The limits of the Iran nuclear deal

Friday 17/04/2015

The announcement on April 2nd of the “framework” agreement between Iran and six world powers — the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China and Germany — was welcome news. The agreement commits Iran to abstain for 15 years from the level of enrichment it would need to produce nuclear weapons. Daniel Serwer, a US nuclear proliferation expert, called it “as good an agreement as anyone had any hope of achieving”, and said that failure to reach a deal “would have left Iran free to generate enough highly enriched uranium to build at least one nuclear weapon within a few months”.

This agreement may be better than nothing. But it is mislead­ing to say that the choice was between this agreement or war. With Iran’s expansionist designs in the region left intact, enduring peace is still a long way off.

Even after this agreement, many in the Arab world remain concerned about Iran’s long-term goals. The deal offers no restrictions on Iran’s missile programme and other conventional arms efforts; nor does it dissuade Tehran from attempting to impose its political and sectarian dominance on the region.

In recent months, voices emanating from Tehran have boasted of Iran’s regional designs and its unabashed goal of achieving greater influence through local proxies. Beyond the organic relationship they maintain with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, the Iranians have made no secret of their support to like-minded militias and Shia rebel groups in many trouble spots of the region including Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

The Saudi-led campaign in Yemen has been motivated to a large extent by reports of arms shipments and other forms of assistance extended by Iran to allied Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Many critics of the Iran deal also express concern that this agreement will empower Iran’s radical zealots. The vague conditionality linked to the lifting of economic sanctions will hardly convince Tehran to ease its grip over its oppressed population. The Iranian authorities are already hard at work to further weaken that conditionality. They see very well how the removal of sanctions will provide them with new resources to pursue their adventures abroad.

In negotiating the deal, the objective should not have been limited to resolving the dispute over Iran’s nuclear programme. A key goal should have been to pressure Iran to give up its destabilising activities outside its borders. Between now and the finalisation of the agreement in June, the Obama administration will have many opportunities to show that it was not, as its allies in the region fear, simply forging a separate entente with Iran at the expense of peace and stability in the Middle East. In recent statements, Washington has tried to be reassuring, reflecting a growing awareness that the regional threat posed by Iran goes beyond the nuclear.