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Written by Emilio Giuliani

On November 23rd, a “Joint Plan of Action” was reached in Geneva between Iran and the permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. The plan was hailed as an important breakthrough in the Iranian nuclear negotiations by its signatories and supporters, but it was also denounced as a dangerous mistake by outside critics. Already, the plan is being tested by Iran, whose leaders have signaled that the country will continue construction at the Arak heavy water reactor, a move that calls into question how flexible the international community will be in the interpretation of the provisions of the plan.

What the plan entails

The “Joint Plan of Action” itself is not a comprehensive deal. Iran is not going to immediately dismantle all its nuclear infrastructure, although it has not in any way been given a free pass to building nuclear weapons either. In exchange for relieving several billion dollars in sanctions, Iran has agreed to stop “advancing activities” at key nuclear sites, reduce its amount of 20 percent enriched uranium, and allow IAEA inspectors into its nuclear facilities for the first time in years.

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The heavy water reactor at Arak is currently at the center of the attention regarding progress on its construction {Photo credit: AFP]

The plan is set to last six months with the chance of renewal, and is intended as a first step toward further negotiations should both sides be satisfied with the results.

The controversy centers on what constitutes “further advances of activities” at specific sites including Arak. Such “further advances” are prohibited under the plan, but Iran insists that the construction it is undertaking at Arak is not part of the deal. Foreign Minister Javad Sharif stated that capacity would not be increased, that “no new nuclear fuel will be produced and no new installations will be installed,” but that “construction would continue.”

Skepticism on all fronts

Even before the Arak construction announcement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the interim plan a ‘historic mistake‘ and said the world today is more dangerous because of the agreement. Private opposition groups highlight the Iran of the past and anti-American statements in Youtube ads calling for more sanctions.

Much of this criticism is based on a deep mistrust of Iranian intentions rather than a disagreement on the content of the plan itself. Iran’s history and its attitude toward Israel are factors that warrant skepticism, but refusing to acknowledge the possibility of taking mutually beneficial steps forward is shortsighted.

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Image credit: International Herald Tribune

President Obama stated that the plan cuts off Iran’s primary route to a nuclear bomb and strongly supported the deal. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has previously indicated that he is against nuclear weapons in Iran, also supported the plan.

Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani praised the outcome as well and went on to say that the world has recognized Iranian nuclear rights and affirmed that Iran had no intentions of seeking nuclear weapons. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made it clear that the deal does not condone Iranian enrichment, but hailed the joint plan for its step in the right direction. The indirect disagreement over Iran’s nuclear rights further underscored possible challenges that lay ahead.

Skeptics argue that this plan is just a false front for the Iranians in order to have sanctions lifted and a better deal could have been reached. Regardless of Iran’s intentions, the opening of nuclear sites to international inspectors is critical to a more comprehensive understanding of Iran’s nuclear program and its future ambitions. Over the next six months, time will tell just how sincere Iran is about clearly pursuing a peaceful nuclear program. The recent controversies over Arak and Iranian nuclear have not directly threatened the progress of the deal yet, but they suggest that more issues will arise in the future.

Interim optimism

The plan is non-binding, so if Iran were to shirk from any of its provisions, the international community can and should respond by returning sanctions and increasing pressure against Teheran.

If Iran is going to continue to play games and loosely interpret the plan, the other signatory powers should set further boundaries and be prepared to act accordingly.

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EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif [Photo credit: AFP]

Despite the recent events, bashing the plan before it has a real chance to work is counterproductive, because there is a definite opportunity for the international community to learn more about Iran’s true goals and capabilities. Iran is signaling that it is willing to come to the table on the nuclear issue, but the extent to which they are serious about scaling down their nuclear ambitions can only be proven over time. In the months ahead, the U.S. and the international community should treat the plan and Iran’s willingness to move forward with both skepticism and cautious optimism.

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