Finally, an Iranian nuclear deal that is worth backing

Gareth Evans says the agreement to contain its nuclear plan, clinched after years of missteps, is in the interests of the international community

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 July, 2015, 9:05am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 July, 2015, 9:05am

The only thing to lament about the agreement reached by Iran and the world's major powers in Vienna this month is that it was not signed and sealed a decade ago. In the years that it has taken for diplomatic sanity to prevail, the Middle East has endured myriad avoidable tensions and lost opportunities for cooperation.

From 2003 to 2006, Iran made clear that it would agree to all the key elements of the recent deal. All it needed in return - beyond, of course, the lifting of sanctions as implementation proceeded - was formal recognition of its "right to enrich" uranium.

If, at that time, the West had been prepared to settle for effectively containing Iran's nuclear programme, rather than destroying every last sensitive component of it, a deal would have been possible.

My judgment, based on dialogue with senior Iranian officials, is that Iran has never been close to deciding to actually build nuclear weapons

The Iranians were never going to accept what they perceived as second-class status under the Non-proliferation Treaty. It was only when the Obama administration acknowledged that, that progress became possible. The key was the recognition that Iran's sense of honour had to be accommodated.

While no one should be under any illusion that Iran has been a model international citizen, or is likely to become one any time soon, the perception of its nuclear ambitions misreads the dynamics in play. My judgment, based on dialogue with senior Iranian officials, is that Iran has never been close to deciding to actually build nuclear weapons. Iran has always been keenly aware of the multiple risks involved in crossing that red line. Another factor that should not be instantly dismissed: Iranian leaders' repeated strong rejection of weapons of mass destruction on religious grounds.

The question, then, is why has Iran walked the precipice for so long by building a visible breakout capability bound to spook the West, Israel and its Arab neighbours? The answer, I believe, is overwhelmingly national pride - its people's desire to demonstrate that Iran is a power to be reckoned with, and that there are limits to its willingness to suffer humiliation.

Iranians vividly remember the overthrow, orchestrated by the CIA and British intelligence, of the elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953. They remember the West's prolonged support for the hated shah. And they remember being labelled part of an "axis of evil".

It is understandable that many will not readily be persuaded of Iranian sincerity, but the Vienna agreement deserves wide support. It reflects the real interests of not just Iran, but also the international community. It keeps intact a global non-proliferation regime that has been showing signs of falling apart, and gives new hope for wider regional security cooperation.

Gareth Evans was foreign minister of Australia in 1988-96. Copyright: Project Syndicate