In a best-case scenario, the P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran could lead to nuclear disarmament and relative stability in the Middle East. Yet, critics continue to worry the deal might result in a deeper mistrust between Iran and the West.
Iranians hold posters of President Hassan Rouhani as they welcome Iranian nuclear negotiators on Nov. 24. Photo: AP
Looking at the text of the P5+1 Iran nuclear deal, the details of which have already been publicized in the media, I asked myself: What is the main message? I believe it is “mutual consent” because all parties involved in the process will directly or indirectly benefit from it, including the U.S. and Russia.
This Plan of Action (rather than “Agreement”) is the result of collective efforts of all sides. It was based on the former Russian proposal to deal with Iran on the basis of getting concessions in exchange for lifting sanctions, and then made possible as a result of back channel diplomacy led by Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, constructive cooperation by the new Iranian government, and important contributions by France during negotiations.
Despite this broader consensus, there are still acute debates between strategic analysts in Russia and the U.S. about several topics related to the Plan of Action.
The first one is how to estimate the P5+1 - Iran deal on Tehran’s nuclear program: Is it a breakthrough, a pause, a prelude towards a major change in the security environment in the Middle East or something else? I would describe it as a first step on the long road towards nuclear disarmament in the Middle East unless the process is interrupted by one of the key players or transparency doesn’t work.
The second one is related to whether the new Iranian leadership is really ready to rid themselves of their nuclear capabilities that can be used for weaponization. Or is Iran still nuclear-obsessed and just planning to buy time for secretly moving towards a nuclear bomb? I am inclined to believe in Iran’s genuine readiness to confine their nuclear strategy to peaceful use.
The third one is related to understanding the motivations for the change in Iran’s policy on this issue: Is it due to crushing economic sanctions or to the sincere intentions of the Iranian leadership? Let’s remind ourselves that Iran, in accordance with U.S. government estimates, has lost about $80 billion in revenue as oil sales slumped by 60 percent since the start of 2012 as a result of the sanctions. However, basing my own judgment on a modest knowledge of this country, I can say that Iran was still capable of withstanding the effects of the sanctions for quite a long time.
Regardless of the state of the nation’s economy, Iran will now get about $7 billion in immediate relief from these sanctions suspended on gold and precious metals, Iran's auto sector, and petrochemical exports. However, the deal will limit Iran’s oil sales by one million barrels per day for six months.
One can suggest that there are two major points capable of diminishing the trust-building effect of the P5+1 interim deal with Iran on its relationship with the West.
First is the continuation of Iran’s regional politics. Many Americans and European politicians accuse Tehran of supporting terrorism, interfering in the internal affairs of its neighbors, seeking regional hegemony and harboring a desire to destroy Israel. Moscow does not share this view.
Second is the development of Iran’s missile delivery systems that are not covered by the nuclear deal. Several traditional critics of Obama in the U.S. go far beyond these points. U.S. political commentator Charles Krauthammer - who sarcastically reiterates the already outdated French name for the plan as a “sucker’s deal” - is intimidating Americans by the fact that Iran “keeps every one of its 19,000 centrifuges” including 3,000 second-generation machines. Moreover, Iran retains its enriched uranium (half of its 20 percent enriched stockpile will be retained as working stock of 20 percent oxide for fabrication of fuel and the remaining 20 percent UF6 diluted to less than 5 percent) that can be upgraded to 20 percent in less than a month.
It is already known that the Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu calls it “a historic mistake.” Some Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, feel upset. Ben Caspit, a columnist from the Israeli media outlet Al Monitor, even spoke about an emerging organization of countries that feels betrayed by the United States because of the deal with Iran and the cancellation of the strike against Syria.
Following Bibi Netanyahu’ bitter criticism of the P5+1 deal with Iran, Russian-Israeli journalist Evgeniy Satanovsky even compares it with the Munich agreement of 1938 between Britain and France with Hitler and Mussolini. By doing so, he implies that Israel has been betrayed by Western leaders in the same way as Czechoslovakia was betrayed by them 75 years ago.
My feeling is that these countries (Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others) are too divided and too dependent on their relationship with the U.S. to risk a deterioration in their dealings with Washington. They cannot go too far.
However, this is certainly not the prevailing view of the Russian public, which overwhelmingly looks favorably in the deal. By the way, the American public also backs it: a CNN/ORC November poll indicates that 56 percent favor a deal with Iran and an ABC News/Washington Post poll found out that 64 percent support it. This is good news for the implementation of the deal, which might be more important than merely signing it.
But it is not the desire of the American people – the main stakeholder in the affair – that can sabotage the deal but, rather, the stubbornness of some U.S. Congressmen who continue threatening the Obama administration with the idea of imposing new sanctions on Iran.
As U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer predicted, it was now “more likely that Democrats and Republicans will join together and pass additional sanctions when we return in December.” No doubt this will inevitably kill the deal and destroy the first signs of trust between Tehran and the capitals of the West. It will also mean, in the words of the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, that Congress “is out of step with the American people.” True or not, as one my American friends bitterly remarked, it will corroborate the crisis of the whole two-party system in the U.S.
Surely, the Iranians can even more easily spoil the deal than the U.S. senators and ultimately lose the trust of their partners. Opponents of the deal are almost breathlessly waiting for the slightest pretext to accuse Tehran of violating its terms and to press Obama to annul it. So far, if the Iranians prove to be insincere in their willingness to open up to unprecedented inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), it will hamper the process.
Undoubtedly, Russia will benefit from the process if the deal is successfully implemented, and then continued after six months with even more sanctions lifted. Russia will especially benefit when in the end it will turn into a final agreement. For instance, it will make possible to continue Russia’s cooperation in the construction of nuclear reactors or other forms of military-technical cooperation in Iran. The Iranian market is huge and demand is high.
Some analysts believe that Russia in the future might face strong Iranian competition in the natural gas market and that the return of Iran to the market could damage its economic interests. In fact, Russia has already started suffering from a fall in oil prices: on Nov. 25 Brent crude for January delivery fell 1.6 percent, or $1.77, in London, to $109.3 per barrel. Light crude in New York lost $1.32 to $93.52 a barrel.
However, in the final analysis, Moscow will gain much more from the unprecedented change of the whole political atmosphere in this region – a region that is vital to Russia’s long-term interests - as well as from the fruitful cooperation with its global partners.