The Iran Interim Deal: Responses, Potential Impacts, and Moving Forward

Implementation of the interim deal with Iran, which freezes the country’s nuclear enrichment in exchange for limited sanctions relief, began last week. As an initial outcome of this deal, we are witnessing a substantial shift in diplomatic relations and relationships between Iran and its regional neighbours – some positive, some not. This deal marks a significant step for the international non-proliferation regime, but will it achieve the trust and confidence-building goals intended? As the US and Iran face increasing domestic pushback on the terms of the agreement, questions remain on the interim deal’s impact on relations in the region and abroad, and the effect these relations may have on the prospects of coming to a full comprehensive follow-up agreement between Iran and the P5+1 countries.

The Interim Deal

P5 + 1 Iran 2

P5+1 foreign ministers — as well as European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif — at the United Nations Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, after the group concluded negotiations about Iran’s nuclear capabilities on November 24, 2013. Source: US State Department (Flickr)

The current deal, in which Iran will halt further progress on its nuclear programme and roll back key elements in return for temporary and limited sanctions relief from the P5+1, was originally negotiated at the end of November in Geneva, but the details of implementation were confirmed in early January. After a decade of negotiations to solve the Iranian “nuclear crisis”, the implementation of this deal marks a significant step forward for the international non-proliferation regime, and is an important success story for international diplomacy. Despite the misgivings of a number of sceptics, this six-month interim deal brings countries together to work towards developing assurances around Iran’s nuclear programme, acting as a trust and confidence building exercise with the intention to create opportunity and space for a more ambitious longer term agreement in the future.

 A Positive Impact on Diplomatic Relations…

As an initial outcome of this deal, we are witnessing a substantial shift in diplomatic relations and relationships between Iran and its regional neighbours. While the outset of the interim deal saw a number of sceptics, encouraging reactions have developed, including positive official responses from Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman. Even the Prime Minister of the UAE officially welcomed the deal and called for lifting sanctions and a partnership with Iran.

Relationships between Iran and Western partners have also begun to restore themselves as a result of the deal. After three decades of no sustained direct contact, back channels were set up prior to and early on during Rouhani’s presidency to help unlock the negotiations and in a pinnacle moment in September, Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani spoke on the phone after the UN General Assembly.

The United Kingdom also hasn’t had bilateral diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic since 2011, when the British Embassy in Tehran was stormed.  However, the UK and Iran agreed to renew direct diplomatic links during November’s Geneva talks and shortly thereafter, a newly appointed British chargé d’affaires, Ajay Sharma, travelled to Iran as the first British envoy since 2011. It was announced on the 28th of January that a delegation of Iranian parliamentarians will visit London during the summer months. This follows a visit by British Members of Parliament, led by former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw MP, to Tehran that took place in early January.

This overall confidence-building between regional states and diplomatic restoration between Iran and the P5+1 negotiating partners promises to improve the chances of negotiating a comprehensive nuclear deal next month.

…But Not for Everyone

Netanyahu and Obama

US President Obama with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu Source: The Israel Project

However, the possible détente between Iran and Western countries – the US in particular – may be a game changer for some regional states and parties. Israel’s response to the interim deal has been continuously vocal and disapproving from the start, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemning the deal as a “historic mistake”. It comes as somewhat of a personal defeat for the Israeli Prime Minister, who has been campaigning to strip Iran from all of its enrichment capability. Some analysts have hinted that this deal will damage the prospects for the Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East as it will pull Israel even further away from the negotiation table. Perhaps, though, the fear of losing US interest will bring them even closer to it.

Responses in Saudi Arabia have also been less than enthusiastic: while the official response labelled the deal as a good solution to the Iranian nuclear programme, the unofficial response fears proliferation in the region and the enhancement of Iran’s role as a regional power. Members of the Saudi royal family have labelled Obama’s strategy with Iran as flawed and claimed that sanctions relief was a huge mistake that will now give Iran the upper hand. The Saudis see this deal as giving Iran more power, which threatens their status as a regional hegemon. In an unusual turn of events, this sees Saudi Arabia’s and Israel’s interests aligning—both feeling disappointed and outraged towards the US and fearing Iran’s potential.

Hints of a rift between Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have also been noticed as a result of this deal. Unlike Saudi Arabia, most of these states have signalled their modification in policy to match US goodwill towards Iran. This is especially seen in Oman, a state with strong historic ties to Iran and which helped broker the initial back channels established between the Islamic Republic and US in early 2013. At the IISS Manama Dialogue in December 2013, Omani Foreign Minister Youssef bin Alawi candidly spoke out against the Saudi proposal to upgrade the GCC union. The Sultanate state has always intended to pursue an independent foreign policy path, careful to balance relationships on both sides of the Gulf. The proposal, which strengthens the union of the GCC, was rejected by the Omani Sultanate on the grounds that there is a failure to agree on the foundations of the GCC and economic integration, but it would also force Oman to align more closely with Saudi Arabia which might in turn antagonise Oman’s relationship with Iran. With the complex combination of global and regional structural shifts and intersecting economic interests, this is perhaps the first of many small fissures between the Gulf States and regional partners that will come as unintended consequences of this deal.

Hurting at home

Even within Iran, the reaction has been mixed, and Rouhani has faced criticism for being too close to the West. Since his election in June of last year, he and his administration have been leading a public relations campaign to repair relations with the West, but he has faced problems with hardliners who are sceptical of US motivations or hold on to historical grudges.  While this deal helps to relieve some of Iran’s economic hardship, Rouhani has gone out on a limb in easing off enrichment, a capability which is seen by many within Iran to be entrenched within their national identity.

Obama faces similar problems in Washington, as lawmakers in the Congress come dangerously close to causing the collapse of the deal by supporting the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act (S.1881) in the Senate. This bill, introduced in December by New Jersey Democratic Senator, Robert Menendez, imposes additional financial sanctions against Iran if it were to default on the terms of the interim deal, or if a long term deal was not agreed to after the end of the six months. Terms of the initial deal with Iran stipulates there will be no new nuclear related sanctions but core sanctions will remain intact for now and Iran will continue to lose $4-$5 billion in revenue per month.

Crucially,  the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act would require zero enrichment from Iran, which is a red line for Iranians. Under the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, all Parties have the inalienable right “to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination”. Blatant discrimination against these rights is a deal breaker for Iran and in response (or perhaps retaliation) to Menendez’s bill, Iranian parliament has proposed new legislation that would allow for Iran to increase uranium enrichment to 60 percent, enough for weapons grade uranium. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has threatened that if bill S.1881 is passed in Congress, “the entire [interim] deal is dead”.

Moving Forward

The next round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 to negotiate a more comprehensive nuclear deal is reportedly to be held in New York in mid-February. However, with domestic and regional backlash from the deal threatening to collapse the interim deal – and worse, threatening to prohibit the agreement of a more sustainable deal in February – the chance of achieving further negotiations now depends on successful physical implementation of the interim deal Joint Plan of Action.

While many remain sceptical of the parties involved or the implications on the region and beyond, this interim deal is a positive breakthrough for the international non-proliferation regime, which has needed a major boost like this for some time. We have a major opportunity ahead of us for restoring trust and strengthening Iran’s partnership on the global non-proliferation and disarmament agenda. This potential for such positive outcomes must now be the focus of the next month, because losing the momentum of this deal and starting from scratch would be a setback that global security cannot afford.

Rachel Staley is currently the Programme Manager for the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) in their London office. Since 2011, Rachel has managed the operations of the office and assisted in developing the organisation’s programmes working on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament in the Middle East, as well as engaging directly in the Trident renewal debate in the United Kingdom. Rachel holds an MA with Distinction in Non-Proliferation and International Security from King’s College London and a BA with Honours in International Affairs and Anthropology from Northeastern University.

Featured image: 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, on early November 24, 2013 in Geneva. Source: European External Action Service (Flickr)