Lifting the Siege on Iran

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.
Vijay Prashad ( is the Edward Said Chair at the American University of Beirut.

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.
Weakened West
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.

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