A week of convoluted diplomacy between the United States of America and the Islamic Republic of Iran began on Monday when Iran removed the core of its Arak heavy water nuclear reactor, filling the space with cement in a clear effort to demonstrate its compliance with a nuclear deal signed last year. The move means that the Arak reactor will no longer be able to produce fissile plutonium, which can be used in the construction of a nuclear weapon.
The framework of a deal between Iran and a group of world powers – the P5+1, which refers to the UN Security Council’s five permanent members of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China, plus Germany, and the European Union – was agreed at the end of a week’s worth of negotiations in Lausanne last 2 April. While it contained no binding measures, this framework served as the basis for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action announced between Iran, the P5+1, and the EU on 14 July.
Focused on limiting Iran’s nuclear capacity in exchange for relief from international sanctions, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action saw Iran agree to eliminate its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium, reduce its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 98%, and enrich uranium only up to 3.67% for a period of fifteen years: a level deemed sufficient for civilian power and research, while preventing the development of a nuclear weapon. Two-thirds of Iran’s gas centrifuges were consigned to storage according to the plan, while Iran also consented to restricting enrichment activities to the Natanz facility, and rebuilding the Arak heavy water reactor in line with a non-military agenda. A bolstered International Atomic Energy Agency was given responsibility for monitoring Iran’s compliance.
The UN Security Council and the European Union swiftly approved the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on 20 July, but the same week the agreement began a sixty-day period of review in the United States Congress. With Barack Obama vowing to use his presidential veto to push through the plan, stating ‘I am confident that this deal will meet the national security needs of the United States and our allies […] We do not have to accept an inevitable spiral into conflict, and we certainly shouldn’t seek it’, both houses of Congress were left needing a two-thirds majority in order to force its rejection.
Leading Republicans were vehement in their opposition – Ted Cruz stating that with the agreement ‘the Obama administration will become the leading financier of terrorism against America in the world’, while Mike Huckabee argued the effect would be to ‘take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven’ – and interest groups spent tens of millions of dollars campaigning mostly against the deal. On the other hand former ambassadors and diplomats, prominent scientists, and retired military generals offered the deal their endorsement. And though both houses tabled resolutions registering their disapproval, neither mustered enough votes to halt the progress of the plan, allowing President Obama to move ahead with its implementation from 17 September.
The Iranian Majlis determined to wait eighty days before voting on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, meaning that they would not vote until after the United States had made its position clear. President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif defended the deal in the face of criticism from conservatives, whose number included former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and former Secretary of the National Security Council Saeed Jalili. After hearings had taken place in front of a special commission, on 13 October the Majlis effectively approved the plan, with 161 votes cast in favour, 59 votes against, and 13 abstentions.
Iran had argued that the purpose of the Arak heavy water reactor was to produce isotopes for medical use, and its rebuilding was one of the most contentious issues during talks which extended back to 2013, when the reactor was still in the final stages of construction. The removal of its core on Monday represented a major step towards Iran’s implementation of the deal: President Rouhani, in a speech broadcast live on state television, said ‘We are hopeful that the sanctions against Iran would be lifted in the next few days’, and both Federica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, and John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, agreed that this appeared imminent.
But the following day Iran captured and held ten American sailors, after their two US Navy patrol boats entered Iranian waters without authorisation near Farsi Island in the Persian Gulf. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps maintains a base on the island, and the semi-independent Fars News Agency reported that the American boats were equipped with three 50-caliber machine guns, but Iran’s official state news agency IRNA suggested that the sailors had simply been ‘rescued’ after their boats ran out of fuel. According to US defence officials, the boats were travelling from Kuwait to Bahrain, and issued no distress calls.
While campaigning Republicans were quick to lament the Obama administration’s ‘weakness’ in the face of what they perceived as a provocative Iran, dialogue between John Kerry and Javad Zarif resulted in Kerry stating that he expected the sailors to be released ‘very soon’. And on Wednesday Iran released all ten unharmed into the arms of the US Navy, although some commentators expressed upset over the makeshift attire of the lone female detainee. Iranian television later showed video footage of the moment of arrest, with the IRGC stating that the sailors had ‘entered Iranian territorial waters inadvertently’, and had been freed after an apology. Meanwhile a US statement declared that ‘the Navy will investigate the circumstances that led to the sailors’ presence in Iran’.
Javad Zarif took to Twitter to note that he was ‘happy to see dialogue and respect, not threats and impetuousness, swiftly resolved the sailors episode’, while John Kerry said ‘I think we can all imagine how a similar situation might have played out three or four years ago, and the fact that today this kind of issue can be resolved peacefully and efficiently is a testament to the critical role diplomacy plays in keeping our country safe, secure, and strong’.
International sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council since 2006 have until now crippled the Iranian economy. While targeting the country’s investments in oil and gas, and all business dealings involving the military, humanitarian groups have argued that they have nevertheless caused severe shortages in life-saving pharmaceuticals and medical equipment. As part of the deal process, the IAEA have installed a monitoring device at the Natanz facility to ensure that uranium enrichment does not surpass 3.67%.
The finalisation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was heralded by IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano, by the United States and Iranian governments, and by cosigners in the EU, with British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond saying, ‘Years of patient and persistent diplomacy, and difficult technical work, have borne fruit as we now implement the deal’. But the occasion was criticised by US conservatives and Iran’s opponents in the Middle East, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arguing, ‘Even after signing the nuclear deal, Iran has not relinquished its ambition to obtain nuclear weapons, and continues to act to destabilise the Middle East and spread terror throughout the world’.
A prisoner swap between the US and Iran also emerged on Saturday. Iran announced the release of five American citizens – including Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, who was detained at his Tehran residence in July 2014, and had been imprisoned on charges of espionage and ‘propaganda against the establishment’ since last November. In return the US said it was offering clemency to seven Iranians being held for sanctions violations.
Sanctions are estimated to have cost Iran more than $160 billion in oil revenues since 2012, but despite the country’s access to the international market and $50 billion overseas – most of which lies in banks in China, Japan, and South Korea, with another $50 billion going towards preexisting debts – the low price of oil, only exacerbated in recent months by Iran’s imminent reemergence, is likely to make any economic recovery difficult to achieve. Iran hopes to increase its oil exports by 500,000 barrels a day, but must deal with a faltering currency and stunted infrastructure.