World
Melkulangara Bhadrakumar
November 29, 2013
© Photo: Public domain

The interim agreement struck in Geneva on Sunday at the P5+1 and Iran talks was a breakthrough document on modest sanctions relief for temporary curbs on Iran’s nuclear activities. Five days have passed and there is a singular lack of interest on the part of either Iran or the United States to resort to triumphalism. That must be taken as a positive sign… 

Iran bargained optimally over the blue chips it accumulated with great tenacity over the past decade for precisely such a moment during any negotiations it would have with the US over the nuclear issue – the accumulation of centrifuges and stockpiles of enriched uranium, heavy water plant at Arak and so on. 

Four years back, when I was given the privilege of a tour of the top-secret Arak plant in the first group of foreigners to be allowed to travel to the project site hidden behind barren mountains a few hours to the south of Tehran, the overpowering impression I got was that my hosts were flaunting their formidable capabilities as scientists, physicists and engineers over their growing mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle, rather than rolling up the sleeves and getting ready clandestinely to make plutonium or a bomb or two. 

The creeping shadows of the Arak heavy water plant under construction were meant to beckon to the international community that time was running out unless Iran and the United States sat down and talked things over. Put differently, Arak was by no means non-negotiable. No one was in a hurry to produce plutonium there. 

Arak, the second-generation centrifuges and so on – they are no doubt technological assets but they also served the purpose of beckoning the Americans to come to the negotiating table without further delay by driving home the point that unless the West made haste to negotiate, Iran’s capabilities and mastery of the nuclear cycle were only getting better and better and things would soon come to such pass that the West would have to negotiate from a position of greater disadvantage. 

The Iranians, therefore, are justified in looking back with satisfaction that the one thing that really mattered to them – namely, the right to enrich uranium – has been implicitly conceded by the world powers at Geneva. Whereas, from the perspective of the West, it is also a justifiable claim that Iran’s route to making nuclear weapons has been barricaded for the present and the dismantling of the sanctions regime will depend on Iran’s fulfillment of a host of commitments it made at Geneva and the negotiation of a comprehensive final agreement.

Paradoxically, it is possible to say today that the hardest part of the Iran nuclear problem has been tackled – commencement of serious, sustained negotiations after over three decades of diplomatic estrangement. Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, the head of the powerful Expediency Council and one of Iran’s shrewdest and most experienced statesmen, put the state of play succinctly when he told Financial Times newspaper, «It [Geneva] was breaking ice, the second stage will be more routine». 

To be sure, both within the Iranian regime and the US foreign policy establishment, a substantial groundswell of support for the deal is already available – and it is growing. The detractors are showing willingness to have an open mind and on the American side they include such influential «hawks» as Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security. 

The comments of Albright, an avowed non-proliferation hawk who advocated the relentless tightening of sanctions until Iran got down on its knees and cried for mercy, are particularly interesting. He is today inclined to praise the interim agreement as having accomplished «a great deal,» particularly in lengthening the time by at least one month that Iran would need to achieve «nuclear breakout» and significantly increasing the frequency and scope of inspections of the nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency. 

These winds of change would further make it improbable that the lawmakers in the US Congress would overturn the interim agreement – although the powerful American-Israel Public Affairs Committee came out on Monday in favor of new sanctions against Iran. The Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who was supportive of additional sanctions against Iran now maintains that any further sanctions measure should first be considered in relevant committees instead of being pushed upfront to the Senate floor. Which of course is a plea to avoid taking any precipitate steps on the Capitol Hill and give time for the Administration to pursue the diplomatic track.

In Iran too, similarly, the ground beneath the feet of the hardliners is shifting. Rafsanjani put it nicely, «Part of it [the breakthrough] was because talking to the US was a taboo. That taboo could not be easily broken – and nuclear talks could not move ahead without the US». 

Indeed, it takes time for the full import of a game changer to soak in. Was it any different when the world woke up to learn that Henry Kissinger had been to China? The most vital part here is that the personal stamp of the leaderships of both the US and Iran is very much evident on the historic deal. On the American side, in particular, President Barack Obama has taken virtual ownership of the negotiations with Iran. 

«I have a profound responsibility to try to resolve our differences peacefully, rather than rush toward conflict. Today, we have a real opportunity to achieve a comprehensive, peaceful settlement, and I believe we must test it, « he said. 

Obama had barely hidden during the 2008 presidential campaign that he anticipated that the US’ détente with Iran could be a big legacy-shaping achievement of his entire presidency, if he got elected. In his first presidential address in 2009, Obama offered to extend a hand if the Iranian leadership would «unclench their fist». But then, he spoke somewhat too soon. 

Nonetheless, he kept pecking at it, and remained convinced that Iran not only formed a key part of his nuclear disarmament agenda, but also could be crucial to his determination to avert new US military interventions or another war in the Muslim world (which also reflects a wariness of America getting involved in risky foreign crises). 

On the other hand, in political terms, from this point neither leadership – in Washington and Tehran alike – can afford a breakdown of the negotiations. President Hassan Rouhani’s entire electoral pledge to the nation to regenerate his country’s economy and society and reorient its politics is predicated on the assumption that there will be stability and predictability in Iran’s relations with the West. 

As for Obama, who is facing ridicule over a stumbling healthcare rollout and is staring at a low approval rating at home, a foreign policy accomplishment can only do some good politically. But on a firmer footing, it is also the case that unless and until the US cut its losses and extricated itself from the Muslim Middle East, its «rebalance» to Asia remains problematic – and the timeline for China to overtake the US economy is getting shorter by the day. 

Again, both sides realize intensely that the incumbent leader on the other side is offering a rare moment of opportunity to resolve the three-decade old standoff once and for all, and it must be seized. Suffice to say, this is not accidental diplomacy for either Rouhani or Obama but it is a carefully thought-over, deliberate road map which is backed up by a strong political will to move forward. 

(To be concluded…)

The views of individual contributors do not necessarily represent those of the Strategic Culture Foundation.
Why a Final Iran Deal is Feasible (I)

The interim agreement struck in Geneva on Sunday at the P5+1 and Iran talks was a breakthrough document on modest sanctions relief for temporary curbs on Iran’s nuclear activities. Five days have passed and there is a singular lack of interest on the part of either Iran or the United States to resort to triumphalism. That must be taken as a positive sign… 

Iran bargained optimally over the blue chips it accumulated with great tenacity over the past decade for precisely such a moment during any negotiations it would have with the US over the nuclear issue – the accumulation of centrifuges and stockpiles of enriched uranium, heavy water plant at Arak and so on. 

Four years back, when I was given the privilege of a tour of the top-secret Arak plant in the first group of foreigners to be allowed to travel to the project site hidden behind barren mountains a few hours to the south of Tehran, the overpowering impression I got was that my hosts were flaunting their formidable capabilities as scientists, physicists and engineers over their growing mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle, rather than rolling up the sleeves and getting ready clandestinely to make plutonium or a bomb or two. 

The creeping shadows of the Arak heavy water plant under construction were meant to beckon to the international community that time was running out unless Iran and the United States sat down and talked things over. Put differently, Arak was by no means non-negotiable. No one was in a hurry to produce plutonium there. 

Arak, the second-generation centrifuges and so on – they are no doubt technological assets but they also served the purpose of beckoning the Americans to come to the negotiating table without further delay by driving home the point that unless the West made haste to negotiate, Iran’s capabilities and mastery of the nuclear cycle were only getting better and better and things would soon come to such pass that the West would have to negotiate from a position of greater disadvantage. 

The Iranians, therefore, are justified in looking back with satisfaction that the one thing that really mattered to them – namely, the right to enrich uranium – has been implicitly conceded by the world powers at Geneva. Whereas, from the perspective of the West, it is also a justifiable claim that Iran’s route to making nuclear weapons has been barricaded for the present and the dismantling of the sanctions regime will depend on Iran’s fulfillment of a host of commitments it made at Geneva and the negotiation of a comprehensive final agreement.

Paradoxically, it is possible to say today that the hardest part of the Iran nuclear problem has been tackled – commencement of serious, sustained negotiations after over three decades of diplomatic estrangement. Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, the head of the powerful Expediency Council and one of Iran’s shrewdest and most experienced statesmen, put the state of play succinctly when he told Financial Times newspaper, «It [Geneva] was breaking ice, the second stage will be more routine». 

To be sure, both within the Iranian regime and the US foreign policy establishment, a substantial groundswell of support for the deal is already available – and it is growing. The detractors are showing willingness to have an open mind and on the American side they include such influential «hawks» as Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security. 

The comments of Albright, an avowed non-proliferation hawk who advocated the relentless tightening of sanctions until Iran got down on its knees and cried for mercy, are particularly interesting. He is today inclined to praise the interim agreement as having accomplished «a great deal,» particularly in lengthening the time by at least one month that Iran would need to achieve «nuclear breakout» and significantly increasing the frequency and scope of inspections of the nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency. 

These winds of change would further make it improbable that the lawmakers in the US Congress would overturn the interim agreement – although the powerful American-Israel Public Affairs Committee came out on Monday in favor of new sanctions against Iran. The Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who was supportive of additional sanctions against Iran now maintains that any further sanctions measure should first be considered in relevant committees instead of being pushed upfront to the Senate floor. Which of course is a plea to avoid taking any precipitate steps on the Capitol Hill and give time for the Administration to pursue the diplomatic track.

In Iran too, similarly, the ground beneath the feet of the hardliners is shifting. Rafsanjani put it nicely, «Part of it [the breakthrough] was because talking to the US was a taboo. That taboo could not be easily broken – and nuclear talks could not move ahead without the US». 

Indeed, it takes time for the full import of a game changer to soak in. Was it any different when the world woke up to learn that Henry Kissinger had been to China? The most vital part here is that the personal stamp of the leaderships of both the US and Iran is very much evident on the historic deal. On the American side, in particular, President Barack Obama has taken virtual ownership of the negotiations with Iran. 

«I have a profound responsibility to try to resolve our differences peacefully, rather than rush toward conflict. Today, we have a real opportunity to achieve a comprehensive, peaceful settlement, and I believe we must test it, « he said. 

Obama had barely hidden during the 2008 presidential campaign that he anticipated that the US’ détente with Iran could be a big legacy-shaping achievement of his entire presidency, if he got elected. In his first presidential address in 2009, Obama offered to extend a hand if the Iranian leadership would «unclench their fist». But then, he spoke somewhat too soon. 

Nonetheless, he kept pecking at it, and remained convinced that Iran not only formed a key part of his nuclear disarmament agenda, but also could be crucial to his determination to avert new US military interventions or another war in the Muslim world (which also reflects a wariness of America getting involved in risky foreign crises). 

On the other hand, in political terms, from this point neither leadership – in Washington and Tehran alike – can afford a breakdown of the negotiations. President Hassan Rouhani’s entire electoral pledge to the nation to regenerate his country’s economy and society and reorient its politics is predicated on the assumption that there will be stability and predictability in Iran’s relations with the West. 

As for Obama, who is facing ridicule over a stumbling healthcare rollout and is staring at a low approval rating at home, a foreign policy accomplishment can only do some good politically. But on a firmer footing, it is also the case that unless and until the US cut its losses and extricated itself from the Muslim Middle East, its «rebalance» to Asia remains problematic – and the timeline for China to overtake the US economy is getting shorter by the day. 

Again, both sides realize intensely that the incumbent leader on the other side is offering a rare moment of opportunity to resolve the three-decade old standoff once and for all, and it must be seized. Suffice to say, this is not accidental diplomacy for either Rouhani or Obama but it is a carefully thought-over, deliberate road map which is backed up by a strong political will to move forward. 

(To be concluded…)