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The Iran Agreement in Geneva: a Limited but Valuable Breakthrough

Commentary, 25 November 2013
Americas, Global Security Issues, Middle East and North Africa
The Geneva Agreement is an inventive, astute piece of diplomacy that puts Iran further from nuclear weapons at low cost. But the road to a final settlement is long and rocky.

The Geneva Agreement is an inventive, astute piece of diplomacy that puts Iran further from nuclear weapons at low cost. But the road to a final settlement is long and rocky.

Javed Zarif Cathy Action Iran Nuclear deal November 24 2013 [European Union photo]

(L to R) British Foreign Secretary William Hague, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, US Secretary of State John Kerry,  24 November 2013 (EU photo)

After a decade of on-off nuclear diplomacy and just over a hundred days of the presidency of Iran’s Hassan Rouhani, a deal has been done between Iran and the E3+3 (the UK, France, Germany plus the US, Russia, and China; in short, the Six) in Geneva. Although the deal appears to have come rapidly, it is clear that the groundwork was laid by a US-Iran backchannel going back to at least Rouhani’s inauguration in August, and perhaps further.

The deal itself is a modest achievement that does not completely freeze Iran’s nuclear programme, defers some of the most challenging issues to subsequent diplomacy to occur over the next six months, and relies on artful language to bridge differences over the biggest point of contention, Iran’s claimed ‘right to enrich’ uranium on its own soil. But it is an astute and inventive piece of diplomacy, putting Iran objectively and verifiably further away from any nuclear weapon, imposing curbs that go beyond those that were anticipated by most observers, and all the while leaving the most punitive sanctions entirely in place.  

The Geneva Agreement

The deal (whose reported text is available here) has a few important aspects worth picking out.

All but a freeze

First, it freezes the most important parts of Iran’s nuclear programme, while rolling back those elements which were doing most to shorten Iran’s breakout time (the time it would take to produce fissile material for a single nuclear weapon).

Enrichment of uranium to 20 per cent, nine-tenths of the way to weapons-grade, is frozen (including by dismantling ‘technical connections’ between cascades) and stockpiles of uranium enriched to that higher level are to be converted into reactor fuel or diluted to lower levels.

Iran will continue enrichment up to 5 per cent, but, importantly, has agreed that its stockpile of this lower enriched uranium will not grow over the six month period of the deal: it will convert the surplus into oxide form, which makes it less readily usable for weapons use. Iran may not install additional centrifuges, must leave a large proportion of installed centrifuges inactive, and may not even manufacture new centrifuges other than to replace damaged ones. This is  something that is to be verified through ‘IAEA access to centrifuge assembly facilities’ and ‘centrifuge rotor component production and storage facilities’, measures that go well beyond Iran’s formal obligations to the Agency.

Iran’s heavy water reactor at Arak was never going to go operational during the period of this interim deal anyway, but the agreement forbids Iran from transferring fuel or heavy water to the site – from testing or producing fuel, or installing ‘remaining components’ – easing the understandable concerns over how Iran might have used the deal to make progress towards activation of the reactor.

The implications of this are threefold: first, Iran’s breakout time has nearly doubled (from ‘at least 1-1.6 months to at least 1.9-2.2 months’, according to ISIS’ David Albright); second, even the deal’s collapse will leave the West in a better position than the pre-deal status quo; third, the deal guards against Iran ‘buying time’ for six months and then, at the end of the negotiating period, installing enrichment capacity that it had built up and held in reserve. This increase in breakout time is significant, and it should be interpreted in conjunction with further provisions for ‘enhanced monitoring’ of Iran’s programme and daily access for inspectors (greater than today). These upgraded monitoring rights are just a start – as part of a final deal, Iran will have to ratify an Additional Protocol, which gives the IAEA wider powers – but it is a crucial element, and one that, as Jeffrey Lewis explains, also modestly decreases the likelihood that Iran could conceal any secret nuclear facilities in addition to its declared, safeguarded ones.

"not only would it take Iran longer to produce the fissile material for a nuclear weapon, but its likelihood of getting caught has also increased"

In sum: not only would it take Iran longer to produce the fissile material for a nuclear weapon, but its likelihood of getting caught has also increased. The possibility of undetected or unstoppable breakout has therefore diminished greatly. Depending on how the IAEA employed its new powers, the US and Israel would have around two months after detecting any Iranian attempt at breakout to respond, more than sufficient time for whatever response they deemed appropriate, including a military one (of course, for those who believe that the US would never use force against Iran, breakout times are irrelevant). Had a deal not been done, Iran’s breakout time would have shrunk over this same period to a few weeks, long before sanctions compelled it to dismantle its programme.

Sanctions Relief

Second, the deal comes cheaply. Iran is being granted less than $7 billion of sanctions relief focused on releasing frozen Iranian funds and relief on gold, petrochemical, and automobile sector sanctions. This is a small fraction of the cost being imposed monthly by the punishing oil and banking sanctions that stay firmly in place, including all EU-mandated sanctions. The deal also permits ‘Iran’s current customers to purchase their current average amounts of crude oil’, which removes the threat of further export cuts and protects Iranian revenue. But Iran will still be forfeiting over three times as much in foregone oil revenue as it will gain in relief.

There is no logical reason why these measures should subsequently weaken the remaining sanctions over time, because the costs of noncompliance remain as high as ever. There is no sanctions slippery slope. Moreover, if Iran is unwilling to agree to the further curbs and transparency measures of a final deal, new sanctions could more than offset any gain it made in the six-month interim period.  

Compromise on enrichment

Third, the agreement is exceptionally carefully balanced on the issue of whether Iran is to be granted a ‘right to enrich’, something that Iranian officials had made a deal-breaker. US Secretary of State John Kerry insisted after the deal that ‘we do not recognise a right to enrich’, whereas his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, declared the opposite.  This disagreement is a function of the language employed in the text:

This comprehensive solution would involve a mutually defined enrichment program with practical limits and transparency measures to ensure the peaceful nature of the program. This comprehensive solution would constitute an integrated whole where nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.

"The language in this agreement is an intelligent compromise"

Various UN Security Council resolutions have called on Iran to halt enrichment activity, and many have taken the view that Iran should therefore only be granted sanctions relief upon perfect compliance – the so-called ‘zero enrichment’ position. P5+1 officials recognised that this was unrealistic, given the domestic prominence of the issue within Iran, but they were wary of agreeing that Iran had what it called an ‘inalienable’ right to enrichment, not least because this would set troubling precedents for civil nuclear cooperation and other cases of potential nuclear proliferation.

The language in this agreement is an intelligent compromise. The US can argue that a ‘mutually defined’ programme is one that exists by consent, not by right, and that no such precedent is being sent; Iran can argue that any sort of enrichment activity presupposes a right to enrichment, and that its right has been implicit recognised.

Moreover, the US can claim that Iranian enrichment is only sanctioned under heavy curbs – without which the ‘integrated whole’ is incomplete and no enrichment programme will be ‘defined’ i.e., granted. Iran on the other hand will point to the clause specifying that ‘following successful implementation of the final step of the comprehensive solution for its full duration, the Iranian nuclear program will be treated in the same manner as that of any non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT’, suggesting that all limits on enrichment capacity and suchlike will disappear if and when Iran can demonstrate its alleged nuclear weapons work no longer continues. This is likely to become a point of greater contention in final status discussion.


It is understandable that each side will interpret the agreement to suit its own interests, particularly when the issue has domestic political resonance. It was crucial for Iran’s negotiating team they had been seen to successfully defend Iran’s nuclear rights, not least because the Supreme Leader had emphasised this issue. But this matter can become a source of tension if either side is seen to be exploiting loopholes.

When the US concluded a deal with North Korea last year, it assumed that missile tests were banned. But Pyongyang then conducted a satellite launch, which amounts to the same thing; although it had been verbally agreed that this would be forbidden, it was never formalised. The diplomacy in Geneva was protracted and painstaking precisely to tie such loopholes up, but in an agreement of such complexity, dealing with highly complex nuclear issues, more points of friction may emerge over time. Critics will soon complain that Iran’s missile programme, which was bound up with its alleged pre-2003 weapons programme, has gone unaddressed.

The agreement does specify that ‘a Joint Commission of E3/EU+3 [the Six powers] and Iran will be established to monitor the implementation of the near-term measures and address issues that may arise’, but the key test of this commission will be its ability to resolve any disputes before they rise, as they would quickly, to the political level. It will be more important than ever that the international community holds Iran to these commitments, on pain of further sanctions, but also that the US upholds its own promises, particularly those pertaining to its own pause in the imposition of new sanctions.

Final status

"Iran will not come to a final agreement and begin further limiting its nuclear programme without a credible roadmap to the complete lifting of all ‘nuclear-related sanctions’"

Defining an acceptable end state for Iran’s nuclear programme and the sequence of steps to get there is now the principal task for negotiators. The domestic obstacles to this are severe. Although Iran’s parliament will also have a role to play in a final agreement – notably in ratifying the Additional Protocol, but perhaps also in approving other curbs on Iran’s nuclear programme – the most serious hurdles are likely to lie in Congress, where there is bipartisan scepticism over this agreement.

Iran will not come to a final agreement and begin further limiting its nuclear programme without a credible roadmap to the complete lifting of all ‘nuclear-related sanctions’ (the agreement permits the US and others to keep other, e.g., human rights-related, sanctions to remain), and such a roadmap will not be credible unless the Obama administration is able to show that Congress will acquiesce to any deal – Iran will not accept presidential waivers in perpetuity. As such, a successor deal may also be ‘staged’, so that the administration can persuade Congress at each step that Iran is in compliance. This is far from guaranteed, and will necessitate that Iran allows its overall enrichment capacity to shrink greatly at least until the IAEA finished looking into so-called Possible Military Dimensions (PMDs) to Iran’s nuclear programme.  

It is also worth noting that, although the deal’s measures last for six months, it also states that ‘the parties aim to conclude negotiating and commence implementing’ the final deal ‘no more than one year after the adoption of this document’, which suggests a gap between the conclusion of the interim agreement and the adoption of a new one: how will that be bridged?

The Aftermath

The regional response

The response to this agreement from Iran’s regional rivals has not been universally hostile. Many Arab and particularly Gulf analysts expressed cautious optimism. The UAE, which has a major territorial dispute with Iran and is closely aligned to Saudi Arabia, said the agreement could support ‘the stability of the region’; Bahrain’s foreign minister said it ‘removes fears from us, whether from Iran or any other state’. Turkey, Kuwait, and Oman have also expressed support. But Saudi Arabia and Israel have been less positive, with Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu insisting that the deal was a  ‘historic mistake’ that ‘turns the world into a much scarier place’. As Israel's former army intelligence chief Amos Yadlin put it: ‘in the coming six months the legitimacy of an [Israeli] attack will diminish’. But the moment of maximum danger would come if, once the agreement expires, no successor deal is in place. In that scenario, the US Congress would push back much harder against any effort to initiate a second interim agreement and would instead push ahead with further sanctions, regardless of whether Iran expanded its nuclear programme or not.

Israel’s focus is now likely to shift to watching for any Iranian breaches of the agreement, encouraging US legislators and the international community to prepare for an intensification of sanctions pressure in case the deal collapses or lapses, and demanding ‘offsetting’ concessions from the US, such as advanced weaponry of the sort that would useful in airstrikes e.g., bunker-buster bombs that the US has previously withheld. Israeli covert actions against Iran are possible, but they would risk a more serious US-Israel breach.

Iran-US rapprochement?

"the moment of maximum danger would come if, once the agreement expires, no successor deal is in place"

More broadly, we should also be realistic about the scope of this agreement. Enthusiasts and cynics seem united in their belief that a historic US-Iran rapprochement is on the cards. Some welcome this; others – Israel and the Arab monarchies – fear it. But the Geneva agreement is a narrow, technical nuclear agreement. Contrary to the hopes or fear of many, there are no secret protocols on the future of the Middle East.

The bombing of Iran’s embassy in Beirut last week will have hardened Tehran’s view that a Syrian rebel victory would be catastrophic for their interests. There is no evidence that Iran’s support for the Assad regime is softening, or that the US will permit Iran to attend a peace conference until it formally concedes the principle of political transition. It would be a mistake to conflate the US’ hesitance to bomb Syria with an eagerness to accommodate Iran, although the next few months will give us a better indication of the degree to which Iran will be brought into the fold. Elsewhere in the region, even where US-Iran interests are most convergent, cooperation is hard to find: Iran was the only state to oppose last week’s US-Afghanistan Bilateral Security Agreement on the future of US troops in the country.

On the Iranian side, their government has sought a deal to ease sanctions and so repair an ailing economy. Nuclear diplomacy is a means to a limited and practical end, not a vehicle for unconstrained US-Iran friendship. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, does not necessarily want to see this deal become the thin end of a wedge to normalisation. Khamenei has written to Rouhani encouraging him to take ‘the next wise steps’, but this likely refers to the next stage of nuclear diplomacy rather than regional cooperation.

This is a modest, imperfect, but valuable agreement that affords us the best opportunity we have had in years to put reasonably solid barriers between Iran’s civil nuclear programme and any attempt to manufacture nuclear weaponry. Achieving a more lasting deal will require a judicious mixture of vigilance, patience, and creative diplomacy from the US and Iran over the coming months. 


Shashank Joshi
Senior Research Fellow

Shashank Joshi is a Senior Research Fellow at RUSI. He specialises in international security in South Asia and the Middle East, with a... read more

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