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The deal over Iran’s nuclear programme may well indicate a historic shift in the power balance in west Asia. That such an agreement was reached despite the opposition from Israel and Saudi Arabia is signifi cant. The positive implications of making this deal permanent are many but the coming months will tell us whether the United States really has turned the corner over its old shibboleth.
The Palais des Nations in Geneva, where Iranian diplomats met with representatives of the P5 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) + 1 (Germany), has a 46 hectare park that is home to an ostentation of peacocks. The owners of the land bequeathed it to the League of Nations (now the United Nations) as long as the international organisation maintained peacocks on the land. The current group was donated by a Japanese zoo and by the Indian mission. They have been spectators to a flurry of activity in the past few years over the question of Iran’s nuclear programme. Mayura, the killer of snakes, is certainly a hopeful mascot of the Geneva UN. On 24 November, the P5+1 signed an interim deal with Iran – the first in decades – which could draw down the tensions not only around Iran but also in the entire region, from Afghanistan to Lebanon. A snake was certainly flayed, although it is not clear which snake was killed.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is not an expressive person, but his statement after the signing was even more cautious. He urged the governments involved “to do everything possible to build on this encouraging start, creating mutual confidence and allowing continued negotiations to extend the scope of this initial agreement”. Ban Ki-moon was right to put his enthusiasm on mute. Israel had already signalled that this deal was a “historic mistake”, while the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia warned that it would conduct its own adverse policy towards Iran. Pressure from Israel, from Saudi Arabia and from the right wing in the US Congress suggested that the United States (US) would not have an easy time keeping its own allies in line on this deal. The US government’s fact sheet on the deal suggested that it “halts the progress of Iran’s nuclear program and rolls it back in key respects”, while the “overwhelming majority of the sanctions regime remains in place”. In other words, the US claimed that Iran conceded on everything and got nothing – that Iran was the snake to be corralled. In Iran, on the other hand, its lead negotiator and Foreign Minister Javed Zarif was received as a hero, saying that his country now could fully exercise the right to a full civilian nuclear programme that included the right to enrich uranium. The snake, for Iran, was the US-led policy to garrotte Iran.
Differing interpretations are the stuff of diplomatic engagement. No power wants to say that it has been overwhelmed in the negotiations by another power – all those who leave the deal with their signatures on the paper would like to make the most of what they signed. A factual look at the deal indicates that Iran got what it had always wanted, namely, an implicit right to enrich uranium for its civilian nuclear programme, and that the West got what it always wanted, namely, a guarantee that Iran would not move towards a military nuclear programme (something Iran has always denied). In other words, and after all those visits to Geneva, we are back to the 1990s when this dispute began to escalate, and we are back to a discussion about the procedures of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) allowances for nuclear energy and for surveillance against nuclear weaponisation. It tells you something about the stand-off over Iran that it was never about the substance of nuclear energy-weapons and always about geopolitical power in and around Iran.
Dialogue of Civilisations
By 2003, the US government had overthrown two of Iran’s historical enemies (the Taliban and the Ba’ath regime of Saddam Hussein) and removed the pressure on Iran’s two most tense borders (with Afghanistan and Iraq). Iran’s reform-oriented government led by Mohammed Khatami opened a dialogue through a road map that came to Washington via the Swiss Interest Section in Tehran. Swiss Ambassador Tim Guldimann sent a note along with the road map pointing out that the Iranians were eager for a deal then but they feared that “a lack of trust in the US imposes on them to proceed very carefully and very confidentially”. Guldimann said he “got the clear impression that there is a strong will of the regime to tackle the problem with the US now”. Iran’s UN ambassador at the time was Javid Zarif, whose draft road map from 2003 reads very much like the agreement of 2013, including the section on “full transparency for security that there are no Iranian endeavours to develop or possess Weapons of Mass Destruction, full cooperation with IAEA”. The Bush administration tossed the note in the trash, set up a confrontation with Iran in the IAEA (assisted by India in its two votes of 2005), encouraged Iranian hard-liners to build up their nuclear capacity as an insurance against an attack (as North Korea had done, whereas Iraq had not) and drew sustenance from the kind of Punch and Judy politics that followed with Ahmadinejad, Netanyahu and Bush – caricatures of testosterone politics.
Iran’s two other historic enemies – Saudi Arabia and Israel – have not changed their stance vis-à-vis Tehran. For them, the destruction of the Iranian regime is their policy, a goal that today recedes further into the horizon. Over the course of these four decades, Iran has become an important political actor in its region – not just through a politics of sectarianism (as a political centre of Shi’ism) but also through its energy diplomacy and its resolute posture against US (and other Western) intervention. As the US tries to extricate itself from its two failed wars (Afghanistan and Iraq), Iran has emerged as one of the main political forces that could provide the basis for stability. Any post-US Afghan political settlement will require Iranian involvement – not only because of the close ties between western Afghanistan and Iran but also because half of Afghanistan’s oil comes from Iran and the pipeline agreements with Pakistan, India and central Asia would require Afghan participation. Iranian diplomacy and power will also be crucial to any policy in Syria, where the civil war has tilted in large part to favour Iran’s ally, the regime of Bashar al-Assad. There will be no possibility of any kind of political deal in Syria without Iran’s diplomatic involvement, one that is far more influential in Damascus than that of Russia. Washington is aware of these factors.
In 2003, Bush assumed that the US military force would tilt the balance of forces in west Asia towards the US. Things unravelled very quickly. The Arab Spring, which has a much longer history of internal struggles in the various Arab countries, is nonetheless drawn from considerable popular anger against the undemocratic regimes that collaborated with the West. By the time Obama came to office in 2009, US power in the region had declined considerably – its inability to force the issue in Syria is not just a mark of the complexity of geopolitics but also of the weakened state of US influence. US allies in west Asia – Saudi Arabia and Israel – are of course more prone to create instability in the region than to bring peace. If anything it is Iran that will be able to manage some of the deep crises in the region. Out of weakness – political and economic – come the P5+1 to the table in Geneva. The bluster had worn off. The language of ultimatums and military force seemed anachronistic. The Iranians cleverly have Zarif, the former UN ambassador, as their foreign minister – and he brought his long-term memory of previous attempts to the table as well as his genial demeanour. It was hard to caricature Zarif as the scowling mullah, not with Zarif and his boss, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani conducting clever Twitter diplomacy for the world’s press. The advantage was always with Iran.
A brief wrinkle came on the scene when France scuttled the first meeting with last-minute demands for the closure of some of the Iranian reactors. These were not serious objections, because Iran had already suspended work at its Arak reactor and it had abandoned its project to build more centrifuges as part of a process to build confidence for the Geneva meeting. When it was pointed out that Iran had already conceded on these points, France nonetheless objected and the meeting had to be put off for a week. France’s President Francois Hollande went off on a tour of Israel where he pledged to hold the line against a deal and called for Palestinians to forgo their right to return to their land. But France’s effort on Israel’s behalf failed. The deal went through with the other European powers outflanking a tendency for France to revive its old colonial ambitions (bombing raids in Ivory Coast, Libya and Mali seem to whet this appetite).
Saudi Arabia’s sulk did not last long. Its Gulf Arab allies – Kuwait, Qatar and Oman (which had hosted the secret Iran-US talks) – came out for the agreement. The Kingdom had to follow saying, “If there is goodwill, this agreement could represent a preliminary step toward a comprehensive solution to the Iranian nuclear program”. This is indeed an interim agreement. Six months from now the powers will meet again. But they will not be able to roll back Iran’s civilian nuclear programme. Even Israel recognises that. Netanyahu told his Likud Party members that this accord “must bring about one outcome: the dismantling of Iran’s military nuclear capability”. The addition of the word “military” is crucial. It means that Israel accepts Iran’s civilian nuclear programme – something that Tel Aviv had adamantly resisted.
Good news followed quite quickly after the embargo around Iran lifted. Oil prices dropped, influenced by the expectation of Iranian oil being allowed to more easily enter the world market (Indonesia hastily inked a deal to buy Iranian oil). India moved to settle payments for its purchases of Iranian oil over the past year, and hoped for deeper commercial ties through the port city (Charbahar) in Iran that India is helping develop. But most importantly, the powers agreed to return to Geneva’s peacock home on 22 January to reopen stuck talks around a Syrian peace. Exaggerated phrases crept into the media in west, central and south Asia – “world historical deal”, “world class deal”, “deal of the century” – all phrases to indicate the relief that war has been temporarily averted and that Iran – with its location as the geographical linchpin between west Asia and south as well as central Asia – can once more resume its natural role as a political player in the region.