AFTER 18 months of gruelling negotiations, Iran and the P-5+1 (United States, France, Britain, China, Russia—and Germany) reached a landmark agreement on Iran's nuclear programme at Lausanne (Switzerland), which is a potential game-changer in the West Asia-North Africa region.
The framework deal, to be finalised by June 30, has huge geopolitical implications, including for South Asia. It must be welcomed.
Under it, Iran will drastically curtail its nuclear activities
under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections. The US, European Union and UN will lift harsh economic sanctions, which forced Iran to cut oil production by two-thirds and impoverished its people.
If finalised, the agreement will end the West's 12-year-long nuclear standoff with Iran and greatly reduce the likelihood of regional nuclear proliferation. Optimistically, 36 years after the Iranian Revolution, this could pave the way for US-Iran conciliation.
The Lausanne deal is only a statement of intent. Under it, Iran will reduce its centrifuges (which enrich the fissile component of natural uranium, making it usable as fuel in a reactor/bomb) from 19,000 to 6,000 for 10 years.
Iran will for 15 years limit enrichment to 3.67 percent (90 percent is needed for a bomb) and prune its low-enriched stockpile from 10,000 kg to 300 kg.
The Arak heavy-water reactor would be redesigned; its core, containing weapons-grade plutonium, would be destroyed. Iran's entire supply-chain would be under inspections for 25 years.
The Lausanne deal happened partly because the US shifted from demanding that Iran stop enrichment altogether, to ensuring that it's slowed down. Iran hasn't given up its “sovereign” options, but conceded a lot.
Yet, it's not certain the deal will be finalised by June 30. Almost half the US Senate opposes it. So does Israel under its re-elected fanatical leader Benjamin Netanayahu.
President Hassan Rouhani, Iran's former chief nuclear negotiator, who wants improved relations with the US and EU, strongly supports the deal.
Supreme leader Ali Khamenei—who believes nuclear weapons are un-Islamic—seems inclined to go along, without assuming the deal will go definitely through.
Talks towards final agreement could stumble on many issues. The two sides put different spins on the timeframe for limiting enrichment to 3.67 percent. It's not clear whether the Arak reactor core will be “destroyed” (US), or “will remain” but not be used (Iran).
The US says sanctions relief would kick in only after inspections conditions are verifiably met; Iran says this would happen the day “a comprehensive agreement” is signed.
The Lausanne negotiations must be seen in a larger perspective. First, the US decided two years ago that it could drive a deal with Iran while retaining its own hegemonic advantage—unlike in the past. In 2003, Britain, France and Germany came close to a deal. The US scuttled it.
In 2010, Turkey and Brazil too worked out a reasonable agreement, but the US would have nothing to do with it. The US abused its influence in the IAEA to get a biased report published, which accused Iran of trying to develop a bomb. Alarmist stories were planted about Iran's “breakout” time (for acquiring enough fuel for a bomb) being only three months.
By early 2013, the Obama administration's assessment had changed. It opened a back-channel to Iran that led to several meetings. The process got strengthened with Rouhani's election in June.
Second, the US seems to have concluded that Iran can be a source of cooperation, if not a de facto ally against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, besides Afghanistan.
In Iraq, Iran has launched a massive offensive against Sunni rebels under the cover of the US-led war on terrorism. The US will soon have to recognise Iran as a major regional player.
Third, Iran is keen to be seen as a “normal”, stable, responsible state, not the “rogue” it's made out to be. It's a rising power. In spite of its clerical-Islamist regime, it hasn't behaved like a belligerent power—unlike Saddam Hussein's Iraq or today's Saudi Arabia. Iran is what international-relations theorists term a “rational actor”, which wants regional stability.
Iran has used its nuclear programme, among other things, as a bargaining chip in regional self-assertion. It stretches credulity to claim that an oil- and gas-rich country like Iran needs nuclear power for energy security, especially after Fukushima.
Iran has used the “right” to develop nuclear energy, available under the Non-Proliferation Treaty which was drafted to rationalise nuclear weapons through the fig leaf of “Atoms for Peace”. The world is paying a colossal price for this deception.
US-Iran conciliation would make for a less violent, less unstable West Asia. This is in the interest of South Asia's people. They have much to gain from a prosperous Iran, and in the short run, from low oil prices.
India committed a huge blunder by twice voting against Iran in the IAEA, thus undermining the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project. The present moment gives India a chance to return to it.
Even more important, it offers India and Pakistan a joint opportunity to secure Iran's cooperation in helping make Afghanistan a stable, flourishing democracy.
The writer is an eminent Indian columnist.