Power play over Iran

The news from Lausanne is confusing. But that is only to be expected in the complex endgame that is being played out between the P5+1 and Iran over the latter’s nuclear programme. We are at an inflexion point in the geopolitics of West Asia, if not the world. On one side we have the resilient Islamic Republic of Iran, an Arab world assailed by Sunni extremism. So important is the negotiation, that it has featured the US Secretary of State John Kerry and the foreign ministers of China, Russia, UK, France and Germany getting together to negotiate with the Iranian delegation led by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

US Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman (L), US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz (2nd L), US Secretary of State John Kerry (3rd L) before a meeting with P5+1, European Union and Iranian officials on March 30, in Lausanne. Pic/AFP
US Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman (L), US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz (2nd L), US Secretary of State John Kerry (3rd L) before a meeting with P5+1, European Union and Iranian officials on March 30, in Lausanne. Pic/AFP

On Saturday there were reports that the two sides were close to a deal after 18 months of tortuous negotiations, with Iran agreeing to reduce its centrifuge holdings and shipping its stocks of enriched uranium out of the country. However, on Sunday this was denied by the lead Iranian negotiator, Abbas Arachi who said there was no question of shipping stocks out of the country, though in his view, the deal remained “doable”.

Some brinksmanship is inevitable in a negotiation such as this, whose aim is to produce a framework agreement by Tuesday evening, and a final more detailed agreement by June this year. The agreement will be a phased one with Iran scaling back its nuclear programme, with a reciprocal phased lifting of sanctions. The deadlines have been moved twice before, but the Obama Administration does not want to move them further. Obama is aware of the pressure he faces from the hostile US Congress, which is determined to press for tougher sanctions by mid-April if the deal falls through.

The issue is the nature of the Iranian nuclear programme. For the past ten years or so, the US and other western countries have accused Tehran of making nuclear weapons. Iran had concealed a massive nuclear programme from the world and there are as yet unexplained aspects of the programme, though Iran denies that it is aiming to build nuclear weapons. So serious was the issue that the UN Security Council has passed a series of resolutions tightening the sanctions against Tehran. The negotiations now are about reaching an agreement which will ensure that the allegedly civil nuclear programme cannot easily break out and become a military one. The issue is not so much that Iran will abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons, but of the warning time that would be available, were Iran to decide on a breakout. In exchange, the western countries will lift their crippling sanctions on the country. Given Iran’s record of prevarication in the past, the world needs a sound and verifiable deal.

It is no secret that there are powerful forces opposing the deal, in the main Israel which considers Iran as an existential threat and would be satisfied with nothing less than a complete dismantling of the Iranian programme. Backing Israel are powerful elements of the US Republican party, which recently invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address the US Congress over the head of the Obama Administration. On Sunday, even as rumours of a deal swirled in Lausanne, Netanyahu frantically dialled the US Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and expressed his concern over the agreement emerging. Neither the US nor Israel factor in Israel’s own nuclear capabilities in the equation. What the Republicans and Netanyahu have not done is to provide a practical alternative: All they want is an Iranian surrender.

The Iranian negotiations come at a particularly complicated conjuncture. On one hand, West Asia seems to be in the grip of a civil war pitting the Sunnis against the Shias. In Yemen, Shia Houthi rebels have overthrown the government headed by Ali Abdullah Saleh, an old American and Saudi ally resulting in a joint American-backed Arab intervention led by the Saudis. On the other hand, in Iraq, the US is providing air support to Iraqi and Iranian Shia militias to take on the Islamic State. There is turmoil across the Arab world which has featured the collapse of some states like Somalia, Libya, Syria and Iraq. In all this, Iran looks like an island of stability and while on one hand it is accused of backing the Hezbollah of Lebanon and Houthis of Yemen, it is also part of an informal American alliance fighting the Islamic State on behalf of Iraq.

US sanctions against Iran have been in place since 1979, but the more draconian UN sanctions since 2006-2010 have been more effective. As a result, Iran has not been able to modernise its oil industry or effectively exploit its natural gas resources. The negotiations also come at a time of falling oil prices, which makes Tehran more amenable for a deal.

With or without nuclear weapons, Iran is a major power in the Persian Gulf and both Israel and the US have, in the past, been allies of Tehran. If anything it is Washington’s cynical policies in the region that have driven Tehran to the nuclear path. The US backed Saddam Hussein’s wanton war against Iran, a conflict that left over 250,000 Iranian dead. Subsequently, the Americans went to war against Saddam, whose horrific consequences are still unfolding before us. Hopefully though, this time around, Washington will play a more responsible role than it has played in the region in the past.

Any failure of the negotiations arising out of unreasonable American demands will not quite take the situation back to square one. China and Russia have participated in the negotiations till now, but they are not bound to stick with the US and the Europeans, should the more hard-line Republican views prevail. If the P5+1 unity frays, we could end up with a whole new ball game in West Asia.

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

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