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The Uses of Nuclear Ambitions

MADRID – The agreement reached in Geneva in the wee hours of November 24 between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany) on Iran’s nuclear program proves a crucially important point: the sanctions regime worked. The interim deal is Iran’s first compromise on its nuclear program in more than a decade, and a diplomatic victory in a field long overshadowed by the looming cloud of military intervention. Yet the euphoric reaction seen in some quarters is misplaced.

Beyond the ambiguities and limitations of the six-month agreement, the negotiations have clearly exposed Iran’s nuclear-weapons program and, more broadly, its understanding that nuclear weapons remain a geostrategic status symbol. This points to the difficulty of achieving a comprehensive agreement and the possibility that the international effort could result only in a series of small deals aimed at delaying Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon rather than removing the threat of it altogether.

Beneath the headlines of the historic deal lies a limited and ambiguous agreement. The joint statement released by European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif referred to the agreement as “a joint plan of action” that “sets out an approach toward reaching a long-term comprehensive solution.” While it includes a first step that “creates the time and environment needed for a comprehensive solution,” the interim accord is really about confidence-building measures. Indeed, the obligations that it lists are referred to as “voluntary measures.”

At best, the agreement maintains the current status quo, and in some respects even allows for further development of Iran’s nuclear program. In this sense, perhaps the most troubling aspect of the interim deal concerns Iran’s yet-to-be-opened Arak plant, which would offer a path to domestic plutonium production and weaponization.