It will be possible to make a complete judgment about the comprehensive deal reached in Vienna at the 5+1 talks with Iran once all the technical details are known (if indeed they are all made public). For the time being, some  preliminary, more general evaluations are possible.

The agreement is a compromise, as can only be expected from a document that resulted from twelve years of talks in various formats that have continued against the backdrop of Iran’s consistent efforts to pursue its nuclear program and dramatic international events. What’s more, in keeping with its subject matter, it is also a highly complex, 100-page technical document. Without knowing all the specific details, it is possible to conclude that Iran agreed to some major concessions in comparison both: with its initial positions and with the nuclear energy capability it has already developed, in particular with the technical facilities it has built and the nuclear materials it has accumulated. At the same time, Iran managed to achieve quite a lot regarding nuclear facilities and materials it will preserve compared to what it had at the start of talks in 2003.

Alexey Arbatov
Alexey Arbatov is the head of the Center for International Security at the Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations.
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The restrictions the agreement imposes on Iran’s technical potential will seriously decrease the country’s capability  for making a nuclear weapon. Even more important is that the agreed-upon IAEA safeguards and inspection regime practically exclude any possibility of Iran manufacturing a nuclear weapon secretly. Violations would be detected well in advance and the international community, through the UN Security Council, would have sufficient time to take countermeasures—if it could in principle agree on them, given the current political confrontation between the great powers.

At the same time, Iran’s remaining nuclear capabilities (above all for uranium enrichment) far exceed the peaceful needs of its nuclear energy industry for the foreseeable future, as well as what is needed for medical or scientific purposes (enrichment is economically justified if there are a dozen or more commercial reactors to fuel). Previously, such capabilities aroused suspicions about Iran's military plans, but now they more likely reflect concerns about prestige and the current domestic political situation in Tehran.

In assessing this compromise agreement, all possible alternatives are to be considered. Essentially, there are three: the first would be a new Gulf War with airstrikes against Iran. This would turn the vast area from Palestine to the Hindu Kush into a black hole of violence, chaos, and extremism. The second option is a nuclear-armed Iran. The third possibility, terrifying to even talk about: a strike against Iran, followed by Iranian withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and applying double efforts to create nuclear weapons, which would lead to another regional war—only this time, a nuclear one.

Avoiding these disastrous scenarios first of all implies ensuring strict compliance with the new agreement, which relates to all sides. This concerns Iran eliminating all designated elements of its nuclear program and guaranteeing transparency. This implies providing additional powers and resources for the IAEA. This also concerns lifting sanctions and letting Iran return to the international economic, political, and humanitarian cooperation. It is possible that some additional agreements will be needed along the way.

The agreement should also be used to bolster the nuclear non-proliferation regime, the foundation of which is the NPT. There are various competent views on this issue in Moscow, but a number of the norms and principles from the Iranian agreement are worthy of being implemented elsewhere. For example, countries' nuclear programs should strictly correspond to declared peaceful energy, medical and scientific needs. Not everything that is not explicitly prohibited by the NPT should be permitted, because the NPT leaves a large grey zone between peaceful and military nuclear programs. Nations’ nuclear programs justified by peaceful needs (in particular in dual-purpose technologies and materials) should be defined not only by themselves, but should also be subject to agreement with the IAEA and, if necessary, with the UN Security Council, so that it won’t have to pass tough resolutions or impose sanctions later on (as was the case with the six resolutions passed on Iran since 2006).

Finally, the political experience gained from these lengthy talks should be taken into account. This experience demonstrates that applying only rude pressure on countries may be counterproductive. In 2003-2004, when Iran had only about two hundred centrifuges, a real compromise was close at its talks with the European “troika” (Britain, France and Germany). But those talks broke down under pressure from the George W. Bush administration, which demanded Tehran’s complete capitulation and threatened to use military force against Iranian regime that Washington qualified as belonging to the ‘axis of evil.’ This overt pressure provoked a counter-reaction from Iran and facilitated the victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential election. In 2006, Iran resumed uranium enrichment. Today, it has around 20,000 centrifuges in place and has accumulated around 10 tons of enriched uranium—enough to produce a nuclear weapon in just a few months. Reducing this capability is the main purpose of the new agreement.

Another very important lesson from these talks is that proliferation of nuclear weapons in the world may only be stopped if the great powers are united and act together through a reasonable combination of diplomacy and UN Security Council sanctions, should the need for them arise.

  • Alexey Arbatov