Analysis: How long will agreement delay Iran from getting nuclear bomb?

The P5+1 negotiators realized they have to reward with a minor concession the moderates in Iran led by President Hassan Rouhani.

November 25, 2014 03:51
3 minute read.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif addresses a news conference after a meeting in Vienna November 24. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The decision to extend the deadline to clinch a nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 group of world powers until July 2015 is a defeat for Iran and an achievement for the US and the EU.

The Iranians threatened during the talks held in Vienna that if by Monday a final agreement is not reached and the sanctions imposed on them are not lifted, they would walk away. Iran’s approach was “everything, now or never.”

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Yet they had to swallow their words and pride and agree to another extension – the second of its kind – while the sanctions are still in place and their nuclear program is restrained, as far as the number of centrifuges and the quantity of the enriched uranium are concerned.

True, the world powers (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) agreed to unfreeze $700 million from Iran’s frozen bank accounts all over the world every month. The P5+1 negotiators realized that they have to reward with a minor concession the moderates in Iran led by President Hassan Rouhani and his chief nuclear negotiator, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

They didn’t want them to return to Tehran with empty hands and pockets. But frankly, unfreezing $2 billion to $3b. out of $100b. in frozen assets is no more than throwing crumbs to a hungry person.

No doubt the moderates will be lashed out at by the radicals who would accuse them of failure. But as long as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is calling the shots, is backing the negotiating team, there is a hope, though it is still slim, for a final agreement to be signed.

There is a simple reason why Iran backed out on the last day and agreed to more talks. Iran is anxious to rid itself of the sanctions hurting its economy, which has further deteriorated over the last few months with the drastic drop in oil prices.

The Iranian budget for 2014/15 is based on a $140 per barrel price – whereas the current price is $80 per barrel. This means a huge deficit in the Iranian budget. Iran can cover it by austerity measures – cutting subsidies of food, fuel and housing – but its leaders fear that such steps will bring upon them the wrath of the masses, which already suffer from the recession. Iran’s government prefers to print money and raise inflation.

Yet one should not be mistaken. Iran has not given up its wish to get as close as possible – a screwdriver turn away – from a nuclear bomb. It is already almost there. It is three to six months away from assembling nuclear bombs if it decides in the future to turn from the negotiation table and “break out” to the bomb.

Iran already has the know-how and technology to build a bomb. Neither a diplomatic nor a technical deal, nor even a military assault, can take that away from Iran. With however many centrifuges and enriched uranium it will be allowed to keep, it is clear that Iran has reached the status of a nuclear threshold state.

Ultimately, any deal with Iran boils down to a single question: How long will an agreement delay Iran from assembling a nuclear bomb – one year? Two years? Three years? Watching actively from the sidelines are Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have been working in close covert and unprecedented cooperation to sabotage the deal. For these countries, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said numerous times, a bad deal – which the West is prepared to accept – is worse than having no deal at all. But it seems that these efforts have had limited effect, if any.

The realization that Iran has not made the required concessions and thus that the time and terms are not yet ripe at this stage for a comprehensive deal is to the credit of the US and EU governments. Certainly, Israel under Netanyahu (considering the bad blood between him and US President Barack Obama) is limited in the levers it can use to influence the process.

The outcome of the Vienna talks derives from three facts. First, the gaps between the sides are still big. Second, neither side is interested to end the diplomatic option. And finally, the alternative – of not having any deal, neither interim nor comprehensive – is much more dangerous to the world.

Yossi Melman is an Israeli journalist and writer who specializes in security and intelligence affairs.  He is co-author of "Spies Against Armageddon: inside Israel's Secret Wars.
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