Iranians will celebrate their new year on March 20, 2016. That country will close out the old year with scheduled parliamentary elections on Feb. 26, 2016. At the same time, elections will be held for the Assembly of Experts, one of the country’s most important political bodies, consisting of 86 spokesmen for Iran’s clergy and with the power to appoint the country’s Supreme Leader. In the upcoming elections Iranians will shape their future for many years to come, and they will be doing so in a new international environment. 2015 will be seen as a watershed moment in Iran’s history.
The nuclear dossier has been closed, but the sanctions are still in place
The most important event last year in Iran was the agreement that was reached with the international community in regard to Tehran’s nuclear program. In December, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) approved a resolution closing Iran’s nuclear dossier. The Joint Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear program listed the commitments that country needed to make, and Tehran is in full compliance with those requirements and is meeting its deadlines. One of the most important steps was taken in late December, when a ship left Iran for Russia carrying 11 tons of low-enriched uranium. A key condition of the Plan of Action – and the most arduous prerequisite – was met through the joint work of the Rosatom corporation and the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.
Russia’s role in resolving the Iranian nuclear issue cannot be overstated. Russia, one of the six world powers involved in the negotiations, suggested the precepts that formed the basis of the signed agreement. Iran still has the right to pursue a peaceful nuclear program, which includes enriching uranium, while placing that program under international control, and all existing sanctions against Iran will be lifted. Iran’s new year will begin with a new status for its state, which will no longer have to endure the oppression of international isolation. The US and its allies are being forced to relinquish their biggest argument in their confrontation with Tehran: the threat of an armed conflict with Iran – something that has kept the entire world on edge for ten years – is being eliminated.
Iran expects the sanctions to actually be lifted no later than the spring of 2016. The US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations is allowing some sanctions against Iran to be withdrawn as early as January. However, the US administration is cautioning companies not to invest in Iran’s oil industry or other sectors until Tehran complies with all the articles of the nuclear agreement. It seems that even after closing Iran’s nuclear file, the US has not given up trying to put pressure on that nation. On the morning of Dec. 31, 2015, the White House notified Congress that the Treasury Department would introduce new sanctions on nearly a dozen companies and individuals in Iran and abroad, in retaliation for their assistance with Iran’s ballistic-missile program. However, later that same evening the White House stated in a new letter that the sanctions had been deferred, without specifying the next step.
It is clear that Iran’s missile-development project is not tied to the agreement over its nuclear program. In response to US threats, Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, has issued an order calling on the Ministry of Defense to redouble its efforts to develop the country’s missile potential.
But in any event, the peaceful program of nuclear research in the Islamic Republic of Iran has won international recognition, and this is an unqualified victory for Tehran. Although the sanctions have not yet been lifted, the country has begun to adjust to its new bearings within the world, while reserving its right to develop nuclear energy.
The right to the peaceful atom has been recognized
Tehran has defended the position staked out by Ayatollah Khamenei, which stipulates that Iran’s research into peaceful nuclear technology will not end under any circumstances. Currently the only nuclear power plant in the Middle East is located near the Iranian city of Bushehr. Its construction, which a West German company began before the 1979 Islamic revolution, was completed by Iran, with technical assistance from Russia and over the objections of the United States. The power plant has until now been managed by Iranian nuclear operators under the supervision of Russian staff. After the new year, the Iranians will assume full control, but that does not mean Russia is abandoning Iran’s nuclear-energy sector. Rosatom is now working full-time to construct two new reactors at Bushehr, a contract has been signed, and Iran will be responsible for the financing.
Looking toward the future, there is an agreement to build four more reactors at other sites, as well as plans for Russian scientists to help convert a uranium-enrichment facility in Fordow into an R&D center for the production of stable isotopes for medical use. Iran’s regional competitors can only sit back in envy. It is no longer certain that Russia will complete the Akkuyu nuclear power plant in Turkey. Saudi Arabia has signed an intergovernmental agreement with Russia to work together to develop a peaceful nuclear-energy program, but the parties do not yet have a contract in place.
This collaborative alliance between Russia and Iran represents an all-time high in the history of the two countries’ political relationship.
While the West has been looking for new ways to put pressure on the Islamic Republic, Russia has not scaled back its cooperation with Iran for even a single day. During a visit to Tehran in February 2015, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu launched the process of building a strategic partnership between the two countries. Not long ago the parties entered into the first military agreement to be signed at the intergovernmental level in the many centuries of Russian-Iranian relations. In April 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an order that lifted the ban on supplying Iran with S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems, and in early November a new contract was signed to ship these systems to Iran. In December, Tehran announced that it would soon withdraw its lawsuit against Russia for failing to meet the terms of a previous contract from 2007. Iranians’ trust has been restored, which has had a positive impact on all aspects of the cooperation between Moscow and Tehran.
In late November 2015, Vladimir Putin visited Iran for the first time in eight years to personally attend the third Gas Exporting Countries Forum. This trip prompted commentators in Iran who observed the Russian ruler’s meeting with Iran’s leader Ayatollah Khamenei to claim that his visit had given that industry summit real geopolitical significance. Iran’s spiritual leader rarely receives foreign heads of state, and when he does, that indicates a special relationship. Ayatollah Khamenei has been grateful for Moscow’s efforts to help resolve the issues surrounding Iran’s nuclear program, and he has also noted that the two countries see eye to eye in their assessments of the situation in the Middle East, while emphasizing that Tehran and Moscow also share the same view of the nature of the terrorist threats in the region.
According to Khamenei, there is potential for enormous growth in the economic relations between the two countries, and the leaders have agreed to diversify their bilateral trade and economic relations. Business contacts have been constrained up till now, which has been largely involuntary and due to the unilateral US economic sanctions. After the sanctions are lifted, Iran’s economy is expected to grow 3-7% per year. Almost every niche in the Iranian market is wide open, and Iran’s government will decide who will get into them and how. Iran’s leaders are ready to offer Russia lucrative terms, seeing that country as a reliable political partner. The Russian president’s November visit to Iran culminated in the approval of 35 joint projects in various sectors of the economy.