Australian Outlook

In this section

The Iran Nuclear Deal: Will it Lead to an Enriched Position for the Middle East?

09 Apr 2015
James Downie
Image Credit: Flickr (European External Action Service) Creative Commons.

Last Thursday saw the conclusion of the Lausanne deal after a marathon final 24-hour negotiation. The deal, reached between Iran and six major world powers, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia, saw Iran agree to curb its ability to produce nuclear weapons through diplomatic negotiations, rather than through sanctions or force.

Background to the Lausanne deal

Iran has always maintained that its nuclear program has been for the peaceful purposes stipulated under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Questions have been raised about this claim, firstly regarding the large amount of enriched uranium that Iran has stockpiled. Uranium must be enriched to be used for any purpose, as the isotope U235, which allows fission, only exists as 0.7 per cent of natural uranium compared with the 90 per cent required for a nuclear bomb. It is estimated that Iran has around 10,000 kilograms of enriched uranium. None of this is weapons grade, but this is a concern as the more enriched uranium is, the faster it is to enrich it further. What is worrying is that Iran possesses enough 20 per cent U235 to produce one nuclear weapon in a few months.

This leads to the second point, which is Iran’s domestic ability to refine uranium. Most nations’ enrichment programs are under the strict surveillance of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Since the 2000s, however, Iran has refused to comply to the IAEA’s safeguards and inspections, preventing any reliable means to verify what Iran’s nuclear program is being used for. Iran possesses around 19,000 centrifuges, which could be used to produce a nuclear arsenal in a relatively short period of time, given its large reserve of uranium.

It is estimated that Iran could currently produce the material required for a nuclear weapon in 2-3 months with little means for the world to monitor this development. This, coupled with Iran’s work on long-range missile technology, has led many observers to the conclusion that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program, which most nations in Iran’s immediate region, as well as the world, are keen to avoid. Since 2006 the UN has imposed sanctions on Iran to try to coerce it into giving up its nuclear program. However, these sanctions have failed to stop the program. Sanctions and threats of force have traditionally never elicited a positive response from Iran.

The aims of the Lausanne deal

The aim of the six negotiating nations is to ease the tensions surrounding Iran’s production of a nuclear weapon. The deal has sought to slow Iran’s break out ability from 3 months to 12 months, by reducing the amount of installed centrifuges from 19,000 to 6,104 and lowering Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium from 10,000 kilograms to 300 Kilograms. Iran will also be subject to strict IAEA monitoring.

Tehran has agreed to these arrangements in exchange for the end of international sanctions. This agreement has surprised many, given Iran’s traditional defence of its nuclear program. This would also be the first time since 1979 that Iran has not been subject to sanctions.

Reactions to the deal

For the six nations involved in the negotiations with Iran, the deal has represented a remarkable achievement. It has delayed regional and global fears of a nuclear armed Iran and provides the opportunity to integrate this traditional pariah state into the global economy and global diplomatic norms.

The reactions in the Middle East have been by far more mixed. Benjamin Netanyahu insisted on “standing firm [and] ratcheting up the pressure until [the US] get[s] a better deal” in an interview with CNN. He believes that the US should take a more aggressive posture, which would force Iran to agree to a much less lenient agreement and give up its nuclear program.

The reaction of Saudi Arabia is also significant, given Saudi Arabia’s recent moves to place itself at the head of a Sunni coalition. Saudi Arabia has welcomed the move to remove the potential of a nuclear armed Iran, however it has raised concerns over other ramifications of the treaty.

Saudi Arabia considers Iran to be its greatest regional rival. Saudi Arabia is claiming that Iran is seeking to extend its regional influence by supporting Shiite forces in various regional conflicts. Saudi officials are anxious to stop Iranian funding these Shiite groups and are concerned that ending sanctions against Iran will enable Tehran to more generously support their armed proxies in the region.

Finally there has been resistance to this deal in the US Congress, which is the only means to permanently repeal the sanctions. The Republican majority in Congress has expressed concern over repealing sanctions against Iran given that Iran is, in the words of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, “the world’s leading state sponsor of terror”. If the US Congress refuses to lift the sanctions, any deal with Iran would fail.

In summary, this agreement is staggering, given the history of nuclear disarmament talks with Iran. It has produced a framework to which both sides essentially agree. It would be false to say that this will instantly alter the relationships in the region. However, it is astonishing that diplomacy was able to create this outcome given the traditional animosity between Iran, its neighbours and the negotiating nations.

James Downie is an intern at the AIIA National Office. This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence.