Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Salehi give a press conference. Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty
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Leader: Iran comes in from the cold

For all of its limitations and the uncertainty that still abounds, the deal could come to be seen as a historic leap towards stability in Iran.

In an age when the problems in the Middle East look as intractable as ever, Iran’s agreement to curb its nuclear programme – and so abandon attempts to gain a nuclear weapon – is to be welcomed. Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, described the deal agreed in Vienna with six world powers (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) as representing “a new chapter of hope”.

Indeed, it does. Iran has shown an interest in nuclear technology since 1957, when the pre-revolution regime received assistance from the US Atoms for Peace programme. Since 1984, when West German intelligence announced that Iran could build a bomb in two years using uranium from Pakistan, fears that the post-revolution Iran would obtain nuclear weapons have persisted. The threat has intensified since the existence of two nuclear sites under construction was revealed in 2002, the year in which George W Bush included Iran in his “axis of evil” along with North Korea and Iraq.

Ever since, the west has attempted to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Finally, progress has been made. After the latest round of negotiations, lasting two years, Iran has agreed to reduce its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 96 per cent and its overall enrichment capacity by two-thirds and, most significantly, accept an unprecedented amount of international control over its nuclear programme. Not only will this lower the threat of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons but it should herald a new era of co-operation with the west. Ultimately, the world should become a slightly safer place.

None of this is to suggest that the deal is perfect. Iran is allowed to challenge requests for access from UN weapons inspectors, which would then be discussed at an arbitration board comprising representatives from Iran and the six powers. To Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, this is one reason why the deal amounts to “a historic mistake for the world”.

It is also true that the agreement will do nothing to alleviate the cold war between the Sunni Saudi Arabia and the Shia Iran. And the extra funds that are freed up to Iran, as a result of sanctions by the west being lifted, could yet be channelled into extra sponsorship for its client Shia militant group Hezbollah and, Israel fears, into proxy wars around the Middle East. Such concerns are understandable. For all the ­progress, establishing trust between Iran and the west remains a process fraught with difficulty. Building relations with Iran must be done in tandem with assiduously monitoring developments in the country.

Yet everyone should laud the courage shown by the representatives of all seven countries involved in the negotiations – especially Barack Obama and Iran’s president, Hassan Rowhani – in attempting to forge a new course. The sanctions imposed had a deleterious effect on the lives of Iranians but not the country’s nuclear ambitions. For all of its limitations and the uncertainty that still abounds, the deal could come to be seen as a historic leap towards stability in Iran, with attendant benefits for the rest of the Middle East, including in the struggle against Isis. If the Vienna agreement proves durable, it will be regarded as the most significant of the foreign policy achievements of the Obama presidency.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.