Finally a win-win situation for Iran and the P5+1, said reports last Thursday from the Swiss holiday city of Lausanne after a decade of haggling and eight days of painstaking bargaining during the last round of talks which went beyond the March 31 deadline.
Reading the fine print of the four-page document, one wonders why such a deal could not have been reached years ago. The answer is that on the one hand, the United States had not realised the strategic importance of Iran, and, on the other, Israel and Saudi Arabia had resorted to covert moves aimed at scuttling any deal. Many were the occasions when the P5+1 and Iran were close to a deal, but due to reasons now understood to be political, the negotiators came back to square one on the snakes-and-ladders board.
Throughout, Iran, a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has been saying it has no intention to build nuclear weapons. Even the intelligence outfits of the United States and Israel have said there is no evidence to indicate that Iran is building a bomb. But the West kept on adding pressure on Iran and shifted the goalposts when Iran fulfilled its obligations while Saudi Arabia and Israel called for military action and tougher sanctions which they thought would weaken Teheran’s economy and trigger a regime change when the hungry people become angry. They also believed that economic sanctions would kill Iran’s ambitions to emerge as the most powerful country in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia and Israel became more alarmed after Iran’s involvement in the 2006 Lebanon war. Iran-made weapons supplied to Hezbollah took Israel by surprise. Israel’s death toll was 122 soldiers and 44 civilians – a high casualty figure in Israel’s reckoning. Israel accepted a ceasefire and withdrew from South Lebanon, prompting Hezbollah to claim a moral victory. Iran was economically strong then owing to the high oil prices. It granted more than one billion US dollars towards the rebuilding of the war-ravaged South Lebanon and became popular on the Arab street.
Ever since, weakening Iran’s economy became a top priority for Saudi Arabia and Israel. This they achieved by projecting Iran as a terrorist state and promoting economic sanctions. Not stopping at that, Saudi Arabia resorted to other desperate measures as Iran’s influence grew in the Middle East, especially in Iraq and Syria. Its decision to bomb Houthi rebel positions in Yemen was probably one such measure. Another measure it took brought down drastically the world oil prices. Iran which depends on oil exports suffered heavily.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (left) shaking hands with Ali Akbar Salehi, Head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization (R) as they attend a ceremony marking National Atomic Energy Day in Tehran yesterday.
But the US looked at Iran from a different angle. Washington knew that military action against Iran would only lead to a region wide war, sending oil prices soaring and the world’s economy into recession. The Barack Obama administration has apparently realised that a deal with Iran is in the best interest of the United States. Washington believes that the nuclear agreement could avert Iran’s bid to join an informal alliance with China and Russia -- an alliance that could deal a blow to the US’s pivot to Asia policy aimed at containing China. Moreover, the US sees that it shares many goals with Iran, especially with regard to Iraq and Afghanistan. The common goals range from defeating ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) and preventing the Taliban from capturing power in Afghanistan to finding solutions to the Syrian crisis, the conflict in Yemen and the unrest in Bahrain, home to the US’ Fifth Fleet.
So, much to the chagrin of Israel and Saudi Arabia, Washington pushed for a win-win deal at the Lausanne talks between Iran and six world powers -- the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.
Israel’s hardline Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the agreement claiming that the deal would legitimise Iran’s nuclear programme, bolster Iran’s economy, and increase Iran’s aggression and terror throughout the Middle East and beyond.
But President Obama, for whom Netanyahu is more a problem than an ally, has given hardly any ear to his grievances. Instead, Obama has welcomed the deal describing it as an historic understanding that would make the world safer.
There is still more time for Israel and Saudi Arabia to scuttle the agreement which is to be formally signed only on June 30. If the final agreement is signed, it will indicate a significant shift in US-Iran relations. Though the leaders of the two countries resort to rhetoric for public consumption, there have been many positive signs to indicate that ties between the two countries have been improving since the election of President Hassan Rouhani in Iran in 2013, with telephone calls at president-to-president level and meetings at official level.
The agreement has been shaped in such a way that it can be sold to the sceptics in the United States, especially the Republicans. Giving room for further fine-tuning if the Obama administration faces difficulty in obtaining the support of Congress for the deal, the first paragraph of the agreement says, “Important implementation details are still subject to negotiation, and nothing is agreed upon until everything is agreed upon.”
Polls show that a third of the Republicans support the deal while about 40 per cent say they are undecided. This gives an indication that the deal may find passage in the Republican-controlled Congress despite pressure from Israel. But can it be sold to the hardliners in Iran?
Under the agreement, Iran is required to open the doors of all its nuclear facilities for inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agncy while it will curtail its capacity to enrich uranium and slash its existing stockpile. Iran has agreed to operate only 5,060 of its 19,000 centrifuges for the next ten years. These moves will delay a bomb-making effort by one year, if Iran ever wishes to do so.
In return, the sanctions that have halved Iran’s oil exports and kept Iran out of the international banking system would be suspended but resumed if Iran fails to honour its pledges.
In Teheran, the people came out in their thousands to celebrate the deal with Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif receiving a hero’s welcome at the Mehrabad airport when he returned from Lausanne.
President Rouhani yesterday noted that the deal was a triumph for Iran because the US had now realised that Iran would not surrender to bullying, sanctions and threats while spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said there was “no guarantee” of a final deal with world powers.
Rhetoric apart, the biggest challenge to both Iran and the United States is to protect the hard-fought deal from those planning to sabotage it.