Middle East meets West

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Prabhat Singh's picture

Hailed as a “grand success” on one hand, and trashed as a “historic mistake” on the other, the run up to the Iran Nuclear Deal (henceforth referred to as “The Deal”) has all the makings of an edge-of the-seat Tom Clancy thriller. There’s betrayal by a bosom buddy, who also happens to be the protagonist of this saga. There’s the most unanticipated evil-turned-good story. There’s a last ditch attempt by a side-actor to foil the plot. And after this most riveting run up and near hopelessness of a happy ending, that’s exactly what you get- a happy ending!

In case you haven’t figured out the rather famed who’s who of this saga, let me lend you a hand. The protagonist is none other than the United States. Who did she betray?-Israel and Saudi Arabia. Who’s the evil-turned-good?-Iran. And the side actor you ask?-France! The happy ending- the latest interim deal struck between Iran and the world powers.

The Deal, albeit interim, has at least given birth to hopes of a comprehensive solution. For six months, Iran has agreed to suspend all activities at the Arak heavy water reactor, which had turned out to be the reason for failure of first round of talks at Geneva. There will be daily inspections by IAEA inspectors at Natanz and Fordow reactors, supposedly the backbone of Iran’s nuclear programme. In return, US and EU have promised easing of sanctions to the tune of $7bn over six months, all in unfrozen bank accounts and eased restrictions on gold and transportation. Contrary to popular perception, sanctions on oil exports remain firmly in place. Iran will not be allowed to export any more oil than it already does, which is now down to 1 million barrels/day from a peak of 4 million barrels/day, though no more sanctions will be slapped on its exports for this duration. The most striking aspect of The Deal-which makes it seem tilted in West’s favour- is Iran’s nod to complete neutralization of its stockpile of 20% enriched Uranium, and no further enrichment beyond 5%. This was a prerequisite for Western negotiators, since it only takes a small leap to go from 20% enrichment to weapons-grade enrichment of Uranium. Iran has also agreed to keep operations suspended at nearly half of its 19,000 presently functional centrifuges.

Of course, such deals don’t happen overnight. After President Rouhani’s historic attempt at reconciliation, P5+1 moved quickly to push a deal through the newly yet narrowly emerged Overton Window. Secret negotiations carried out by US officials in Oman supplemented multilateral talks led Catherin Ashton, Foreign Policy Chief of EU. Reuters has revealed1 the back channel talks that started even before Rouhani ascended to power in Iran. Key US officials involved in talks were William Burns, US deputy Secretary of State, and Jake Sullivan, National Security Adviser to Joe Biden. Under-the-radar military flights carried these US officials to Oman where there were extensive, off-the-record discussions that helped assuage emotions on either side. The Oman channel was itself facilitated by John Kerry in 2009, when he was Chairman of US Senate Foreign Relations Committee. For Iranian officials, the toughest job remained convincing the Supreme Leader to get on board the negotiations, without which all efforts would draw a blank. Perhaps the most cogent push came from Ali Salehi, Foreign Minister under Ahmedenijad, who sent a handwritten three page letter to Khameini, calling for “broad discussions with United States,” in the process putting his career and even his life in danger. He managed to elicit a tepid yet positive response from Khameini, but that was all that was needed to galvanize the moderate faction in Iran.

Just as in life, every negotiation has two sides- one that toils to make it a success, the other that schemes to foil it. This one had the other side in the form of Israel and Saudi Arabia. It indeed took such a monumental crisis to bring these two great adversaries on the same page.  Israel has minced no words in persuading Obama to desert negotiations, and Saudi-out of existentialist concerns- has tried to decimate any deal in hope of keeping intact its hegemony in the Middle East. Their shrill cries against truce with Iran fell on deaf ears as the-once-reliable President Obama pushed ahead ever more fastidiously for a deal. Their voice found eventually found echo in France’s death blow2 to the first round of negotiations, where it stood firm on its demand to dismantle Arak reactor before any deal could be finalized. Of course, development of Arak was a major concern for all world powers. The French rightly believed that once Arak was operational, a military strike would not be an option since it would lead to massive nuclear fallout. This is where the second deal, to which the French agreed, differed from the first. The first deal only demanded Iran to not begin fuelling the reactor up, whereas the second deal prohibits Iran from producing or even testing any fuel for the reactor. For all of France’s foresightedness, it is noteworthy that in light of US’ floundering ME policy- particularly its ineptitude on Syria, Iraq and Egypt- France is looking to play an increasingly significant role in this geopolitically paramount region. France’s hardline stance against Iran might also have been motivated by its fledgling economy, into which Saudis are pumping billions of dollars by buying arms3 and investing in French agro and food industries. The spat between Iran and France became stark when the Supreme Leader’s official account tweeted- “French officials have been openly hostile towards the Iranian nation over the past few years; this is an imprudent and inept move. A wise man, particularly a wise politician, should never have the motivation to turn a neutral entity into an enemy.” Clearly, even though France might have facilitated a better deal eventually, its geopolitical ambitions while scuttling the first round of talks can’t be brushed aside.

The Deal is bound to have massive geopolitical ramification throughout the world. Although it’s quite a leap, the current geopolitical climate vaguely reminds one of pre-1979, when US used to be closer to Iran than Saudi Arabia. Of course, the ongoing Shale revolution in US further lessens US’ reliance on Saudi. If Iran keeps its end of the bargain, it could well find a coveted seat at the negotiations over Syria, which would further alienate Israel and Saudi from US. The Deal could be a boon for Iraq which is saddled with sectarian tensions. A combined thrust from P5+1 and Iran could well settle some major issues there. Already, Brent Crude prices have fallen by over $2. This could provide a huge breather to big oil importers such as China, Indian and Japan.  On the global scale, Russia has already started questioning4 NATO’s motives for the European missile defence shield, since the shield’s raison d’etre, a nuclear equipped Iran, now seems further than ever. Kerry’s response, “Nothing has changed at this point and I don't foresee it changing5,” clearly signals US intentions. Perhaps what the world needs to be most wary of now is a spooked out Saudi Arabia chasing nuclear weapons6, fearing that Iran now has the leeway to develop one of its own, right under the nose of world powers. This would not be a distant possibility if Iran fails to comply with this interim deal, or if a final agreement fails to place more stringent checks on Iran’s nuclear programme.

It’s still debatable whether this deal recognizes Iran’s “inalienable right7” to Uranium enrichment for civil purposes, as mentioned in NPT, or if it places enough checks to prevent Iran from producing nuclear weapons. But what is clear is that this deal gives hope, the hope of a new world order where great countries don’t bay for each other’s blood and trade slanders such as “The Great Satan8” and “Axis of Evil.9” It gives hope of one less nuclear armed country, which would be in the benefit of all in the long term. Of course, this effort needs to be supplemented by a comprehensive deal where Iran is allowed to enrich Uranium only up to 5%, and, in Obama’s words, truly “cuts off Iran’s paths to a bomb.10” Almost certainly, Arak would have to be converted to a light water reactor to permanently cripple Iran’s capacity to make nuclear weapons. For all of this to come true, Rouhani would have to be utterly Machiavellian on home turf, pulling along both his aides and the extremist detractors. Obama has his task cut out too. He has to deal with an Israel-loving Congress which pushes for ever more sanctions. In the resolution of this most convoluted of disputes lies one of the greatest triumphs of diplomacy and humanity.