The tentative six-month deal between Iran and the "P5+1" states may be the start of a serious improvement in United States-Iranian relations or it could come rapidly unstuck. The deal itself is certainly significant politically but is also interesting from a technical point of view, meeting head on some of the major problems that have held back progress over Iran's nuclear programme.
Since February 2010, Iran has been slowly accumulating moderately enriched uranium (20% U235 compared with 4% power-reactor grade and 0.7% natural uranium). 20% enrichment may be appropriate for the refuelling the US-supplied Tehran reactor (acquired in the Shah’s time) but is also closer to 85+% weapons-grade uranium. By the end of 2011, Iran had 100 kilogrammes of the stuff but then converted some to fuel-rods before steadily increasing once more to 200kg in September 2013 (see “Annual Defence Report”, p.36, Jane’s Defence Weekly, 11 December 2013).
The deal agreed in Geneva means all of this material will either be diluted or converted to fuel-rods during the six-month negotiating period, with this being verifiable and verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This alone is a potential confidence-building measure, but Iran will also refrain from bringing more enrichment centrifuge cascades online - again a verifiable action. In return Iran gets some sanctions relief and freeing up of frozen bank-accounts.
The deal contributes to an already distinct improvement in relations between Washington and Tehran, made possible in part by a coincidence of circumstances in both capitals. In Washington, Barack Obama’s second-term presidency is badly in need of a boost, and a sustainable deal with Iran could be the makings of his remaining three years in office; in Tehran, Hassan Rowhani retains a strong position following his election victory in June 2013, when he gained an overall majority in the first ballot against a cluster of four more hawkish opponents (see "Iran, a cautious opening", 20 June 2013).
The AIM factors
Against this, however, two major factors exist that could derail the negotiations. The first is Israel, whose prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu remains bitterly opposed to the deal - but is even more frustrated because Israel has little in the way of military options. It could not seriously disrupt Iran’s nuclear programme through military strikes unless these somehow brought the US into the fray; and Obama simply will not even think of countenancing that.
Even so, the Israeli authorities will seek any sign of problems with the negotiations, as well as focusing on internal Iranian developments - including missile-tests and military exercises - as possible pretexts for action. They will be strongly supported in this by Saudi Arabia and the western Gulf monarchies, which are also exercised by the US-Iranian rapprochement, as well of course by the powerful pro-Israel lobby in the United States.
In these circumstances, the second major factor comes into play: that old process of “Accidents, Incidents and Mavericks” (see "America, Israel, Iran: mediation vs war", 16 February 2012) In normal circumstances these three elements can turn a major crisis between states into something far worse, but they also apply to inter-state relations when these are improving but face severe opposition.
With this in mind, it is important for actors to be ready for possible maverick initiatives, perhaps by sections of Iran's Revolutionary Guards that in an emerging era of relative peace fear a diminution of their status as defenders of the revolution. Even a minor incident, such as an untoward infringement of territorial waters met by an immediate and violent response, could cause a sudden crisis in relations. Any such tremor would be used by entrenched opponents of Iran to try and derail the talks, and it could come at any time in the coming months.
The peace options
There is, though, another factor in the situation that may actually work in a more favourable direction. It relates to recent developments in the disastrous war in Syria.
The more radical jihadist-orientated elements of the opposition to Bashar al-Assad's regime have, as reported in many columns in this series, become progressively more significant. This week it is reported that the US and Britain are ceasing to supply some equipment to “acceptable” rebels because of gains made by these radicals in the rebellion (see Michael R Gordon, “U.S. cuts off aid to rebels in Syria over jihadist fears”, New York Times, 12 December 2013). This followed the unifying of a number of jihadist groups into a new Islamic Front which has overrun some of the positions held by more secularist rebels.
The Islamic Front is separate from two other substantial jihadist forces, the Al Nusrah Front and ISIS, but together these three groups now offer the strongest anti-regime opposition. For its own part, the regime has made recent gains against the rebel "supreme military council" which has been supported by the west but also become increasingly divided.
In this shifting pattern of conflict, there is a confluence of interests among important players - including the US, Russia and Iran. The Obama administration is in a bind over the rise in jihadism in Syria, to the extent that some in Washington say a deal with Assad may be necessary, however unpalatable, to avoid an al-Qaida resurgence in the heart of the middle east. Russia wants to avoid its own jihadists in the Caucasus exploiting Moscow's support for Assad and especially the latter's suppression of their ideological brothers.
In turn, these calculations relate to the US-Iran question, for Tehran too is very concerned about Syria. It has given considerable support to the Assad regime, including via the involvement of its Lebanese ally Hizbollah; such, from its own perspective, was an appropriate policy in the face of the western-supported rebels' threat to its Alawite ally in Damascus. But if the war ends up as a confrontation between the Assad regime and Sunni radicals, that would be altogether more dangerous, especially as the latter would be supplied with copious financial and other support from multiple private and semi-official sources in western Gulf states.
Several previous columns have pointed to an emerging common interest between Washington and Moscow as a motive for getting to some kind of settlement in Syria. That common interest now extends to Tehran. This could have an impact both in relation to the war in Syria and in the coming months of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The balance between ongoing conflict and chances for progress is very fine.