May Issue 2015

By | Viewpoint | Published 5 years ago

The framework agreement reached last month between Iran and the United States (plus five other international powers) has been hailed as, both, a stupendous diplomatic breakthrough and derided as a potential disaster.

Its proponents see it as the best available means of ensuring that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons. Its opponents — and they are legion, stretching all the way from Capitol Hill to Jerusalem, via Riyadh — consider it a device for letting Iran off the hook.

The protracted negotiations in Vienna and Lausanne that led to the agreement are by no means the end of the story: the deal is meant to be finalised by the end of June, with further talks intended to tie up a number of loose ends, and there is no guarantee of a successful outcome, notwithstanding a substantial degree of determination on the part of both Tehran and Washington to make it work.

Iran has more or less consistently depicted its goal as the development of nuclear energy for peaceful use. Its declared intent has often been viewed with scepticism, and not without cause. Now it has agreed to restrict uranium enrichment to levels far below what would be required for developing weapons, subject to what President Barack Obama has described as the most intrusive inspections regime in history.

American experts, some of whom have been deployed at mirror facilities in the US geared to determining exactly where Iran was at, broadly agree that were the Iranians to abide by the agreement, they would find it impossible to proceed to a nuclear bomb in less than a year. This extends the so-called ‘breakout period’ from just a few weeks to more than 12 months — and were Iran indeed to proceed towards weaponisation, plenty of alarm bells would ring in the interim.

Violations of the agreement by Iran would trigger the return of sanctions. And military action has not been ruled out.

The jubilant popular reception that awaited Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, when he returned home from Lausanne in early April suggested that public opinion in Iran strongly favours the deal; subsequent opinion polls reinforce the impression of overwhelming support. Not surprisingly, there was nothing comparable in store for the equally hardworking US Secretary of State John Kerry.

There has been plenty of speculation in recent months and years over what sort of reaction Iranian concessions on the nuclear question would elicit from hardliners suspicious of President Hassan Rouhani’s diplomatic overtures. Resistance has been restricted, however, by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s crucial support for the outcome of the negotiations.

000_Nic6338359Khamenei has insisted, though, that the international sanctions against Iran must go as soon as a final agreement is signed, whereas Rouhani has linked the removal of sanctions to implementation of the deal, which could take several months. And the western impression is that sanctions would be removed gradually. This is one of the several issues that will need to be resolved before the end of June.

There is no good reason, however, why it should become a stumbling block: given that sanctions can be snapped back on at a moment’s notice, there is no good reason for the US to insist that they be eased over an extended period. Given that the effects of the sanctions on the Iranian economy have been key to the negotiations and the concessions Iran has made, the leadership in Tehran would be mighty reluctant to provide an excuse for their reimposition.

The hardliners, who provide somewhat more cause for concern, are in the US Congress. In an effort to scuttle the deal, 47 Republican senators wrote a letter to Iran declaring that any agreement would not be upheld by the legislature or a future Republican president. Before that, the speaker of the House of Representatives, at the instigation of the Israeli ambassador in Washington (himself a former Republican operative), invited Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make the case against the Obama administration’s key foreign policy initiative before a joint session of both houses of Congress. (There was, naturally, no mention of this or any other occasion of Israel’s own nuclear arsenal, let alone of its complicity in proliferation.)

Iran responded coolly to the provocation, reiterating that it was in negotiations with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and the European Union, rather than with the US Congress. The latter’s recalcitrance nonetheless provides considerable cause for concern, not least because its approval is required not just for the eventual deal but also for cancelling some of the sanctions. Its more belligerent members have been advocating the strengthening of sanctions, based on Netanyahu’s advice, and a few have even made the case for bombing Iran without further ado.

Plenty of American commentators have pointed out that, ultimately, neither strategy would deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons, whereas a verifiable deal stands a reasonable chance of success. Reason, however, can make little headway amid the irrational comfort zone in which most Republican legislators dwell, and it would be a mistake to underrate their determination to deny the Obama administration the legacy it craves in this particular context.

Netanyahu has long favoured the military option in dealing with Iran, and remains resolutely unmoved by the latter’s transition from the era of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was frequently bombastic in his anti-Israel rhetoric, to the decidedly less offensive Rouhani presidency. But there is plenty of evidence that the Israeli military and intelligence establishment is contemptuous of the idea of attacking Iran, having worked out long ago that such an action would provoke an even bigger disaster in the Middle East than has hitherto been achieved by a string of military interventions.

The thought processes of the Likudite elite that Netanyahu represents are echoed, meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia, the leading force behind the latest such intervention, although it usually hesitates to express them publicly. The Saudi-led bombing of Yemen, though, has been prompted in large part by the belief that the Houthi militias that overran the capital, Sana’a, are proxies for Iran by virtue of being Shia.

The US appears to share that view, and has provided logistical assistance, even while its latest bombing campaign in Iraq bolsters the Shia militias and, in some cases, Iranian forces resisting the advance of the entity known as Islamic State or Daesh. In neighbouring Syria, meanwhile, there is ostensibly no coordination between the US-led interventionists and the Iranian-backed government forces, bolstered in some cases by Hezbollah fighters from across the Lebanese border, even though their primary goal is supposedly the same, namely to reverse the territorial conquests of Daesh and Al Nusra Front.

000_Nic6443437The Saudis are ostensibly partners in that mission, too, but there has been little evidence of military action from them on the Iraqi or Syrian fronts, while even the Americans acknowledge that the new dimension to the Yemeni conflict is bound to strengthen Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has over the years survived a campaign of US drone attacks alongside occasional onslaughts from the government of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and, most recently, pressure from the Houthis. (Saleh is now loosely allied with the Houthis, while his successor, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, is effectively a Saudi puppet.)

When Riyadh sought to enlist Islamabad in its Yemeni misadventure and, to widespread surprise, received no for an answer, the Saudis and their closest allies, the Emiratis, threw a fit. They are unaccustomed to Pakistan turning down their requests, and the concept of a parliamentary vote is outside their experience. Not surprisingly, Pakistan’s highest political and military leaders have since been kowtowing to the Saudis.

It has been conjectured that the Arab intent was to use Pakistanis as foot soldiers in a ground offensive, given that while Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the rest of them have invested heavily in the latest weaponry, they are short on the manpower front — and the deployment of menial labour from the subcontinent is second nature to them. Needless to say, it makes perfect sense for Pakistan to maintain its resolve to stay out this convoluted conflict; it should also distance itself from Iranian-Saudi rivalry more generally and perish any thought of sharing even the smallest portion of its nuclear arsenal with the Wahhabi kingdom.

There has been some speculation that the Egyptians might step in where Pakistanis fear to tread. Were that to occur, it would be a monumental irony, given that Nasserite Egypt and Saudi Arabia waged a long and ultimately futile proxy war against one another in the very same place — on Yemeni soil — half a century ago.

Yemen was on the fringes of the phenomenon known as the Arab Spring, but is far from the only country where blossoming hopes gave way to a bitter crop. The latest events suggest it could be headed down the Syrian road, with an unending nightmare in store. The flexing of military muscle by the Saudis and the Gulf Arabs, meanwhile, adds a layer of dread to what is in store for the region.

The latest phase of history in that part of the world began, lest we forget, with the unprovoked invasion of Iraq a dozen years ago by the US and its allies, who claimed their actions would set in motion a process of democratisation right across the Middle East. The sceptics went unheeded — as did those who warned that Iran would ultimately be the biggest winner.

The Islamic Republic is by no means an exemplary state in any context: egregious human rights violations remain all too common, for instance. But continued isolation would only reinforce its theocratic tendencies, while engagement with the wider world, under a relatively enlightened leadership, may well propel it towards progressive change.

Should Iran and its interlocutors succeed in hammering out a sustainable nuclear agreement by the end of next month — against the odds — it could turn out to be a rare silver lining in skies obscured for too long by storm clouds.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s May 2015 issue.

Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.