News that Iran is adhering to the six-month Geneva interim deal, which went into effect on Monday, is heartening. International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors confirmed that the Islamic Republic has ceased enriching uranium above 5-percent concentration.
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Additionally, Iran disabled its centrifuge cascades built to enrich uranium to higher grades and has begun diluting its stockpile of uranium that it previously enriched to nearly 20% concentration. Enriching to 20% is not needed for civilian use but is required for the construction of warheads.
In exchange, Tehran will begin to receive, in monthly installments, some $4.2 billion in seized assets held in Western banks, and some minor financial sanctions will be suspended.
While Iran’s gestures are a positive development, there is a long way to go before its nuclear weapons project is put on ice. Most actions the Iranians have undertaken are quite reversible and the most difficult issues have been postponed to a final agreement.
The Obama administration – unlike Israel, the Saudis and other Gulf states – is willing to accept Tehran’s demand to keep some uranium enrichment capability.
Nevertheless, the US is demanding that Iran reduce the number of its centrifuges from the current 19,000 to fewer than 5,000. America is also demanding the closure of the supposedly impregnable underground enrichment facility at Fordow; the dismantling of the heavy-water nuclear reactor at Arak; an account from Iran of all its past weaponization activities; and an inspection regime even more rigorous than required by Iran’s signature of the IAEA’s “additional protocol.”
Iran has rejected most of these demands. President Hassan Rouhani has promised his people that none of Iran’s existing nuclear facilities will be destroyed; that Arak will be kept, to supply only medical isotopes; and that Iran has the right to what he calls “industrial-scale” enrichment, which could mean as many as 50,000 centrifuges.
Unfortunately, America’s leverage at the negotiating table is diminishing. The military option, at least from the US perspective, has essentially been taken off the table, at least as long as the interim agreement is in place.
And it is highly likely that this interim arrangement will be extended at least once before it becomes irrefutably clear that Iran, or at least the mullahs safely ensconced at the helm of the Islamic Republic, have no intention of abandoning their aspirations for nuclear weapon capability.
Meanwhile, Iran’s economy is recovering. The World Bank’s recently released Global Economic Prospects report projects that Iran’s real GDP is expected to grow 1% in 2014. The World Bank sees even higher GDP growth in 2015 and 2016. The International Monetary Fund also sees Iran’s economy beginning to rebound, with estimated growth of 1.3% and 1.98% in 2014 and 2015, respectively. These rosy forecasts contrast sharply with the two years of economic contraction in 2012 and 2013.
There are quite a few reasons for the Islamic Republic’s economic recovery. In part it can be attributed to an overall global resurgence. It might also have something to do with better fiscal and monetary policies implemented by Iran since Rouhani’s election in June. Also, US President Barack Obama has vowed to veto any attempts by the Senate to pass more (conditional) sanctions, which essentially serves as a green light for businesses to reestablish ties, though the Senate is getting close to the 67 votes needed to override a presidential veto.
Next week, Rouhani will be in Davos to address the World Economic Forum and court business as part of the normalization of the Islamic Republic’s status in the international community.
Prospects look bleak for any real diplomatic breakthrough.
Obama, in an extensive interview with The New Yorker’s David Remnick, estimated that the chances for a final agreement with Iran – along with resolutions of the Israeli-Palestinian and Syrian conflicts – are “less than fifty-fifty.”
In all three arenas, which Obama sees as connected, “we may be able to push the boulder partway up the hill and maybe stabilize it so it doesn’t roll back on us.” Hardly a reassuring assessment of the chances for stopping Iran’s march to nuclear weapons.