The Interim US-Iran Deal: Brighter Prospects for the Middle East?

Three decades. That is how long animosities between Iran and the United States have been present, since the overthrow of Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and the 1979 Iranian Revolution. This mutual hatred, like the mutually exclusive relationships between Israel and Palestine, are integral and remain integral in shaping the direction of foreign policy direction and alliances in the Middle East.

Campaigning on the now infamous slogan of ‘ Change, we can believe in’, Mr Obama sought rapproachment with America’s foes while strengthening its alliances- a foreign policy direction that was shrugged off by neoconservatives as a recipe for disaster. In 2009, when Iran rejected these peaceful overtures under the perceivably belligerent and unpredictable Iranian President Mr Ahmedinejad, Obama’s critics must have surely felt a sense of vindication.

As 2013 draws to a close, and we usher in 2014, one cannot help but feel hopeful of the prospects of a more peaceful Middle East and the balance of global leadership tilting back in America’s favour. The P5+1 and Iran concluded the interim nuclear deal just barely two months ago- a welcome boost for President Obama’s flailing presidency, which clearly pines for forward momentum. This deal could perhaps be the defining legacy of Mr Obama’s term in office; yet it also has the potential to disappoint. What America and the world needs, at this point in time, will surely be Mr Obama’s paramount decisiveness and leadership.

The interim deal could be largely argued to have had its roots in the also recently concluded 2013 UN General Assembly and the election of moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani in the 2013 Iranian elections. There emerged a diplomatic breakthrough between the two fervently hostile nations during the 2013 UN General Assembly, on the initiative of both sides to seek reconciliatory gestures, topped off with a 15 minute phone call between Mr Rouhani and President Obama. The two nations, having been estranged for decades, now had a perfect opportunity to thaw relations. While the conciliatory overtures may suggest the time is ripe for the restoration of relations and the cultivating of a more cordial relationship, it is ostensibly so that genuine rapproachment, through the reopening of embassies and establishment of formal relations, rather than filibuster and rhetoric, remains much out of the question in the minds of both heads of state.

Essentially, with all the media hype over the Iran-US deal, one would tend to see such a groundbreaking event through the prism of history and draw resemblances of the greater multilateral engagement with Iran to that of the Nixon-Mao moment in the 70s, where President Nixon became the first US President to step foot on Chinese soil and seek a rapproachment and closer relations with China. Yet, it would be prudent to note that the deal is merely an interim one- any recklessness or disregard for the terms of the deal from the parties at stake would surely derail any progress towards nuclear disarmament. Furthermore, unlike the Chinese and the US in the 1970s, where both sides shared common cause- in the form of the common enemy in the Soviet Union with the ensuing Sino-Soviet split, the poisonous rhetoric and animosity between both sides is clear for all to see; in fact, the Iranian fundamentalist government justifies its mandate on the fundamental element of anti-Americanism, where the popular 1979 Iranian Revolution, stirred by anti-American sentiments towards what was widely seen to be a Shah that was a Western puppet. Media portrayals in Iran of America as the ‘Great Satan’ are evidently symbolic of how deep these animosities run.

Even if both heads of state had genuine goals of reconcilation and cultivating a mutually beneficial relationship, there exists obstacles to such moves domestically- Mr Rouhani does not have true control over Iran; rather it is Ayatollah Khamenei, who continues to play a paramount leadership role in the findamentalist state structure. Furthermore, extreme conservative elements in Iranian society, such as that of the Revolutionary Guard, who wield much political clout, may prove a continued source of consternation for Mr Rouhani in possible dealings with the West. In America, even if Iran shows genuine rapproachment, a hawkish Senate dominated by Republicans would surely be a thorn in the flesh for any likely recipocration of goodwill by Mr Obama towards Iran. Both sides clearly face an uphill task- that of moderates dispelling critics and fighting their own domestic battles to win over hearts and minds.

Yet, despite the festering animosities between the two nations, it would be an understatement, in my opinion, to define the interim deal as a temporary shift in foreign policy stances; in fact, I see it as an opportunity for genuine detente and realpolitik between the two, acknowledging the boons of peaceful coexistence.

Basically, the contents of the interim deal as promulgated by Baroness Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy coordinator, as well as the P5+1 members and Iran, stipulate that Iran would receive temporary, reversible relief from international sanctions and access to about $4b in frozen foreign bank accounts, while agreeing in return to place caps on the amount of uranium it will be allowed to enrich, at 5%- a safe level. Iran would also comply with instrusive UN inspectors from the IAEA to ensure its compliance and guarantee its genuine cooperation.

Given Iran’s history of cheating with regards to inspections, this would naturally render its track record poor and rightfully so, Western governments continue to fester distrust towards Iran- one moment the Ayatollah proclaims that they will negotiate a nuclear deal, while resorting to populist, inflammatory rhetoric of name calling the US ‘ the Great Satan’ once again. While this deal would be a huge gamble for the Security Council, Western governments have little to lose from this deal. After all, it would serve their agendas of possibly stalling for time via ensuring Iran complies with global regulations and limiting its enriching capabilities. Pressure, however, would be on the Iranians. Isolated from the global community as a pariah state, this deal serves as the perfect opportunity for it to jump on the bandwagon and usher in a new age for Iranian diplomacy. Furthermore, it would be wasteful for it to sabotage this interim deal, where China and Russia, potential allies, have staked so much of their diplomatic credibility on the line. Should Iran sabotage the proceedings, it would be likely both superpowers might retaliate by backing further sanctions.

Despite the virulent opposition from Israel and the Saudis, such as that of Israeli PM Netanyahu calling the deal a ‘historic mistake’ instead of a ‘historic deal’, I personally see this as a direct affront to morality and logic. US Secretary of State John Kerry, perhaps put it best when he mentioned at the press conference in Geneva after the conclusion of the deal that those who criticise the deal should aim to create a better one, knowing that an alternative would be direct conflict and war, one that the international community seeks to avoid- a potential nuclear holocaust. Yes, Mr Netanyahu may have his legitimate fears of a nuclear armed Iran threatening Israel’s hegemony of nuclear weapons and thus, dispelling the myth of Israeli military superiority. The Arab states, long distrustful of Iran, given the festering Sunni-Shia chasm, see a nuclear armed Iran as a security threat, and an Iran that could potentially overshadow it as a paramount player in the Middle East would be disastrous and an utter humilation for the Sunnis, who consider the Shias to be blasphemous. The Saudis, especially, worry that their hegemony in the region could be diminished as a result of greater rapproachment between America and Iran, leading to the diminishing importance of Saudi Arabia to the West, as well as having suspicions that the Iranian administration would stir up Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority, which occupies large tracts of territory that includes most of Saudi Arabia’s vital oilfields. Yet, I pause for thought here. While it is lamentable that the nuclear deal had left out Israel and Saudi Arabia from the process, hence leading to a sense of marginalisation, where are the credible policies that Israel and the Saudis should be tasked to promulgate? Their sulking is utterly distasteful, and perhaps hints of ulterior motives, not that of well-intentioned politics of ensuring nuclear non-proliferation; more of that of self-interests.

In conclusion, the Geneva interim agreement has so much potential to go awry or lead to a paradigm shift in international relations. A renewed relationship based on common interests between Tehran and Washington could provide mutual benefits for both sides. The US has long vaunted its ‘Asia Pivot’ as a means to ensure it focuses on concentrating and extending its international outreach deeper into Asia, while also serving as a means to counter the inexorable rise of China as a potential hegemonic power the US has to contend with. Mr Obama’s foreign policy has consistently allowed local agents, rather than the US, to conduct extensive policymaking; a clear shift from the neoconservative, interventionist stance of his predecessor, George Bush. This has been most evident in the case studies of Yemen;where despite the rise of the AQAP Al Qaeda militancy, he lacks the stomach to directly intervene, but rather, provides the Yemeni government with the technological and military capabilities to deal with the extremist threat, as well as that of the Arab Spring, where America has surprisingly remained silent and ambivalent about the gradual democratisation, albeit a troubling one, of the Middle East.

Lacking the stomach for war, the US can seize the opportunity to establish fresh, cordial ties with Iran. Iran would be doing the global community a great service by proactively involving itself in the diplomatic negotiations to end the Syrian conflict, given its clout and ties with the Assad regime, and move away from its disruptive behavior of engaging in filibusters and sabotaging peace talks. With it, it could see a rise in its international stature and reemerge, as the paramount Middle Eastern nation.

Ultimately, the fate of the Middle East undoubtedly lies in the hands of Tehran. It is possible it will repay the West’s good faith in it by opening up greater aveneues for cooperation. It is also possible that the deal flounders and Iran once again, proves its actions are a mere farce. Mr Obama rightly maintains that ‘all options remain on the table’, including a military solution. That solution would once again loom large should Iran sabotage the deal. As for Mr Obama, while a hawkish Congress may stall the easing of sanctions on Iran, perhaps he can utilise his personal capacity to push the EU to release sanctions on Iran incrementally, when Iran proves its sincerity. Never should the West seek sanctions again- not only has it failed to work, it has only strengthened tthe resolve of Iran to enrich more uranium. That should serve as a vital lesson for the West.

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