Iran’s relationship with the West and particularly with the USA has remained convoluted and under pressure for decades. Since 2003, what has kept Iran forcefully isolated from the world by way of trade embargos and sanctions by the Western powers is the Iranian nuclear issue. Uranium enrichment has remained at the heart of the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program.
In November 2013, after four days of marathon talks, Iran and the P5+1, (the five permanent members of the UNSC – USA, UK, China, France and Russia + Germany) finally inked the Geneva interim deal as the preamble to reaching a long term comprehensive solution through diplomacy.
In order to achieve the interim deal, a lot of complicated politics and diplomacy has taken place, to accommodate the realities of nuclear energy and warfare in today’s uncertain geopolitical environment.
While the question whether the deal has prevented Iran from ever developing nuclear weapons capability or has merely postponed it for sometime will continue to be debated, one should not ignore the wider strategic consequences of the agreement because the impact of the deal is likely to be limited to the nuclear issue.
In order to understand the complex crisis that follows the possibility of Iran being allowed easy access to nuclear proliferation and the volatile consequences that could follow suit, it is necessary to understand what makes the issue so sensitive. The sensitivity of the issue further has the potential to shape the geopolitics in the oil rich and politically tumultuous Middle East.
Eight nations are known to have nuclear weapons, including all five permanent members of the UNSC. Israel has always declined to confirm if it has any, although they are believed to possess over 70 atomic weapons.
Since the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 took place, concerns escalated that Iran could enrich uranium and make atomic weapons; even though Iran has maintained that its nuclear program is mean for peaceful purposes only.
Because Iran has signed the treaty, its program was put under the spotlight. Also, the International Atomic Energy Agency had information suggesting that Iran conducted activities it hasn’t declared in the past.
Iran’s nuclear program is considered a threat because since its revolution, the West has worried that Iran could use its nuclear program to produce atomic weapons using highly-enriched uranium. A decade ago, nuclear inspectors from the international agency announced they had found traces of highly enriched uranium at a plant in Natanz. Iran temporarily halted the enrichment, but resumed enriching again in 2006, insisting that enrichment was allowed under its agreement with the IAEA.
Thus, the entire point of stepping up economic sanctions against Iran was to force it to the negotiating table so that a deal could be achieved on its nuclear program. Using the channel of diplomacy was necessary because all other options- essentially military action, were unappealing.
For years, Iran and Western powers have left negotiating tables in disagreement, frustration and open animosity. But the diplomatic tone changed after Iran’s election this year, where Hassan Rouhani took over as the President.
It is significant that Iran and the USA were able to conduct meaningful negotiations at the highest diplomatic level. Neither was at the loosing end of the bargain, which made the Geneva pact a positive start since both demonstrated that they have learnt pivotal lessons from the past.
As part of the deal, Iran will be required to dilute its stockpile of uranium that had been enriched to 20%. The deal also requires Iran to halt all enrichment above 5% and dismantle the technical equipment required for it. Before the time of the initial phase of the deal ends, all its stockpiles should be diluted below 5% or converted to a form not suitable for further enrichment. The reason why 5% is the limit is because Iran has consistently maintained that the reason why it is enriching uranium is for peaceful, civilian energy needs only, nuclear power plants use uranium that is enriched to 5% to generate electricity.
Iran would also have to cut back on constructing new centrifuges (enrichment facilities), and freeze construction on its heavy-water reactor under development at Arak. That facility could be used as a source of plutonium, another way to make nuclear bomb.
To ensure that Iran lives up to the deal, it is expected to provide daily access to inspectors from the international agency (IAEA). The inspectors will be expected to visit centrifuges and storage facilities, uranium mills and the Arak reactor. The P5+1 and Iran will also form a joint task force on the issue.
If, however, Iran fails to comply with the deal, the international community will add more sanctions.
However, Iran can economically benefit from the deal. It could get billions of dollars which is much needed by its desperate economy that has been crippled by economic sanctions. As part of the deal, the powers will provide, ‘limited, temporary and targeted relief’ to Iran. The deal states that no new nuclear related sanctions would hit Iran if it keeps its end of the bargain.
Sanctions will also be suspended on items like gold and petrochemical exports which can provide Iran with great financial support. Even though this is a minute fraction of its foreign exchange reserves, it could benefit its development a great deal.
However, even though the deal, in many ways is a good one and a major breakthrough for the crisis in almost ten years, for Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Arab monarchies, the agreement has resulted in some paranoia as they fear disturbing implications for their quest for supremacy in the region.
The deal has the potential of introducing major changes in the relationship of the USA with its allies in the Middle East. Iran could use this as a bargaining chip to carry out its regional goals, which will potentially disturb countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia, who, up until now, kept the fear of Iran away by having USA as their unfettered regional ally.
If things between USA and Iran indicate a rapprochement between the two, Riyadh and Tel Aviv can no longer take US dependence on them for granted in the region. Thus, they will not be able to get military or diplomatic support against Iran in their competition for power and influence in the Persian Gulf.
There has been one important concession to Iran in that it will be able to continue a basic level of uranium enrichment. This is what has alarmed the Israelis, pushing Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu to call the deal a ‘historic mistake’.
Recently, Saudi Arabia was shocked when the US suddenly cancelled planned missile strikes against the Syrian regime, squandering what Riyadh saw as the best opportunity to roll back Iranian influence in years.
It is reported that the US had been in secret bilateral talks with Iran since before the June election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani- including over the period it cancelled the Syria strikes - and that Saudi Arabia tipped Israel off about these contacts.
Israel says it has the most to lose if Iran develops a nuclear bomb. After the birth of Israel in 1948, the two nations enjoyed good relations that lasted until the 1979 revolution. Israel even supplied weapons to Iran to help it fight their common enemy, Iraq. But the Islamic revolution that overthrew the Shah marked a turning point. The Islamic republic, led by Shiite clerics in the predominantly Shiite nation, saw Israel as an illegitimate state with no right to exist amid Muslim nations.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is a majority Sunni country, while Iran is majority Shiite. Saudi Arabia, like Israel, is troubled by Iran’s growing clout in the Middle East. The Arab monarchies argue that Iran has subverted their Sunni-led and mostly Sunni-majority nations by supporting disaffected Shia communities.
Therefore, these countries don’t see the nuclear crisis in isolation. It is worrisome for them that the West has prematurely eased the pressure before Iran completely surrendered, leaving Iran with enough nuclear infrastructure to allow it to build a bomb in the future.
This could lead to interesting trends in the region. Saudi and Israeli perceptions are increasingly converging, despite the fact that Riyadh does not even recognize Israel as a state. Also, US allies are increasingly convinced that US-Iran cooperation will inevitably come at the expense of the Arabs and Israelis expense. This view could legitimize if USA accommodates Iran as a major stakeholder and decision maker in the Syrian crisis.
The countries could respond to the perceived threat in adverse ways. Israeli officials have warned that they are not bound by the terms of the deal which is primarily an implicit threat that the military option is open. Also, Saudi officials have intimated that they can procure a nuclear weapon for themselves from Pakistan.
If the deal doesn’t follow through and Iran continues its nuclear expansion, then the risk of Israeli air strikes will grow significantly, for which Saudi Arabia may provide implicit help. This is precisely where USA should be worried. If the deal doesn’t work out, not only will USA lose its face in the region, it will also lose the trust of major allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Secondly, even a subtle Iran-US rapprochement is likely to have major consequences for the war in Syria. USA could persuade Iran to somewhat dilute its support for the Assad regime. USA could also soften its stance on the issue of President Bashar-Al Assad, only to accommodate Iranian interests to make sure it carries through with the deal, which is essential for US pride in the region. This could also dilute USA’s commitment to genuine change in Damascus, also amidst a growing Russian and Chinese interference in the face of increased Iranian bargaining power.
Also, In Afghanistan, which lies to the East of Iran, USA is nearing the end of its permanent occupation amidst a change with presidential elections due in a few months. The battle for elections is already on between the Taliban and Kabul regime and various other fractions and ethnic groups are fighting for power. Easing US pressure on Iran will not only allow Tehran to act more boldly in Afghanistan, but also allow USA some alternate access.
This alignment could come at the convergence of Washington and Tehran interests on Afghanistan. Afghanistan is threatened by anarchy by the corrupt nature of the regime and Pakistan’s support to the Taliban which worries Iran about a resurgence of Pakistani influence through Saudi Arabia acting as a mediator of the Taliban. While earlier, the standoff on the nuclear issue had made cooperation between the two on Afghanistan extremely difficult if not impossible, today it seems possible to envisage such a convergence.
In addition, countries like Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon can also be affected by Iran- USA rapprochement.
A nuclear-armed Iran would change strategic calculations in the region dramatically. It might lead to the spread of nuclear weapons to a number of other countries. That is why the stakes over the coming six months are going to be so high and the passions so strong.
This deal has the potential to alter the atmosphere and clear the way for future substantive talks, but its outcome can only be waited for and debated upon. The Iranian nuclear issue is an important one for the world but more importantly, it can have long standing consequences for the strategic and geopolitical implications for the most volatile political region of the world- the Middle East.