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A great step forward

Iran’s acceptance of a temporary halt in its nuclear program points to a new scenario

Modest as it is, the provisional agreement reached with Iran in the small hours of Sunday morning in Geneva may be considered crucial. After 10 years of talking at cross purposes, and in a constructive climate unthinkable only a few months ago, the Western powers and Iran have reached a provisional agreement which, in exchange for a softening of international economic sanctions, will place a freeze on the ayatollahs’ race toward possessing nuclear weapons. If consolidated in six months’ time, it will eliminate the threat of the bomb, and may change the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East.

The agreement seems not to have required major concessions on the part of the United States and its allies. The most important, as we await for the release of the small print of the agreement, is that Iran can go on enriching uranium (something denied to it by successive, and disregarded, resolutions of the Security Council), but not to concentrations higher than five percent, the degree stipulated for solely civilian use. In exchange, it will neutralize the existing stocks enriched to 20 percent, freeze its present enriching capacity, and permit unrestricted access by United Nations inspectors to its plants at Natanz and Fordo.

On the other side, there will be a seven-billion-dollar lightening of the sanctions now asphyxiating Iran, and new ones will not be imposed. There has been a partial disappearance of the French reticence that blocked compromise two weeks ago, Tehran having apparently having agreed to halt development of its heavy water reactor in Arak.

The fragility of the pact has already become evident. Even while the Iranian president, with the backing of the supreme chief, Ali Khamenei, sold the deal to his country as the confirmation of Tehran’s inalienable right to enrich uranium, the chief of US diplomacy denied that this was the case. The allies say that what was ceded in Geneva is limited in time and reversible, and will automatically expire if no final agreement emerges.

The tense distrust existing between the West and Iran will soon be put to the test by obstacles more significant than rhetorical ones. The volatile agreement is highly vulnerable to attack from hawks of both sides, and its upcoming and definitive phase of negotiation — if all goes well — will be much harder than the present one.

 Especially important are the radical hostility of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is incapable of understanding that Israel has a great deal to lose if what has been achieved so far should crumble, and the reticence of US Republicans to bow to Obama’s pressure for there to be no further sanctions.

These will not be the only attacks on an agreement which, if consolidated, will alter the status quo in a critical region, apart from reviving relations between Washington and Tehran.

In the pursuit of its strategic objectives, Iran is showing an almost limitless capacity for aligning itself on the dark side of events: Syria, Hezbollah and Iraq. To bring the ayatollahs’ regime back into the mainstream of reliable interlocutors with the West would in itself represent a revolution.

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