Deep concerns about Iran’s potential nuclear ambitions began to rumble through western capitals in 2002. Satellite photos were made public of Natanz and Arak — secret till then. One was a centrifuge uranium enrichment site and the other a heavy water production plant linked to significant plutonium output. The White House said it feared an “across-the-board pursuit of weapons of mass destruction” by Iran. But uranium enrichment could be for civil use too.
The independent organisation the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) secured an agreement with Tehran in 2003 which would allow inspectors to visit the facilities, and report to the UN.
In 2004, Iran agreed with France, Germany and Britain to suspend enrichment, and then President Mohammad Khatami signed a roadmap with then IAEA chief Mohamed El Baradei to further smooth things over.
But this was not to last. In 2005, Tehran binned the deal with the three EU powers and reactivated the centrifuges of Isfahan. The Europeans threatened to drag the Iranians before the United Nations Security Council.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected Iran’s president in September that year. He would brand those willing to negotiate with the West as defeatist.
The president vowed Iran would bow to no one, and had full rights to enrich fuel to generate power. In April 2006, the UN Security Council issued an ultimatum that Iran stop enrichment, and it refused.
A first series of sanctions was approved, including a ban on the sale of any technology to Tehran which might be used in its nuclear programme or to develop ballistic missiles.
The US and the EU imposed additional punitive sanctions. Five years of stalemate followed. Ahmadinejad ordered enrichment stepped up, and in 2012 the IAEA warned that the Iranians had amassed half of the material that a nuclear bomb would require: 110 kilos.
A window of opportunity opened when a more moderate president was elected in June 2013: Hassan Rohani, the cleric who had been Iran’s top nuclear negotiator with the EU.
Rohani attended a UN General Assembly session in New York that September, and before leaving town spoke to President Barack Obama by phone.
Obama said publically: “The very fact that this was the first communication between an American and an Iranian president since 1979 undescores the deep mistrust between our countries, but it also indicates the prospect of moving beyond that difficult history.”
Two months later, the interim ‘Joint Action Plan’ was signed in Geneva by Iran and the Security Council permanent members the US, Britain, Russia, China and France, plus Germany, to relaunch talks.
These were delayed a first time in July last year, and again in November, to allow more time for preparatory work.
At last, the framework for a pact was unveiled, 2nd April this year. The 30th June so-called ‘deadline’ would slide, before persistence prevailed.
We talked to a professor of politics at the University of Tehran about the positive potential.
Hossein Alavi, euronews: “Dr. Sadegh Zibakalam, finally, after more than 12 years of nuclear conflict, Iran and six world powers have reached a historic deal. Will this deal lead to reintegrating Iran in the international community and normalising relations with the United States?”
Dr. Sadegh Zibakalam, professor of politics, University of Tehran: “The most important aspect of the nuclear agreement with the west and the importance of this historic day, 14th July 2015, is about exactly the point you are asking. I think future generations will remember this day as a turning point in the history of the Iranian Revolution, a point where Iran reconciled with the world, with Europe and with the United States, a day when it distanced itself, to a great extent, from that radical revolutionary culture of wishing death on other countries, other nations and other civilisations.”
euronews: “Many Iranians have waited a long time for such an agreement, and they welcome it, as it will lead to a lifting of the economic sanctions. Under these new circumstances, will Hassan Rohani’s government be able to keep its economic and political promises?”
Zibakalam: “I think for the younger generation and the generations after the revolution, having been impacted economically was not as significant as their concerns and expectations for a normalisation of Iran’s ties with the rest of the world. The young generation has a new view of things, and they expected this agreement to happen. Now that it seems these expectations are turning into reality, it will help Rohani’s government a lot — a government that has been able to bring back peace, happiness and smiles between Iran and the rest of the world.”
euronews: “Many experts and analysts, including yourself, have repeatedly questioned the economic value of uranium enrichment for the country. Has Iran really benefited from tens of billions of dollars of investment on uranium enrichment?”
Zibakalam: “The same question can be asked about many other aspects of Iran’s main policies over the past 36 years. You might ask if animosity towards the West, the US and Europe benefits our national interests. Unfortunately, we must say that the ideological approach that we have taken during the nuclear issue has done great damage to Iran’s national interests and economy. We have sustained billions of dollars in costs because of the nuclear issue — directly or indirectly — because of the sanctions. How could this benefit Iran’s economy and national interests?”
euronews: “Among the expectations of civil rights activists in Iran is improvement of human rights, especially women’s rights. Following the nuclear agreement, will Rohani’s government have the will and the ability to meet these expectations?”
Zibakalam: “I think we need to be cautious about what we expect from Mr. Rohani’s government. However, we should not forget that his government, and basically the executive branch, hold only a small part of the power in Iran. Unfortunately, the bigger share of power in Iran is not in the hands of the institutions elected by the people. Therefore, we should keep our expectations reasonable.”