By Farid Mirbagheri
LAST MONTH the Iranian ambassador gave a talk at the University of Nicosia on one of the most topical issues: the agreement reached in Geneva between Iran and the 5+1. The lecture was substantive and neatly presented. Judging by the attendance and comments and questions afterwards, the talk was well received.
The interim nuclear agreement with Iran in Geneva last month has convinced many that despite the odds there is always room for diplomacy. The seemingly intractable nuclear predicament that had dogged the international community as well as Iran itself, appears, at least for now, to have given way to compromise and cooperation.
Iran’s nuclear development began in the days of the Shah in pre-revolutionary Iran. At that time the Western orientation of Iran during the Cold War allowed it certain manoeuvrability that was utilised, among other things, for the pursuit of its nuclear programme in the face of vocal opposition by many external powers.
The revolution and the ensuing Iran-Iraq war, however, all but halted the progress of the project.
Now that Iran has managed to develop and maintain a reasonably independent nuclear infrastructure of its own (as opposed to Pakistan, where the nuclear know-how was rather imported), the West, not to include other world powers, are faced with a potentially new indigenous nuclear power in the Middle East, which, to say the least, makes them uneasy about the balance of power in the region.
For its part Tehran has maintained its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes and that it has no military ambitions in that regard. Simple strategic scrutiny of the region may support the Iranian claim.
Should Iran acquire a nuclear arsenal, no doubt other regional countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others will sooner or later build or import the same.
That way Iran’s conventional and natural strategic advantages (for instance its population size and overlooking Straits of Hormoz) may be compromised in the face of – by then – a newly introduced nuclear balance in the region.
Why then, risk losing one’s favourable geo-strategic dispositions for the sake of a programme that may never come to fruition?
The agreement itself grants big powers the reassurance they have been seeking for years: halting Iran’s uranium high-grade enrichment. After an initial period of six months this interim agreement is supposed to be negotiated into a more permanent deal.
It is unclear what will be included in that final settlement but no doubt current restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment will stay in place for the foreseeable future. In return, Tehran is seeking to ease the biting sanctions that have seriously undermined its economy.
The export of Iranian oil is now less than half what it was a couple of years ago and if this trend continued it could be lowered even further.
The agreement therefore suited all parties concerned.
Failure to reach a settlement would have paved the way for further sanctions and possible military action against Iran, the prospects of which was unpleasant for all. Even Israel, despite its protestation to the contrary, cannot be all that unhappy with the deal.
After all, if Iran cannot enrich uranium to high grades and if its plutonium production comes to a halt, and International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors will be able to verify that, why then should Tel Aviv be overly concerned?
Some may even suggest that nuclearisation of Iran per se is not so much a concern for Israel as are its possible ramifications including the nuclearisation of the region. In any event, the open criticism of the deal by Israeli leaders does not seem to have weakened the agreement in any shape or form for Iran; if anything it may have added to its legitimacy amongst hardliners in Tehran.
What then are the prospects for the future? The world will be watching Iran to ensure it adheres to the terms of the agreement.
Tehran, in return, will be expecting an easing of sanctions and ways to access its funds in foreign banks. Quiet diplomacy between Washington and Tehran, conducted in Oman in the preceding months, was conducive to the deal that came out of Geneva.
Will we see more of the same between the two capitals in the months before us? The answer to that question will depend on the incentives of the belligerent parties.
Easing sanctions and halting of uranium enrichment were sufficiently powerful motives for the two countries, and all those concerned, to have converged and triggered several rounds of productive negotiations.
Now that an interim agreement is at hand, efforts for a more comprehensive deal could conceivably seek greater goals that may not so readily be desirable for all in the first instance. Diplomacy has yet to play its part in this affair.
Professor SM Farid Mirbagheri is executive director at the Diplomatic Academy and Dialogue Chair in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Nicosia