Gabrielle Rifkind directs the Middle East Programme of Oxford Research Group. She is a group analyst and specialist in conflict resolution. Avoiding Military Confrontation with Iran began as a Middle East Programme project in 2008, and has focused on moving negotiations forward and creating a vision for what a final resolution might look like.
The framework agreement on the Iranian nuclear issue announced on 2 April represents the best opportunity to significantly restrain and monitor Iran’s nuclear programme and to check broader nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. Oxford Research Group (ORG) played an important behind-the-scenes role helping to prepare the conditions and build confidence between the parties ahead of the E3+3 talks in Switzerland and strongly welcomes the agreement, which affirms the power of negotiations over the cataclysm of war. The technical details of this complex understanding remain to be completed and it is hoped that a final agreement will be reached by 30 June 2015.
Before the official process began, and when the mood was far from ripe for a deal, ORG worked tirelessly behind the scenes to create the conditions for off-the-record dialogue with Iranians close to the decision-making process on the nuclear issue. Between 2012 and 2013, ORG played a critical role in pulling together an influential, well-connected group of individuals with many years’ experience as negotiators and technical advisers to their respective countries, representing all the main players except China.
As a group we met on three occasions and communicated regularly between times, formulating realistic proposals, refining the common ground between states’ positions, searching for solutions that could meet the underlying interests of the parties and would strengthen global security. Proposals from the group were shared at the highest levels of government in Iran, the US, UK, Russia, and Germany.
When we started our work there was pervasive scepticism about the possibilities for a deal and in some of our meetings with the British government we were treated as naïve optimists. But our job was to explore the possibilities for a peaceful settlement and to do the preparatory work should political conditions change. The work was enhanced by mobilising a hugely experienced group of diplomats and nuclear experts, many of whom had been involved in previous, failed rounds of the official negotiations and who passionately believed a deal could be done.
These diplomats originally approached ORG because they believed that we could create the conditions for this exploratory work to take place. As a result of the high political access of those participating in the meetings it was possible to establish routes to the official negotiations and to establish meetings with the foreign ministers of the respective parties to the conflict. Our early contributions, we were told, helped give confidence to the US government to start an off-the-record process with Iran to test whether there were grounds to establish productive official talks.
Prospects for a Final Agreement
The technical details of the agreement remain complex and there are real political difficulties in reaching a final text by 30 June. While many who had previously been sceptical of the talks have now openly expressed satisfaction with the details of the announcement, there has been heavy criticism in Washington and in Tel Aviv from those opposed to any compromise. It appears that whatever is agreed there will be a robust and aggressive political opposition centering on the US Congress.
Opposition within Tehran has been surprisingly restrained, but this does not mean Iranian negotiators are not under heavy pressure to extract far more from the international community before they put pen to paper. The Supreme Leader himself remains on the fence, and has made it clear that heavy and early sanctions relief is a condition of Iran’s agreement. Given the fundaments of Iranian politics, his position will largely determine the reaction of hardliners to any deal.
The framework deal is only half complete. Indeed, it stated clearly that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed in detail. There remain a number of tough principles, as well as the details, to be hammered out. The most obvious and worrying challenge is that the E3+3 remain particularly vague on the sanctions relief and its sequencing.
Iranian potential commitments on this deal include:
- even greater levels of inspection and monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA);
- caps on the quality and quantity of enrichment permitted;
- the conversion of the Arak nuclear reactor (currently under construction) such that it would produce less weapons-usable plutonium;
- a 15-year moratorium on the construction of any further heavy water reactors;
- an indefinite commitment from Iran to refrain from reprocessing reactor waste (ensuring the plutonium is unavailable for weapons);
- limiting the underground enrichment facility at Fordo to research purposes – no large-scale enrichment would be conducted there and this would be tightly monitored.
Towards Wider Peace in the Middle East
These negotiations have been heavily insulated by all states involved from impacting other areas of policy or international relations, or being derailed by them. Yet several of Iran’s neighbours worry that a thawing of relations between Iran and the West will leave them exposed, and there has been talk about Saudi Arabia in particular exploring options for its own nuclear weapons capability, perhaps in partnership with Iran’s eastern neighbour, Pakistan.
Perhaps Iranian President Hassan Rouhani found the language that encapsulates a vision for a more peaceful Middle East when he said, in announcing the framework deal to Iranians, “Some think that we must either fight the world or surrender to world powers. We say it is neither of those, there is a third way. We can have cooperation with the world.” He added: “With those countries with which we have a cold relationship, we would like a better relationship. And if we have tension or hostility with any countries, we want an end to tension and hostility with those countries.” He will have to work hard to convince some of the hardliners in his own country and some of his neighbours of this.
Time will tell whether a deal can lead to positive impacts regionally, but trust levels are so low that any benefits may not be obvious for some years. The vision of the future articulated by Rouhani now needs to be extended beyond the nuclear issue and speak to the wider regional conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere. ORG sees its role as creating the kind of forums where visions of the future move beyond fighting or surrendering and towards finding the necessary compromises in which people learn to live in a spirit of co-operation. This is where we commit our time, energy and our resources.
Previous ORG publications on Iran: