August Issue 2015
Glimmer of Hope
Although the deal limiting Iran’s nuclear options was formally concluded between that nation and the five permanent members of the United Nations plus Germany (known as P5+1), it has always been reasonably obvious that Washington and Tehran, represented during every crucial phase of the negotiations by John Kerry and Mohammad Javad Zarif, were the chief protagonists.
It would, therefore, seem logical for the fate of the deal to be decided by the two countries’ respective parliaments, the US Congress and the Iranian Majlis, with both allowed 60 days of scrutiny. It’s not that straightforward, though.
That the rest of the world is broadly supportive of the achievement can be extrapolated from the Security Council’s unanimous endorsement, within days of the historic moment in Vienna last month, when a marathon session of discussions finally yielded an agreement. The wording, inevitably, is based on compromises by both sides.
The announcement in the Austrian capital was greeted immediately by denunciations in the US: without bothering to examine the text, stalwarts of the Republic opposition condemned it as a bad deal. It was enough, after all, that Benjamin Netanyahu had told them so, the Israeli prime minister having concluded long ago that any kind of deal with Iran would be disastrous.
An alarmingly large proportion of legislators on Capitol Hill tend to treat Netanyahu’s word as the gospel. Hence the details of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) held little interest for them. With both houses of Congress dominated by Republicans, precious few of whom support the deal, it is all but certain that it will be voted down in the first instance. Barack Obama — revelling in a series of unexpected triumphs on both domestic and international fronts in the autumn of his presidential term — has made it clear that he will veto any such decision.
Hence the suspense in this context relates to whether opponents of the deal will ultimately be able to muster the two-thirds majority required to override the veto. That is deemed unlikely, particularly in the House of Representatives. Not all Democrats are comfortable with the JCPOA, though, and only 12 of them switching sides in the Senate would suffice to throw a spanner in the works.
At the same time, at least a handful of Republicans tend to take a more nuanced view of the deal with Iran. Thus, on balance, chances are that the Obama veto will hold. What may be of greater concern are declarations from some of the Republican presidential hopefuls for 2016, notably the extremist Marco Rubio, that the deal will be dismantled by Obama’s successor. That will depend, of course, on who that successor is. Hillary Clinton has somewhat reluctantly endorsed the JCPOA. It probably would not have eventuated, though, had she remained secretary of state.
The political dynamics on the Iranian side are, inevitably, harder to read. Tehran and other cities exploded with spontaneous celebrations as soon as the Vienna agreement was announced. The merrymakers were generally young and middle-class. Support for a deal that involves the lifting of sanctions — as promised by Hassan Rouhani in his presidential campaign two years ago — is likely to be considerably broader, particularly in the event of visible signs of an economic recovery. The visceral hatred of America among a segment of clerical hardliners could, however, thwart implementation of the deal.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has tentatively welcomed the outcome of the negotiations, while ruling out broader accommodation with the US in particular and the West in general. He has also said that the deal would have to be ratified, without specifying which institutions would be involved. It would probably win endorsement by the Majlis without too much ado, but the Guardian Council or the Assembly of Experts may well take a very different view.
It may seem logical to assume that Iranian hardliners would be gratified by a development that has clearly irked their nation’s most resolute foes, from neoconservatives in the US to the Saudi hierarchy and much of the Israeli establishment. But then, if rational thinking was their wont, they presumably wouldn’t be so narrow-minded in the first place.
The Netanyahu government, meanwhile, has based its distaste for the agreement — and, in fact, for any sort of western dealings with Iran — on the premise that the regime in Tehran poses an existential threat to Israel. It was considerably easier, of course, to promote this argument during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who needed little encouragement to come up with outrageous comments. Rouhani’s far more measured approach is greeted with the notion that he is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
The fact is that even a nuclear armed Iran would hardly have posed a threat on that particular basis to Israel, which has had a formidable nuclear arsenal of its own for decades. It notoriously does not acknowledge it, and hardly anyone in the West mentions it either, regardless of how irritating they may find Netanyahu; nor is there ever any threat of inspections. And it is one of the primary reasons why Iran’s proposal for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East never got off the ground.
The Israeli argument now, slavishly regurgitated by many a Republican in the US, is that the removal of sanctions will only facilitate surreptitious Iranian progress towards building a nuclear weapon. Even if one were disinclined to dismiss this as utter nonsense, it’s impossible not to recognise that this is an extremely unlikely outcome, given the regime of inspections Iran has agreed to. Whether it would be able to resume its quest for weapons of mass destruction 10 years or so down the line is a different matter. The best one can hope for is that, by then, regional circumstances will have changed sufficiently for the question not even to arise.
More plausibly, Israel also argues that the release of frozen Iranian funds, worth billions of dollars, and the resumption of large-scale trade will enable Tehran to increase its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. The official US response is that, first, the sanctions did not exactly stop Iranian generosity on that front and, second, that much of the bonanza will have to be devoted to repairing the national economy.
Saudi concerns, and those of its Gulf acolytes such as the UAE, run more or less parallel to those of Israel, albeit with greater emphasis on the sectarian confrontation. The Saudi bombardment of Yemen has been predicated chiefly on the assumption of Iranian involvement with the Houthi tribes that conquered large swathes of the country, but even Obama has offered the opinion that this assumption was largely misplaced. Circumstantial evidence suggests that Iranian interest in Yemen was aroused mainly after Saudi Arabia launched its air attacks, devastating an already impoverished and war-torn country. Furthermore, the anti-Houthi campaign has effectively allied the Saudi air force with the Yemen-based forces of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Islamic State (IS) aka Daesh.
Although ostensibly a part of the US-led alliance in the Iraqi battlefield, there is no record of Saudi contributions to the anti-IS push, which is largely being led on the ground by Shia militias linked to Iran – another area of deep concern for Riyadh. And whereas the security forces have ostensibly sought to clamp down on IS within Saudi Arabia, the perceived enemy in Syria is neither Daesh, nor the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, but the Assad government.
At the time of writing, Zarif was setting out on a mission to placate Iran’s neighbours in the Gulf, at least some of which — not least Dubai — can expect something of a windfall from the reopening of the Iranian market. Other neighbours, such as Pakistan, also see a silver lining on the economic front – although the prospect of conveying Iranian gas through Balochistan may turn out to be something of a pipe dream unless conditions change in that volatile province.
It will take more than the removal of sanctions for American corporations to gain access to the Iranian market — Russian, Chinese and European firms are likely to get a headstart. In the PS+1 negotiations, both Russia and China were keen for the conventional arms embargo on Iran to be lifted, alongside the other sanctions, but eventually were persuaded to agree to an eight-year hiatus on that front. US, British and French arms exporters can, meanwhile, expect brisk business in the Gulf as countries such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain add to their already burgeoning arsenals. And Israel will get more or less whatever it asks for in terms of weaponry and military technology from its sponsor-in-chief. The significance of America, for once, not permitting the tail to wag the dog, should not be underestimated, but don’t count on this becoming a habit.
The JCPOA is decidedly an infinitely preferable alternative to the war that Netanyahu has long been hankering for, despite strong advice to the contrary from some of Israel’s highest ranking military and intelligence officers. It is presumably what George W. Bush kinda/sorta had in mind when he declared Iran a part of the “axis of evil.” But then the occupation of Iraq went completely awry; Iran had a bet each way in that — it could have made things considerably harder for the US and its allies, but chose to bide its time. Had Iran come under attack from the US or Israel — or both, possibly in alliance with the Saudis — the consequences for the region would have been catastrophic. Both Obama and Kerry have said, post-deal, that the military option remains on the table, eliciting an angry reaction from Tehran; such comments will probably remain common, intended primarily for domestic consumption.
At the same time, there are few grounds for claiming that the fallout from the nuclear agreement (provided it holds) will necessarily be beneficial for the region in the short term. There is a vague expectation in the West that Iran could play a positive role in inaugurating a post-Assad scenario in Syria, especially in the wake of informal collaboration between the two sides in Iraq. But that seems a far-fetched idea for the moment.
Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is progressive change within Iran on the political and social fronts, alongside improving economic prospects. Opponents of the nuclear deal have lately been pointing out with great gusto that Iran is a repressive society ruled by fundamentalist clerics, and should therefore remain a pariah in international affairs. They are prone to exaggerate, even to falsify the evidence. But on the whole that image is far from inaccurate.
Iranian democracy, after all, is subordinate to Iranian theocracy. There are extraordinarily strict limits on freedom of thought and action, with severe penalties for transgressions. Amnesty International expects this year’s death toll from judicially sanctioned executions to rise to at least 1000. In the past couple of decades, Iranian directors have made some of the best feature films in the world, but few of them can freely be viewed within Iran. As in any theocratically-run society, women bear the brunt of the oppression. (It would only be fair to point out that on all these and various other criteria, Iran is no match for Saudi Arabia, which easily takes the cake in the repression stakes).
Rouhani has occasionally hinted that he favours greater respect for human rights. His powers are limited, though. Were an enlightened scholar to succeed Khamenei as supreme leader, Iran might get its Gorbachev moment. It’s far more likely, though, that the impetus for a transformation will have to come from below. There is a youth bulge in Iran, and last month’s street celebrations offered a glimpse of the desire for a different reality. No one can ignore the formidable repressive apparatus of the state, though — its easily a match for that of the Shah, and unlikely to crumble the way the latter did in 1979. Incremental change might, in that scenario, be more desirable than an Iranian spring.
Whether anything of the sort will eventuate is an open question. But if it does, future historians might look back on Vienna as a significant way station.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s August 2015 issue.
Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.