Flawed Geneva deal on Iran already unravelling

Flawed Geneva deal on Iran already unravelling

Allon Lee

An edited version of this article appeared in the
Canberra Times on Dec. 27.

That didn’t take long.

The much-lauded Geneva “interim” six-month deal signed by Iran and the P5+1 on November 24 – which was designed to pause Iran’s efforts to produce nuclear weapons but was riddled with loopholes – has already stalled.

On December 13, to protest the US Treasury applying existing internationally-binding sanctions against 19 Iranian companies, Iran withdrew its representatives from technical talks aimed at specifying how to actually implement the interim agreement.

This is just a continuation of the long running Iranian strategy of delaying negotiations whilst talks go nowhere. It further exposes the flaws in the Geneva arrangement – which amounts to no more than an undertaking by Iran to enter into discussions about limiting but not stopping uranium enrichment in exchange for a partial relaxation of sanctions including access to at least seven billion dollars in frozen accounts.

Significantly, since November, Iran has not stopped one centrifuge from enriching uranium. This insistence on continuous enrichment cuts to the heart of the matter – the disparity between Teheran’s actions and its rhetoric insisting that its nuclear programs is directed toward securing an alternative energy source to fossil fuels.

The most startling fact about Iran’s “peaceful” nuclear program is its failure to produce one kilowatt of electricity in two decades.

Certainly for a country with the world’s third largest oil reserves, the alternative energy argument has always been suspect. In addition, nuclear electricity generation does not require enrichment – at least 13 nations create nuclear power without enriching uranium. Moreover, Iran has been repeatedly offered guaranteed nuclear fuel supplies if it will cease its enrichment program – which violates six legally-binding UN Security Council resolutions.

Elements missing from the Geneva agreement also undermine claims that the program is for peaceful nuclear power.

For instance, the deal offers no inspections of the Parchin military research facility – which the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been demanding to inspect for many years.

Parchin is believed to be where nuclear bomb triggers are being tested. If Iran has nothing to hide, why has it so strongly and consistently resisted IAEA inspections there?

The backers of the Geneva agreement prefer to focus on the nominal curtailment of Iran’s uranium enrichment beyond five per cent as a significant concession.

But curtailing uranium enrichment to higher levels is primarily a furphy because Iran has already mastered the process and will retain its low-enriched uranium stockpile (which is already adequate for four or five bombs).

Meanwhile, the 10,000 of its 19,000 centrifuges currently enriching uranium will not be turned off. Nuclear experts agree that the stockpiles and centrifuges Iran will keep would allow it to make a bomb core in less than two months.

The agreement also does not halt construction of the Arak heavy water plant that will enable Iran to also generate weapons-grade plutonium.

To appreciate the weakness of this deal, compare the arrangement to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons, which included not only the weapons stockpiles but also the infrastructure needed to manufacture the poison. Iran gets to keep both.

The agreement’s weakest aspect is that it relies on Iranian good faith.

Teheran has a long history of non-compliance with its disclosure obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) it voluntarily signed on to.

NPT breaches include the 2002 exposure of a secret gas centrifuge uranium enrichment plant at Natanz and the heavy water production plant at Arak and, in 2009, revelations of another illegal clandestine facility, the Fordow uranium enrichment plant near Qom.

It is therefore a mystery why anyone would trust Iran to comply with this agreement. The additional inspections Geneva calls for provide absolutely no means to find or inspect any additional secret sites Iran may have or build.

Some champions for Iran often suggest that if Teheran has been trying to produce nuclear weapons in secret, this is only a natural reaction to the supposedly aggressive posture directed at it by the US and Israel. Yet this is absurd.

The Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear ambitions started in 1989 in direct response to the conclusion of the devastating eight year war with its neighbour Iraq, not the US or Israel. Yet Iraq today is no threat.

Moreover, before the revolution, Israel and Iran enjoyed solid economic, military and political ties. With 1,800 kilometres separating the two nations, there is not now nor has there ever been any territorial or other material dispute in play. It is purely the radical Islamist anti-Israel ideology at the core of the regime that creates conflict.

The real challenges to Iran’s hegemonic ambitions come from its immediate Sunni neighbours who fear the US conceding Syria to the Iranian-backed Assad regime, guaranteeing Hezbollah’s continued dominance in Lebanon, and okaying Iranian backing for rebel groups across the region and terrorism around the world.

Wikileaks cables revealed that the Saudis, Egyptians, Qataris, and the United Arab Emirates were all desperately pushing the US to “cut off the head of the snake” as Saudi King Abdullah put it.

By contrast Israel’s alleged nuclear capability does not worry them – after four decades, they know it poses no threat to their own interests or survival.

The seriousness of the concern felt by Iran’s Arab neighbours that Geneva guarantees Iran will become a nuclear weapons power is underscored by the steady stream of statements from Saudi leaders using unprecedented undiplomatic language to directly accuse the US of abandoning its allies.

Some have sniffed at Saudi Arabia’s promise to go it alone, arguing it cannot and will not militarily confront Iran.

That is probably true, but going it alone can take many forms. If, as is reported, Saudi Arabia has an agreement to buy nuclear weapons from Pakistan, then Geneva, if it leads to a final deal, may just have ushered in a nuclear arms race in the most politically fractious region of the world.

Allon Lee is a policy analyst with the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council