially in regard to grappling with the Daesh menace and resolution of crisis in Syria. Hence, there is severe unease among the US allies and partners in the region. At the same time, Chinese President Xi Jing Ping’s much heralded visit to Tehran shows how others are rushing in to capitalise on the opportunity. Pakistan too, by visits of its prime minister and the army chief to Iran and Saudi Arabia, is exploring ways to derive what advantage it can in the situation. The question naturally for a New Delhi observer is what initiatives India should have been contemplating at this juncture.
* Sheel Kant Sharma
Former Permanent Representative to UN Office in Vienna & IAEA