Last week, President Barack Obama made a late night statement announcing ďan important first step toward a comprehensive solution that addresses our concerns with the Islamic Republic of Iranís nuclear program.Ē Hopes have been high since the election of Iran President Hassan Rouhini, believed to be more moderate than his predecessors with his hints of a more conciliatory tone from the nation. The agreement was negotiated by the European Union and talks involved the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia and China.
The agreement is just one of a few steps forward, and many backwards, in dealing with Iranís nuclear program.
In the 1950s,†the first nuclear reactor in Iran was funded by the United States through the Atoms for Peace program. This program was used to promote the peaceful uses for nuclear energy, while the U.S. pursued the switch from conventional weapons to nuclear ones. By the late 1960s, the world was in a full-fledged nuclear arms race, leading to the Treaty of Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
Iran ratified the treaty in 1970.
After delays caused by revolution and war, Iran restarted its research into nuclear energy, including the mining of uranium and enrichment. They pursued nuclear cooperation contracts with Russia and China, which provided equipment, personnel and training for Iranian scientists. By 2003, they had built additional nuclear facilities and admitted to ďsmall-scale enrichment experiments and plans to construct an enrichment facility, a heavy water production plant, a heavy water-moderated research reactor, and a fuel fabrication facility.”
By this time, the United States was in the midst in the so-called War on Terror, fighting fronts in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and Iran was included in President George W. Bushís Axis of Evil. Under intense international scrutiny, Iran halted its nuclear program and reportedly indicated interest in discussing a way forward with the U.S. The Bush administration declined, believing that the already imposed sanctions were working and that waiting longer would force Iran into acquiescing to a complete dismantling of their nuclear program.
Their gamble failed. Over the next seven years, Iran learned to enrich uranium far beyond the levels needed for energy uses.
The agreement reached in Geneva does not deal with the core issue of Iranís nuclear program — the possible development of a nuclear weapon. Instead, itís a tool to be used for thawing the ice with Iran and begin serious talks on the way forward. There is still a long road ahead, but to get there, the United States is willing to give a little to get a little.
In other words, President Obama is trying a little diplomacy.
The six month agreement calls for an immediate halt to Iranís program and rolling back of some key elements.† Nuclear reactors use uranium enriched (meaning it has been processed from its natural state to higher levels that make it useful for things like power) to a level of 3 to 5 percent. Iran is required to stop all enrichment above the 5 percent level, as well as dilute any uranium that has been enriched beyond that down to the 5 percent level. Furthermore, they are to dismantle systems that give them the ability to enrich beyond the agreed upon level.
The purpose of this is to halt progress towards them figuring out how to achieve weapons grade levels. Highly enriched uranium is considered weapons grade at 90 percent enrichment.
The rest of the agreement outlines other requirements, including daily inspections of their systems, facilities, equipment and overall program. They are also required to address the concerns of United Nations Security Council, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and its non-compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
After all this, and a few other things, then they can begin to talk.
In the meantime, the United States has agreed to provide temporary relief from some of the sanctions that have been imposed, which gives them access to roughly $7 billion dollars of the more than $100 billion dollars that is currently inaccessible to them, mostly through oil revenues. It is estimated that an additional $15 billion dollars of their oil sales will be placed into restricted accounts during the six months of the agreement, a result of previously imposed sanctions which will remain unchanged. If Iran stays in compliance with the agreement, they will be able to have access to $4.6 billion dollars of the sales.
The other relief will come in the form of providing repairs and inspections to Iranís ailing airlines, facilitation of current humanitarian efforts allowed by U.S. law (i.e. things related to food and medical needs), as well as tuition assistance for Iranians in other countries attending recognized universities.
In the meantime, the United States agrees not to impose any new sanctions.
All of this is to establish the foundation that will hopefully lead to substantive talks to Iran agreeing to end any efforts to pursue a nuclear weapon. While Israel and Saudi Arabia, among others, believe that the only solution to the Iran problem is a complete elimination of all nuclear capabilities, there is no indication at the moment as to how close we will get to that ultimate goal. Along the way, many other options may be put on the table. Plus, as history has shown us, negations with Iran have been unpredictable, at best.
The agreement gives everyone time and opportunity to show their commitment to the process. It has taken us more than 40 years to get to this point. Giving it another six months to see if diplomacy can work doesn’t seem unreasonable.