Iran: A Lesson in the Art of Building Confidence

by Peter Jenkins

Much of the comment on yesterday’s “decisive step” towards a “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” (JCPOA), which will ensure the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program, has been based on the factsheet put out by the White House.

I prefer to base a few observations on the Joint Statement made in Lausanne by the EU High Representative Federica Mogherini and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. We can be sure that Iran has agreed to every word of the Joint Statement. The same cannot be said of the factsheet, which, in a slightly irritated tweet, Zarif characterized as “spin.”

The Joint Statement is far less detailed than the fact-sheet. Even so, it is clear that Iran has had the vision to offer the US and EU many years of confidence that Iran is not using its nuclear know-how to acquire nuclear weapons and that Iran is fully respecting its commitments as a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

That confidence can come both from the unprecedented access to the program that the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will enjoy and from the thought that no state bent on acquiring nuclear weapons would come close to granting such access.

This suggests that Iran has learnt from its experiences in 2004 and 2005. Then the fitful and reserved nature of Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA created a suspicion that Iran had things to hide. This undercut Iran’s avowed determination to rebuild confidence in the peaceful nature of its program, confidence that a “policy of concealment” over 18 years had shattered.

Of course even a long spell of unprecedented transparency may not be enough to convince everyone in the West that Iran’s nuclear intentions are entirely peaceful. Some in the West will not want to be convinced. They and others will foment concern about the very long term. They will portray Iran as merely biding its time, the better to “break out” and become nuclear-armed when agreed restrictions on its enrichment activities lapse.

My reading of the Joint Statement is that the negotiators have anticipated that line of concern. One of their most promising “solutions to key parameters” is the provision for extensive nuclear cooperation.

An international joint venture will assist Iran in redesigning and rebuilding a research reactor at Arak. Iran will “take part in international cooperation” in civil nuclear energy, which can include the supply of power and research reactors. And, if the factsheet can be believed, Iran’s nuclear procurement will take a step away from reliance on black markets with the establishment of a “dedicated procurement channel.”

This degree of cooperation will create relationships. It will be surprising if, over time, this does not help the US and EU to come to the view that Iran aspires to the peaceful nuclear status of Japan or Brazil rather than the nuclear-armed status of North Korea, Israel, India, and Pakistan.

In any case, cooperation will provide ample opportunity for international partners to make Iranians feel that they can rely on others to supply many of their nuclear needs, including reactor fuel. In the early 1980s, when the US, Germany, and France denied the fledgling Islamic Republic nuclear cooperation, this rejection apparently caused Iran to turn to black markets and a “policy of concealment.”

I have been critical of insisting that Iran reduce the number of operating centrifuges at its Natanz enrichment facility. It struck me as improbable that Iran’s leaders would be dumb enough to use an IAEA-safeguarded facility to embark on a quest for nuclear arms. And I was worried that those same leaders would interpret a demand for a cut in numbers as an unacceptable infringement of Iran’s rights under international law.

But I am glad to have been proved wrong on this last point. Iran’s readiness to extend the theoretical breakout time at Natanz to about a year will make it easier for the US administration to overcome ferocious opposition to the CJPOA from Israel and Israel’s friends in Congress. Iran deserves credit for understanding that. They have been pragmatic and wise.

Just over 10 years have passed since the early spring day in Paris when Zarif, then Iran’s ambassador to the UN, presented a nuclear confidence-building proposal to the UK, France, and Germany (the E3). My impression that day was that Zarif’s proposal (similar in many respects to what is now on offer) was sincere and that Iran would implement it. So I felt regret that my government and E3 partners rejected it. I knew they were certain to do so, because they believed that Iran was intent on acquiring nuclear weapons and so should be denied a uranium enrichment capability.

So I can’t help rejoicing that the E3 (and the US which lurked behind them in 2005) have been given a second chance and appear to have grasped it. They have been well served by US intelligence—which in 2007 laid to rest the fear that Iran was bent on nuclear weapons—and by fortune, which in 2013 brought to power an Iranian government with which Western governments can afford to do business.

The next three months will be tough. The Iranians are formidable negotiating partners, and it is unclear to me that they can or should be content with the sanctions relief currently on offer. But through skilful diplomacy Secretary of State John Kerry, rightly praised by President Barack Obama on April 2, and Iran’s able foreign minister appear to have put the end to a costly and dangerous journey within reach.

Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.


One Comment

  1. Now we wait and see what the Israeli first idiots/stooges howl about. Will they demand the DoD to ramp up the troops to be ready to launch at Netanyahoos primal scream, or perhaps Adelson’s thumbs down? Time to put the war mongers in their collective place, like in the uniform and ship them off to experience combat first hand. After all, their big macho mouths should be enough to scare the pants off any Islamist warrior.

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