Editorial: Agreement with Iran must lead to denuclearization of the Middle East

For some time Iran has faced hair-trigger conditions for armed conflict with Israel and the United States, but there is now a significant shift in this situation.

Through negotiations with six world powers, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany, Iran has agreed to curtail its enrichment of uranium. In return, economic sanctions on Iran will be partially eased.

The election of a moderate president in Iran, Hassan Rouhani, has opened up a wider dialogue between Iran and the international community. At the same time, the pent-up frustration felt in Iran over years of economic sanctions also seems to have contributed to the recent softening in that nation’s stance.

This change is welcomed. The international community must now work together in wisdom to make this opening a step forward to denuclearizing the entire Middle East.

One of the most salient parts of the agreed Joint Plan of Action is the “elements of a first step,” with a duration of six months. In line with this stipulation, Iran pledges not to enrich uranium over five percent and its existing stockpile of highly-enriched uranium will be processed so that it cannot be diverted to develop nuclear weapons. Iran will also halt construction of an experimental heavy-water reactor, which could be used to produce plutonium.

Ambiguities remain, however. With regard to low-enriched uranium, at a level of about 3.5 percent, the agreement states that Iran will not increase its stockpile and that any newly enriched low-level uranium will be converted into oxide.

While the United States says that Iran was not granted any rights to enrich uranium, Mr. Rouhani contends that Iran was permitted the right to continue enriching uranium for the peaceful use of nuclear energy. This difference in interpretation may delay the implementation of the agreement.

Still, the “comprehensive solution” proposed in the agreement points toward a future resolution of these nuclear issues.

There are two key points. First, Iran must reaffirm that under no circumstances will it seek or develop nuclear arms. Second, Iran must ratify and implement the Additional Protocol, which allows unannounced inspections by the IAEA.

Iran has been suspected of aiming to acquire nuclear weapons by camouflaging its intentions behind the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. With this agreement, Iran has made a significant step forward.

It is still early in these talks, though, and solutions may not come easy. The international community must monitor and inspect Iran’s activities to ensure that it complies with the agreement made in the Plan of Action while balancing these efforts with the easing of economic sanctions.

The important thing is to keep in mind, when addressing these issues with Iran, is that the ultimate goal is the denuclearization of the Middle East.

Israel, which is at loggerheads with Iran, objects strongly to this agreement, calling it “a historic mistake.” This is surely because Israel doubts that the agreement will prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

Israel, however, is a de facto nuclear weapons state that has not joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Israel’s criticism of Iran will not earn wide support among the international community.

The role played by the United States, an ally of Israel, will be a focus of attention. It should not give lopsided support to Israel, but should instead exercise leadership in bringing the two countries together at the negotiating table, with the aim of ridding the whole region of nuclear arms.

Japan’s role will grow in importance. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida paid a visit to Iran this month and met with the official responsible for Iran’s negotiations of nuclear issues.

Historically speaking, Japan and Iran have sustained friendly relations. Therefore, Japan can play an important role in persuading Iran from a different standpoint from that of Western nations. It is now time for Japan to demonstrate the power of peaceful diplomacy.

(Originally published on November 26, 2013)