February 1, 2014

Iran Nuclear Deal: What’s at stake?

    Saturday, February 01, 2014   No comments

by Jacob Havel
As Iran and the United States move closer to the end of a six month agreement, uncertainty remains concerning possible structures of a long term deal. The current agreement, under which Iran has ceased much of its enrichment activity and the U.S. has alleviated a small number of economic sanctions, was initially received as a hopeful demonstration of cooperation and good faith. However, with the looming possibility of new sanctions from the U.S. legislature as well as conservative forces in Iran such as Ayatollah Khamenei restating a firm commitment to nuclear freedom, the deal now appears to be little more than a freeze.  Both sides appear to be using the six month time period to assess which chips they will throw into the pot when talks resume.

The temporary deal gives a general idea on the high priority conditions for each side.  The United States’ interests continue to place emphasis on reducing enrichment capacity and therefore neutralizing the production of weapons grade materials, implying that installations like the Arak heavy water reactor will be hotly contested. 

While many argue that heavy water reactors are an energy efficient means of achieving the nuclear fission process, its historical uses are far more notorious.  Heavy water reactors allow for the production of plutonium and tritium, both of which are components that are specifically related to the production of weapons. Even in the United States, the last heavy water reactors were decommissioned in the mid 90’s. Given Iran’s insistence that their nuclear program is entirely peaceful, it will be difficult to defend the use of heavy water reactors, especially considering that Arak has not yet come online.

On the other side of the coin, Iranians seek both energy independence and alleviation from economic sanctions. The temporary agreement alleviates some sanctions concerning crude oil sales and allowing channels for humanitarian aid. While the lifting of these sanctions is important, the relevant nuclear issue concerns enrichment independence.  The enrichment of uranium to twenty percent poses almost no threat as far as weapons production although it represents the upper level of what is considered energy grade uranium. 

The U.S. would like to see levels not exceed five percent as per the current deal and has, in the past, pressed for international supply of highly enriched uranium. This represents the battle ground, with both conservative and liberal Iranians claiming a right to autonomous enrichment. And while some in the West may look to Rouhani’s moderate alignment, it is unlikely that Khamenei and conservative powers in the country would willfully surrender its domestic enrichment capabilities. If Iran is to retain its past enrichment programs, then the removal of high enrichment technologies, such as the Arak heavy water reactor, could be used to quell U.S. anxieties. Still, the U.S. has now set precedent with the easing of sanctions in exchange for the current stall on Iranian enrichment.  

It is also of note that the U.S. sanctions on Iran are deeply rooted in conflict that transcends nuclear issues with some qualms stemming back to the embassy attacks under President Carter. It is possible that the U.S. could choose to barter with the alleviation of sanctions which were not imposed after nuclear instigation, giving them a broad number of hands to play.    

Despite optimism stemming from the successful drafting of the six month agreement, complication from the US legislature represents an ambiguous road block. Republican mistrust of Iran remains high and many lawmakers seem set on the implementation of new sanctions. 

It is further possible that given the 2014 mid-term elections, Obama’s opponents are set on undermining what could be considered a monumental diplomatic success. In any case, the consequences for US foreign policy have been complicated in recent months. Saudi-US relations have spoiled in the wake of the initial deal and Gulf state funding of militant Islamic factions has become a foreign policy headache. As such, new agreements and alliances may become vital in relation to how other foreign conflicts play out, particularly in Syria. 

The U.S. legislature must resolve partisan disputes and allow for the possibility of a long term deal before creating new sanctions, lest they further isolate themselves in a volatile region.  Ultimately, a long term agreement with Iran, while possible, will require new perspectives if it is to overcome years of stagnant mistrust.


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