The framework agreement between Iran, on the one side, and P5+1 and the European Union, on the other, on Iran’s nuclear programme is like a geopolitical earthquake which has sent tremors across the globe. The agreement is in essence a bargain between the two sides: while Iran has accepted stringent restrictions on its nuclear programme to prevent its use for the development of nuclear weapons, the major world powers have agreed, in return, to lift the sanctions against it. A detailed agreement is still to be worked out by 30th June, 2015 to elaborate the various provisions of the framework agreement. It is essential for us to understand the far-reaching ramifications of this agreement for regional and global security and take necessary consequential steps in the interest of safeguarding Pakistan’s security.
Under the agreement, Iran has agreed to reduce the number of centrifuges from 19,000 to 6,104 out of which only 5,060 IR-1 first generation centrifuges at its Natanz facility will enrich uranium for 10 years. The remaining centrifuges and enrichment infrastructure, including also the 1,000 more advanced IR-2M centrifuges, currently installed at Natanz, will be placed in IAEA-monitored storage and will be used as replacements for operating centrifuges and the related equipment. Iran would not enrich uranium over 3.67 per cent for 15 years. It would reduce its current stockpile of about 10,000kg of low-enriched uranium (LEU) to 300kg of 3.67 per cent LEU for 15 years. Iran has also agreed to convert its uranium enrichment facility at Fordow so that it is not used to enrich uranium. The International Atomic Energy Agency will have regular access to all of Iran’s nuclear facilities to monitor them with the use of the most modern technologies. The net result of these and other restrictions would be that Iran’s breakout time—the time needed by a country to acquire enough fissile material for one nuclear weapon—would be extended from the currently assessed about three months to at least one year for the duration of ten years.
In return for these restrictions on its nuclear activities, Iran would receive sanctions relief. The US and the EU will suspend all nuclear-related sanctions once the IAEA has verified that Iran has taken all the key nuclear-related steps. In case of non-fulfillment of its commitments by Iran at any time, these sanctions will snap back into place. Simultaneously with the completion by Iran of all of the nuclear-related actions, the past UN Security Council sanctions against Iran would also be lifted.
The framework agreement, to start with, has major implications for the global nuclear non-proliferation regime. It has been conclusively established now that the non-nuclear-weapon states, parties to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), have the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes under IAEA safeguards, a right which had been previously disputed by the nuclear-weapon states and many of the members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). During the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear programme from 2003 to 2005, the Western Powers led by the US questioned Iran’s right to enrich uranium. In fact, this was the main stumbling block which prevented progress in the negotiations at that time. Ultimately, Iran’s resolute stand on this issue has enabled it to win the major powers’ recognition of its right to enrich uranium under the NPT. At the same time, the international community has sent a loud and clear message that efforts by non-nuclear-weapon states, parties to the NPT, to enrich uranium under non-transparent conditions or to develop nuclear weapons will not be allowed to succeed. Therefore, the framework agreement, once it is successfully followed by the detailed agreement, would help strengthen the international nuclear non-proliferation regime as well as safeguard the rights of the non-nuclear-weapon states under the NPT.
The agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme will inevitably have far reaching ramifications for the security environment in the Persian Gulf region and the Middle East. The lifting of the nuclear-related US, EU and UN Security Council sanctions against Iran will enable it to develop its economic and military power more freely and strengthen its strategic position in the Persian Gulf region by virtue of its large human and material resource base. It has also demonstrated the willingness to use its economic and military power in pursuit of its strategic goal of emerging as the pre-eminent power in the Persian Gulf region. This is evidenced by its activism in Iraq and Syria during the past few years and, according to some allegations denied by Iran, more recently in Yemen even when it had been weakened by the nuclear-related sanctions. The lifting of sanctions would also strengthen Iran’s global position as many major powers would court Iran for economic and commercial cooperation keeping in view Iran’s vast oil and gas reserves.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries have apprehensions about a resurgent Iran after the lifting of sanctions, which might disturb the power equilibrium in the Persian Gulf region, especially if one takes into account Iran’s currently close relations with Iraq and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Accordingly, the GCC countries are likely to take necessary political and military initiatives to neutralize the perceived Iranian expansionism. These developments would pose difficult choices for Pakistan which will have to perform a delicate act of tight rope walking between the expectations of the GCC countries and Iran. The recent threat of the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Dr. Anwar Mohammed Gargash, warning Pakistan that it would have to pay a “heavy price” for its “ambiguous stand” on Yemen is just an example of the kind of challenges that we would have to face in the years to come. Apparently, the remarks were prompted by the resolution passed by our parliament stressing the need for neutrality on Islamabad’s part in the Yemeni conflict.
However, one should not exaggerate the impact of the lifting of the nuclear-related sanctions against Iran which will still leave in place the US non-nuclear related sanctions against investment in Iran’s energy sector and direct trade between the US and Iran. Further, the fundamental contradictions between the strategic goals of Iran and the US in the Persian Gulf region and the rest of the Middle East like those concerning Israel are likely to persist despite some commonality of interests in fighting ISIS. Israel’s opposition to the framework agreement and the dissenting voices raised in the US Congress indicate that Iran-US relations will remain fraught with strategic divergences and tensions in the foreseeable future.
Pakistan must take a number of steps to safeguard its national interests. It should take advantage of the new possibilities of the development of economic and commercial cooperation with Iran that would open up after the lifting of sanctions. In particular, the work on the completion of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline should be expedited. At the same time, it must act as the “balancer” for the maintenance of power equilibrium in the Persian Gulf region. Tehran should be advised to refrain from interference in intra-Arab affairs and to choose the path of dialogue and negotiations in sorting out its differences with its Arab neighbours. The GCC countries should also be encouraged to respond positively to offers of talks from Tehran. What the countries of the Persian Gulf region badly need is a forum to discuss and resolve security-related issues. Finally, Pakistan’s interests would be best served by a proactive approach rather than a reactive one which has characterized our regional diplomacy so far.