It was the deal of 2015. Now, is there any hope that it will ease the tension and hostility in the Middle East?
Back in 2002, Iran planned to develop a nuclear energy programme, but due to distrust of most of the nuclear power states a wave of sanctions followed, for fear of another nuclear weapons state unbound by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The US had previously predicted Iran’s “break-out time” to be two months with 20,000 centrifuges to make 8-10 warheads at 90% uranium enrichment. However under the new treaty it is impossible for Iran to conduct research without the knowledge of the international community for at least 15 years.
In 2015 the P5+1 (the US, UK, France, China and Russia plus Germany) negotiated with Hassan Rouhani, the President of Iran, forging a deal with the following directives:
- Reduce its centrifuges from 20,000 to 5,060
- Get rid of 98% of its uranium supply
- Enrich only to 3.67%
- The International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) has access to all enrichment facilities for the next 15 years and can do spot checks with only 24 days’ notice
In return, $100bn of Iranian assets will be unfrozen and sanctions from the P5+1 will be lifted completely over the following years. The International Atomic Energy Agency has notified the UN of Iran’s ongoing compliance with the deal, and therefore, in return, crippling sanctions have been released – however it is important to consider the regional conflicts, the tumbling price of oil and the prisoner swap with the US, all of which has occurred since the beginning of the year, all of which could endanger the agreement.
From the beginning of January 2016, Saudi Arabia and Iran have been at each other’s throats after the death of Sheikh al-Nimr, a prominent Shia cleric. It is important to remember the religious aspect here as Iran is Shia and Saudi Arabia is Sunni. There’s also the ongoing conflict in Yemen between the Arab State coalition of Saudi and the Gulf States against the Zaidi Shia sect (supported by Iran) which has maintained regional hostility. Al-Nimr, and 46 other prisoners including Sunni extremists, were beheaded; in response Iranian protestors stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran, leading to the kingdom cutting all diplomatic ties with the Islamic republic. This series of actions led to Kuwait and Qatar also recalling ambassadors, and the Arab states’ neutrality towards Iran has shattered – the accord reached in 2015 is now in jeopardy. It is therefore fortunate that Iran has chosen not to escalate tensions. In doing so they showed commitment to the agreement and consequently sanctions have been gradually removed.
Despite its compliance with the deal, Iran is a known supporter of Assad in Syria and is working alongside Russia through militias, such as the Imam Ali Brigade, the Sayyed al Shuhada Brigade, Hezbollah Brigades and Harakat Nujaba, to take down opposition groups both moderate and extreme, such as the Free Syrian Army and so-called Islamic State. This conflicts with a few of the P5+1 policies, however it is understandable given the complex situation within Syria and the desire for an end to the conflict amongst all parties.
Another thing we have to bear in mind when looking at the Middle East is the fact Iran has the second largest oil output in the region, meaning it could flood the market what with sanctions being lifted, and hence keep oil prices down for months which will negatively impact Saudi Arabia’s economy and damage our already struggling North Sea oil industry. Oil is a significant resource in the world and its control and sale in the Middle East will be balanced out by Iran which has the potential to weaken Saudi Arabia’s near monopoly on supply.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, the last few days have seen a prisoner swap between Iran & US in which seven prisoners from the US were released for five from Iran – most of whom were Iranian-Americans. The clemency shown by both nations goes a long way in building faith which will hopefully lead to a lower chance of Iran reneging on the deal. The start to the New Year has seen increased hostility but there is a strong chance for trust to build.
The Iran Deal is a necessary prerequisite for a peaceful and prosperous Middle East. While trust will not come for another few decades the lessening of regional antagonism and the reconnection of Iran to the global community can only lead to a more secure world.