The International Crisis Group strongly welcomes the 24 November agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany). The accord – the principal thrust of which Crisis Group for some time has been calling for – is a testament to the effectiveness of diplomacy when conducted in a positive atmosphere.
Although only a first step, the agreement has important implications. In particular, it freezes essential aspects of Iran’s nuclear activities – its stockpile of low enriched uranium; number of operational centrifuges; and work at the Arak heavy-water facility; rolls back Tehran’s enrichment at higher concentration levels; and puts in place intrusive inspection mechanisms. The net result is to virtually eliminate the possibility of an undetected dash towards militarisation. For its part, Iran has gained tangible economic and humanitarian sanctions relief, a commitment that it will not be subjected to additional punitive measures at this time and implicit acceptance of a constrained and transparent uranium enrichment program on its soil.
Reaching a comprehensive agreement will be a far more difficult and torturous journey. Full implementation of the agreed-upon near-term measures; a commitment to jointly accepted longer-term objectives; and efforts to preserve the current climate all will be necessary to maximise chances of success in the coming months.
Critics of the deal point to the risk that the sanctions regime might collapse, that Iran has succeeded in entrenching its enrichment program and that it will now be emboldened to expand its regional activities. But they offer no workable alternative: in the absence of this accord, Iran’s nuclear program almost certainly would have accelerated, leaving the option of either acquiescing in its expansion or marching toward a military confrontation with unpredictable and dangerous consequences.
This is not a reason to engage in fanciful thinking either. For all the focus on the nuclear program, the crux of the matter is not a technical, arms control issue so much as it is a geopolitical, strategic one, namely Iran’s role and status in the region. That is where the greatest challenges long-term lie, and it is where potential spoilers are most abundant, whether in Israel, the Gulf, Europe, the U.S. and, of course, Iran itself.
Ultimately, a comprehensive nuclear agreement between Iran and the West will be sustainable only if accompanied by simultaneous advances on the broader, strategic front, and notably by resolution of the various conflicts that threaten the Middle East. This is nowhere more urgent or relevant than in Syria,where Iran has deepened its military involvement. Ultimately, a nuclear deal in and of itself will not resolve regional tensions; rather, easing those tensions must go hand in hand with advancement in the nuclear negotiations. That is a tall order, but a necessary one if this first, laudable step is to pave the way for more lasting progress.