The interim agreement just reached in Geneva committing Iran to a number of restraints in its nuclear programme and providing some relief in the pressures against Iran should be welcomed by all. Above all, it should remove – at any rate, for six months – the threat of unilateral military action and the potentially grave consequences such action would have for the world and the authority of the UN. The interim agreement now gives the negotiating states six months working space – renewable – to achieve a comprehensive peaceful settlement. The US is now enabled, as it was in the case of Syria, to move away from the role of self-appointed global policeman that neither President Obama, the US public nor the world is comfortable with. Instead, responsibility is shared with all other permanent members of the UN security council, Germany and the EU, thus facilitating action that will need to be taken within the council and the UN system.
Barack Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, deserve credit for seizing the opportunity for agreement that the new Iranian government offered through the conciliatory attitude it has shown in both matters of substance and tone. The former deserve credit all the more, as their policy means going against the demands of the Israeli government and its many supporters in Congress.
For Iran, the commitments made – for six months – constitute substantial bars to any bombmaking. However, refraining from enriching uranium above 5% and from advancing activities at enrichment plants or at the Arak reactor; reducing the stock of 20% enriched uranium; and accepting enhanced monitoring by no means curtail the development of the peaceful nuclear power program. In return, Iran obtains compensation through the easing of various restrictions, the unfreezing of some funds, and a promise of no additional sanctions. Perhaps even more importantly, an expectation arises of more normal economic and other relations with the world.
Some critics have characterised the agreement as a "Munich". For whom? One may understand the anger that some states in the Middle East, including Israel, have felt about various Iranian activities and rhetoric in the past. However, conduct that seems menacing comes in many shapes and from many quarters in the Middle East: Iran has been the subject of advanced cyber warfare, seen the assassination of nuclear scientists and watched demonstrations of long-distance military air operations. The relief now offered Iran comes from states that have had naval units in the Gulf pointing their guns at the country, and that have imposed choking economic actions against it outside of any UN authorisations. Is it seriously suggested that the foreign ministers of these states are now returning from a Munich?
The interim agreement avoids tackling the controversial issue of "the right to enrich". Some have argued that the article in the non-proliferation treaty (NPT) which declares that nothing in the agreement affects the "inalienable right" to "develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes" should be seen as qualifying the right of enrichment. Others hold – more persuasively, I think – that the article merely underlines that, beyond the obligation not to "manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons", the NPT parties have not undertaken any restriction in their freedom of using nuclear energy. When the new Geneva agreement records the Iranian announcement that it will not – for six months – enrich uranium over 5%, Iran may reasonably claim that – despite the security council's demanding a suspension of enrichment – the agreement must be seen as at least acquiescing in Iran's future enrichment up to 5%.
Even more interesting is the aim, somewhat cryptically declared, of a comprehensive solution to "involve a mutually defined enrichment programme" with "mutually agreed parameters consistent with practical needs" and, at the end of the road, to provide for Iran being treated "in the same manner as that of any non-nuclear weapon state". We get the impression that the five permanent members of the UN security council plus Germany and the EU have come to some joint policy lines to meet the risk of nuclear proliferation. These allow the use of economic pressures but do not comprise the threat or use of armed force. Parties to the NPT should themselves determine what nuclear programmes they wish to pursue, but these should be consistent with agreed practical needs. Iran should be able to live with that. One would now wish that the nuclear weapon states proceed to apply this new-found collective wisdom to reduce their own excessive armaments.