The stakes couldn’t be higher and the expectations lower. It was the last chance to broker an agreement –or at least, an initial agreement—with Iran and thus avoid a disaster. But few believed it could be done.
It is true that the clock is ticking very fast. Nobody knows for sure how much time Iran needs to really reach a “breakdown” (the real capacity to have enough enriched uranium to build up a bomb), but estimations oscillate between six months and a year, or even shorter --quite a short period of time, anyway.
What we know for sure is the potential implications of an Iran equipped with a nuclear bomb. It would undoubtedly further destabilize the highly volatile Middle East and force Gulf States, most notably Saudi Arabia, to acquire their own nuclear weapons as a deterrence strategy. A nuclear weapons proliferation would be unstoppable and, most than likely, Israel would act military –even unilaterally– against Iran, and then a war couldn’t be discarded.
Summing up, we don’t know the exact timetable, but we all realize that a nuclear-weaponized Iran means a potential total disaster.
This is why reaching a diplomatic agreement –or even an initial agreement –was so critical. This is why also the deal brokered yesterday in Geneva was immediately heralded as historic.
Yet, caution is here mandatory and we must recognize that the deal is a good –even excellent – start, but doesn’t pose a definitive solution. To begin with, what was hammered out yesterday was an “interim deal” with validity for six months (the time allegedly needed to work through a final treaty). Yes, it temporarily freezes parts of the Iran’s nuclear program and thus contains its expansion. Yes, it builds much needed confidence. Yes, it just buys time.
Critics are right when they say that the Iran’s nuclear clock keeps on ticking and, despite it might have been reset a little bit, it has not –emphasize the “not”—been stopped.
During the last five years Iran has devoted millions to enlarge its nuclear facilities, to accelerate the enrichment of uranium, and even to start the plutonium track (the other path towards a nuclear bomb). There are currently two known uranium-enrichment facilities: the largest is in Natanz and the smallest is in Fordow, within an inexpugnable mountain and quite close to the holy city of Qom, a center of learning among Shiite Muslims. They are also constructing a heavy water reactor (needed to process plutonium) in Arak, and experts coincided that, if not stopped, it might well start operating in 2014 or 2015. Furthermore, both Natanz and Fordow have been recently substantially improved with more and more efficient centrifuges to boost their capabilities. As of August 2013, what are called IR-1 centrifuges (the oldest ones) were up by 15.000, or 600 IR-1s per month. Besides, it had already prepared more than 1.000 IR-2m centrifuges (a newest hi-tech version) and preinstalled about 2.000 more of them just in Natanz.
Obviously, if all these centrifuges start to fully operate, the possibility for Iran to reach a breakout will increase dramatically.
To have a bomb you need –among other things-- to enrich uranium at 90% level. Right now, it seems that Iran has not reached to this point, but it is dangerously approaching. In 2006, it was able to enrich uranium at 5%, what is called “Low Enriched Uranium” or LEU. By 2010, Iran has already mastered the technology to enrich uranium at 20%, what is called “Medium Enriched Uranium” or MEU. The problem is that, technologically speaking, the hardest part is to get to a 20% enrichment level; from that on, it is far easier. Actually, it is a matter of storing enough LEU or MEU to reach to the desirable enriched level.
Some previous agreements imposed Iran the prohibition to store more than 250 kilograms of 20% enriched uranium. According to a report by the Institute for Science and International Security, as of June 2013, it was known that it possessed 180 kilograms but the number might have well been increased recently due to the new centrifuges installation. Actually, Professor Graham Allison of Harvard states that Iran might be right now producing 230 kilograms of LEU and 15 kilograms of MEU monthly.
Obviously, the Iranians insist that they are not seeking the nuclear bomb but to use nuclear energy for “civilian purposes”, and in fact most Iranians regard their nuclear capabilities with national pride. The “right to enrich”, as they call it, is for them non-negotiable, and accepting a prohibition to not enrich uranium at all or, more concretely, not to enrich at 5% is just unthinkable.
What is also unthinkable, though, is to keep on living under the harsh sanctions the US, the UN and the European Union have imposed upon them. Iran has been facing for the last years the toughest sanctions in its history and, as a result, the Iranian economy is at the brink of collapse. Its most important export, oil, has been strenuously damaged, and Iran right now just exports half of the number of barrels it exported before the sanctions.
Getting rid of some of the sanctions was for the Iranians a top priority at the Geneva negotiations. Yet, what they were willing to give in exchange?
Some analysts have already pointed out that perhaps the Iranians have been the great winners at the round of negotiations. The deal, according to their view, just stops the installation of the new centrifuges, halts the buildup of some components at Arak, and introduces a cap of the type of enriched uranium that Iran will be allow to produce. They insist: it just freezes up the current program for six months, and it doesn’t even force Iran to dismantle critical infrastructures or to bring back the number of centrifuges of January 2013 levels. In exchange, some sanctions have been relieved and a promise to not establish new sanctions has been signed off.
I think that is not fair to see the Geneva deal under this light. Yes, it is not as far-reaching as we all have wanted, but it is a great and promising starting point that now allows further negotiations to take place. Besides, it breaks down a climate of thinly-disguised hostility that will create some room for a final agreement. (Having said that, I hope to see some of the requirements abovementioned on the final treaty).
Diplomacy takes time, but it is the only way to go in this case. The alternative (a war) might pose a tremendous suffering on all parts involved.
It doesn’t mean that diplomacy is easy, as for Secretary Kerry has stated, “now the hardest part begins”.