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.