By Farid Mirbagheri
An agreement between the Five plus One and Iran on the nuclear issue may be at hand. The White House appears eager for an accord that would avert the possibility of armed conflict with the Islamic Republic and, if proven to be durable, could be hailed as a success in an otherwise poor record on foreign policy of the current US administration.
Equally the Iranian establishment, under the increasing weight of biting sanctions and their looming social and political consequences, would welcome such a deal. It would allow a breathing space for a stagnated economy suffering from high inflation, unemployment and inexplicably sky-rocketing interest rates. Therefore, the once-depicted taboo of negotiating with the ‘Great Satan’, has now been cast aside in favour of direct exchanges with Washington poised to arrive at a settlement that could remove some of the sanctions and thus diminish the prospects of economic collapse, at-least in the short-term.
However, against all that, there are powerful forces at work that may be standing in the way of such an agreement. Both inside Tehran and Washington, the deal has enemies in high places. The radical zealots in the revolutionary Iran are not quite as powerless as some would like to think. They vehemently oppose any moves towards the US. They have been able to spoil attempts at rapprochement between the two countries in the past and appear determined to do the same again.
In Washington, too, many Republicans and some Democrats are at odds with their government on what they believe is too lenient an agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme. They are bent on challenging President Obama every step of the way to ensure sanctions will remain in place and even more stringent measures applied.
Major powers, too, may have their own reservations, though they all want a halt to Iran’s nuclear programme. Should Iran become a nuclear power (Iran claims its nuclear development is for non-military use) Saudi Arabia and other regional countries would in all likelihood follow suit. Such an outcome would change the balance of power in the Middle East with global ramifications; not a desired scenario.
But halting Iran’s nuclear programme, as attractive as it may be, could prove too expensive for some if its price is a rapprochement between Tehran and Washington.
Moscow, for instance, would feel uneasy about a thaw in US-Iranian relations. By its anti-American stand, Tehran is automatically aligned with Russian foreign policy interests and the Kremlin would prefer to preserve the status quo. European capitals are not keen either on having American companies outbidding them in the rich Iranian oil and gas fields. Israel, for its part, would much rather its main enemy, the Islamic Republic, were continually denied access to sources of power in Washington rather than having them reestablish diplomatic relations.
Although all leading powers are in favour of a non-nuclear Iran, almost none wishes to accept the price of such an achievement: rapprochement between Iran and the US. They would all like to see a halt in Iran’s nuclear programme whilst the diplomatic freeze between the two capitals remains intact. Accordingly they may support only a minimalist approach to a nuclear agreement, where there will be little or no possibility of spill-over effect into other areas of cooperation between Tehran and Washington.
President Obama must feel cornered: No deal with Tehran could pave the way for another military conflict in the Middle East where the US will bear the political, financial, and military brunt of the operation. The other powers, sitting on the sidelines, will reap the benefits of the operation (a destroyed nuclear infra-structure in Iran) and will be only too happy to denounce Washington for its invasion of a sovereign state. In the end the Iranian government, if it remained in power, will be ever more radicalised and more anti-American.
However, a deal with the Islamic Republic, without a rapprochement between the two capitals, would, once again, provide access to Iranian natural resources and an entrée to the Iranian market only for non-US companies. For the White House that would be rather like doing all the hard work while others enjoy the fruits of one’s labour. Should the US insist on the reestablishment of commercial and diplomatic relations with Tehran parallel to an agreement, other major powers as well as hardliners inside Iran will feel more galvanised to sabotage the nuclear agreement altogether.
Either way the US would stand to lose in comparison to its Russian and European competitors.
Diplomacy can at times create magic, and one is hard pressed to think of another political impasse in recent times where magic is so desperately needed.
Professor SM Farid Mirbagheri holds the Dialogue Chair in Middle Eastern Studies at the Department of European Studies and International Relations at the University of Nicosia