President Rouhani has described as a “triumph” the paper his envoys signed with the P5+1 Group in Geneva last Sunday. Some in his faction have pushed hyperbole further by claiming that “the history of Islamic Revolution is divided into before and after Geneva.”
However, with the dust of excitement settled, it is possible to assess “the event” with greater clarity.
To start with, it is not clear what the paper should be called.
Here are some of the labels used by parties involved: accord, agreement, memorandum, roadmap, and joint-action plan.
The paper cannot be described as an international treaty. The P5+1 group is an ad hoc body appointed by the United Nations to persuade Iran to implement six resolutions passed by the Security Council. It has no authority to sign a treaty. In fact, the P5+1 is a misnomer, because the negotiations were piloted by the European Union’s international affairs representative. Because the EU has 28 members, the P5+1 is, in fact, a group of 31 nations. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has already stated that the Geneva paper would be submitted to all 28 EU members. Under EU rules, every one of them has the right to approve or reject the paper.
The ambivalence of the exercise is also important for other participants. If this is an international treaty, it must be approved by the US Senate, the Russian Duma and Iran’s Islamic Majlis to become binding. If it is an agreement between Iran and the UN, it must be approved by the Security Council in a new resolution.
The paper’s identity is only one problem.
One would also have to decide which version is authoritative.
I have not studied the Chinese and Russian versions. But the English, Persian and French texts show differences.
Take just two examples:
The Persian version asserts that during the next six months “Iran’s income from oil exports would be transferred to the Iranian government.” The English text states that transfer would happen only “if Iran implements its undertakings.” And then, it limits the transfer to USD 2–4 billion in installments.
The next example concerns fees for Iranians studying abroad.
The Persian text implies that this would be automatic and unlimited. The English text sets a clear limit of USD 400 million, paid directly to the colleges concerned.
The trick in the Persian text is to use phrases without a verb, implying firm commitment on the part of P5+1. In the English text, verbs are used to emphasize that Iran might get something only if it does something beforehand. All that the P5+1 gives is a number of vague promises.
Even if we ignore the issue of identity and authority, the paper would still be a strange beast in the zoological history of diplomacy. Obviously, the P5+1 exploited the inexperience and desperation of the Iranian diplomats, and sold them a bill of goods.
By signing the paper, the Islamic Republic has extended de jure recognition to sanctions imposed by the UN, the US and the EU. Hitherto, Tehran had admitted the de facto existence of sanctions but regarded them as “illegal.”
The paper institutionalizes the sanctions within a coherent system, implicitly accepting the possibility that they will be prolonged indefinitely.
Under the paper, Iran has 21 undertakings and the P5+1 group only 11.
The P5+1’s undertakings are about not imposing new sanctions for six months, and easing some others. Iran’s undertakings, however, are concrete. It must stop enriching uranium above 5 percent, must oxidize half the stock enriched above that level, and de-commission the plutonium infrastructure built at a cost of USD 10 billion. If those things are done, Tehran’s nuclear project would be put in slow motion. Since Iran has no nuclear power stations, it would not need low-grade enriched uranium anyway. And, if it intends to build warheads, low-grade would be of little use.
By insisting that its “right” to enrich uranium be specifically recognized, Rouhani’s team made another big mistake. That demand showed that they were not sure they had that right under Non-Proliferation Treaty. Otherwise, why demand further endorsement from an ad hoc group? The P5+1 didn’t give that endorsement. Instead, the text implies that the decision about Iranian levels of enrichment belongs to P5+1.
The paper insists that Iran’s scientific research and development of industrial activities be frozen at the “the current level,” clearly excluding any advances.
Iran is expected to fulfill its 21 promises in six months, while that time limit is mentioned for only one of the P5+1’s 11 promises.
More interestingly, Iran must fulfill its undertakings before the other side reciprocates.
Under the paper, the P5+1 would be judge and jury. They would decide when and if Iran has honored its commitments. Acting for the UN, the International Atomic Energy Agency would report only on Iran’s performance.
The paper gives the P5+1 what is known in diplomatic jargon as droit de regard (right to oversight) over important sectors of the Iranian economy. The P5+1 will decide how much oil Iran is allowed to export. It would also decide how much of Iran’s revenue is “unfrozen” and the manner in which it is spent.
For the six months already agreed, some 7 percent of Iran’s oil revenues would be released. Part of that would be spent through a mechanism modeled on the “oil-for-food” program imposed on Iraq under Saddam. The label used this time is “humanitarian financial channel,” to allow imports of food and pharmaceuticals. It is not clear who would run the scheme, but the P5+1 would have final say.
The paper also gives the P5+1 a say in Iran’s insurance, banking, petrochemicals, car industry, spare parts, air transport, shipping and precious metals sectors. In some cases, sanctions would be eased at a cadence chosen by the P5+1.
The paper gives the Khomeinist regime some respite and the possibility of putting the nuclear program into fast-forward in the future. Rouhani even claims that he signed the paper because “ending tension with the West” is his “top priority.” Does he hope to reverse more than three decades of Khomeinist anti-Americanism?
As long as sanctions hurt only the people, the regime tried to hide the effects in a cloak of flowery rhetoric. But when sanctions started to hurt the regime it had to eat humble pie à la Saddam Hussein. As Khamenei often says, the interest of the regime is absolute, that of the nation a variable.