Telegraph Blogs have published my piece on the latest deal on Iran and its nuclear programmes:
All negotiations boil down to a few existential issues: Security, Resources, Control, Reputation/Recognition and Time/Risk. Plus, depending on how the other aspects are tackled, Trust. Skilful negotiators trade both within and between these ideas.
How does the Iran nuclear negotiation look from this point of view?
Basically, for years Iran has given every impression of being bent on developing nuclear weapons under guise of a civil nuclear programme, and cranked up provocative anti-Israel rhetoric. The West with varying support from Russia and China has leant hard on Iran through economic and political sanctions to try to head off “weaponisation”. These sanctions have hit Iran and its people hard, to the point of bringing to power a “relative moderate”, Hassan Rouhani. Rouhani indicated that he was ready for a new start.
Hence this deal. The essence is simple. Iran promises to take certain specific steps consistent with scaling back its nuclear programme and denying itself nuclear weapons processes, promising explicitly that “under no circumstances will Iran ever seek or develop any nuclear weapons”. In return sanctions are eased. This agreement lasts six months while a comprehensive agreement is negotiated.
Right at the heart of the agreement is Trust: how can the West trust the Iranians not to cheat? This is answered by bringing in an unusually intrusive international inspection regime led by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), whose expert inspectors will have daily access to key Iranian installations. In return Western governments will need to do what they have promised by way of suspending/easing sanctions to show Iran that they too can be trusted.
Thus Iran gets Resources (eased sanctions), shares Control over its programme (with the IAEA), and wins new international Recognition as a sane partner with a right to nuclear energy. The Time/Risk factor is managed by phasing in the agreement over this first six months period, in a step-by-step building of new mutual Trust.
The West plus Russia and China (and Israel) get the Security and Control that come from keeping a tight watch on Iranian nuclear activities, and (hope President Obama and the EU) the Recognition at home and around the world arising from a major diplomatic success. The fact that Russia and China have been closely involved in negotiating this deal significantly raises the stakes at the United Nations for Iran if any future Iranian leadership tries to wriggle back from its promises on weaponisation.
What about Israel? What security margin can Israel accept when it comes to Iran and its civil nuclear programmes? There is no good or principled answer to this. If Israel thinks that Iran (a) might quickly develop a nuclear bomb and (b) use it against Israel, any outcome that leaves a substantial Iranian civil nuclear programme intact is potentially dangerous.
To this extent Iran has achieved a key success in this war of nerves, by winning explicit acknowledgement of its right to nuclear energy and associated technology. Israel now finds itself in a new balance of Security and Risk: having to live with a civil nuclear Iran that is never far from speedy weaponization but, thanks to those busy IAEA inspections, never quite gets there…
It’s noteworthy that this year I have been part of the Ambassador Partnership Technique team that gave Negotiations Skills training to both OPCW inspectors (now deployed to Syria) and IAEA inspectors (now going to be very busy in Iran). These are are all smart, sensible people who have to do amazingly delicate and important work and show studious professionalism plus good faith as they do it. So good luck to them.
What does it all mean?
Perhaps the Arab Spring traumas in their very different shapes and sizes are leading to a new constellation of forces across the Middle East. Iran for years has opted to be a large part of the problem, exporting terrorism and odious rhetoric. Under new management, elected into office in part because of sustained sanctions pressure, it appears to have concluded that for the time being it is better to regain its economic strength by cooperating politely with international opinion on its nuclear programmes. As neither Israel nor Iran’s potential to move fairly quickly to a weapons programme if all else fails are going to disappear soon, why not play this one rather longer?
Down the road the Saudis are fed up with American flirting with Iran and vacillation in Syria/Egypt. And the USA is fast becoming less dependent on foreign oil imports. So that traditionally friendly relationship is now wobbling. But is that such a bad thing in the greater scheme of things? What do the Saudis bring to international relations that we all can’t do without?
Russia again does well out of this process, having positioned itself craftily between Iran and the USA and so being a solid part of the final deal that in its ‘optics’ mainly reinforces the UN Security Council P5 members as the driver of the outcome. China too gets part of the praise and shows that it is willing to be part of constructive wider international security negotiations.
The EU here has shown what can be achieved by colleactive action when Germany/France/UK join forces to drive the policy and the rest of the EU dutifully signs up. Catherine Ashton has a good personal style, and some female instincts have no doubt helped create a rather different and better mood at key moments, even with the overwhelmingly male Islamistic Iranian delegations. France has raised its reputation by playing tough at an earlier stage to stiffen the package.
Israel? Israel gets a nuclear Iran but an Iran tied down by IAEA inspectors and pondering the fact that serious deviation towards weaponisation now risks Iran losing any lingering support from Russia and China once and for all. Not a perfect outcome for Tel Aviv, but a perfect outcome was not available. And arguably Israel is a tad safer today with this agreement than it was last week without one.
In short, one of the things I learned from my career is that the idea of a ‘window of opportunity’ really does exist in diplomacy. Sometimes for no obvious reason or against all expectations the diplomatic kaleidoscope twists and creates a new pattern that allows quite new steps to be taken. But they must be taken quickly.
In this case Western capitals (yes, armed with lots of tough intelligence information) decided that the new Iranian leadership were sufficiently sincere about wanting to change course that it was worth investing in serious diplomatic effort to achieve a sharp change of course. This sort of thing is always risky, as the ‘true’ intentions of the other side may never be known. Plus the other side itself may not know its true intentions.
On this occasion the risk (so far) has been worth taking. If somehow the agreement sticks and a full settlement is reached in the next year or so, an impressive step forward towards normalising other relationships in that troubled region will have been accomplished.
Or not. Maybe the very fact of this agreement will encourage those forces who want to take advantage of the studied detachment if not weakness shown by President Obama and press on with destabilising Egypt, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Will the UN P5 + Germany + EU be able to summon again enough unity of purpose and pressure to deal with those awful messes too?
Update: For the contrary view that the whole thing is a ruinous surrender to Iranian extremism that leaves all of us worse off, try John Bolton.