The common wisdom is that the sanctions imposed on Iran were the main initiating reason for the Geneva talks between the P5+1 and Iran, talks that culminated with the November 23, 2013, Joint Plan of Action (JPA) and the subsequent “Technical Understandings” that went into effect on January 20, 2014. There can be little doubt that the sanctions had a severe impact on Iran, but were they the main motive for the agreements? Looking into the situation in Iran and viewing the outcome of the discussions one can also suggest a different scenario, in which the strategic aims of both Iran and the US are not so far apart. In this scenario, the possible common ground dictated the advisability of the agreement, which will have a far-lasting effect, beyond its six-month term.
What are Iran’s strategic aims? Iran’s main priority, it is suggested, is to reach the capability to produce a nuclear weapon as quickly as possible, if and when the order to do so arrives from the leadership. The next order of priority is to avoid military conflict.
Iran is well aware that should it be found to be constructing even a primitive nuclear weapon, it would be susceptible to military attack, if not by the US, then by Israel, which has demonstrated its capability and willingness to carry out such an attack. The sanctions occupy only third place, since Iran has demonstrated that it can live with them. The ongoing Iranian “charm offensive” was the very effective tactic chosen to achieve these strategic aims.
What are the American strategic aims regarding the Iranian nuclear program? It appears, from extensive evidence, that the main US aim is to avoid conflict.
Reaching an agreement with Iran was a brilliant move that served this purpose, and effectively neutralized any call for military action, specifically by Israel. The relatively weak terms of this agreement were sufficient to convince many that the Iranians have effectively been stopped from advancing their program, while not forced to accede to conditions that would impede their ability to construct a nuclear weapon. This would hopefully come in the next stage – the final agreement, which many, including the US administration, doubt will ever be reached.
The next US aim was to prevent Iran from constructing a nuclear weapon. The US never claimed that preventing Iran from having the capability to produce a nuclear weapon was one of its strategic aims. Although Iran can already manufacture a nuclear weapon, it has no reason to do so at present, and by easing the sanctions Iran also partially achieved its third strategic aim. Iran also (inadvertently?) managed to deter the US administration from imposing more severe sanctions by threatening to enrich uranium to 60 percent – a very short step from military enrichment grade.
Thus, there is a convergence of interests between the US administration and Iran, and the terms of the JPA are not as important as the results of the agreement: reduction of tensions, postponing conflict and the easing of global economic concerns. However, although the exact terms of the agreement between Iran and the P5+1 have been kept confidential (why?) some loopholes are readily apparent. The main elements missing from the agreement are those dealing with what the IAEA called the “Possible Military Dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program, meaning the work towards developing the nuclear explosive mechanism, and the prevention by Iran of the IAEA inspectors searching for undeclared nuclear and nuclear-related sites.
Iran can, regardless of the agreement, continue to develop anything it wants at undeclared sites, and as long as these activities remain concealed, all will be well. At present, no one really has an interest in enforcing these two missing factors, and the US is using a hard sales pitch to convince the world of the benefits of a very mediocre agreement.
On the practical side, Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif was quite correct in stating, on January 23, that Iran had not agreed to dismantle anything. The only thing that can be remotely considered to be a rollback is the dilution of some of its 20% enriched uranium, and even this leaves a considerable amount in Iranian hands, which can then serve as a jump-start for enrichment to values beyond 20%. The Iranians will not accumulate much more 3.5% enriched uranium, but then, they have enough of it for several nuclear weapons, if further enriched.
The sanctions were never strong enough to force the hands of the Iranians. They do not hurt the pride and dignity of the Iranians, the weakest points in their armor. The Iranians can justifiably gloat, and the world can heave a sigh of relief, and the Middle East states, including Israel, can watch with wonder and anxiety, and try to assess how they will be able to live with a nuclear-capable Iran in their midst.
The author is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv.