~ “It is a good deal even if Iran doesn’t change at all. It would still be the best option for us to protect ourselves. In fact, you could argue that if they are implacably opposed to us, all the more reason for us to want to have a deal in which we know what they’re doing and that, for a long period of time, we can prevent them from having a nuclear weapon.” ~ Pres. Barack Obama, April 5 2015.
~ “Does anybody in their right mind believe that Iran’s behavior is going to change because you give them more money and more centrifuges to eventually make a bomb? And what will the Arabs do in response to this deal? This deal doesn’t dismantle one centrifuge, it doesn’t close one site. And I believe there is a better deal. I don’t want a war but I don’t want to give Iran the tools and the capability to continue to destroy the Mid-East and one day attack us by building bigger missiles.” ~ Sen. Lindsay Graham, April 5, 2015.
~ “For decades, Riyadh has been judged a supporter of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, providing financing in return for a widely assumed understanding that, if needed, Islamabad will transfer technology or even warheads.” ~ Simon Henderson, 2015.
~ “The cornerstone of our strategic policy continues to be to deter nuclear attack upon the United States or its allies. We do this by maintaining a highly reliable ability to inflict unacceptable damage upon any single aggressor or combination of aggressors at any time during the course of a strategic nuclear exchange, even after absorbing a surprise first strike. This can be defined as our assured-destruction capability.” ~ Robert S. McNamara, 1967.
~ “Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty.” ~ Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, 1968.
~ U.S. reactors have also been staving off another global challenge: climate change. The low-carbon electricity produced by such reactors provides 20 percent of the nation’s power and a voided 64 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas pollution. They also avoided spewing soot and other air pollution like coal-fired power plants do and thus have saved some 1.8 million lives.” ~ David Biello, 2013
It has been barely ten days since the detailed framework of a proposed comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran was made public by the Obama administration and its negotiating partners in the P5+1 Group (Russia, China, the UK, France and Germany) and by the Iranian government. But – perhaps like you – I have been somewhat dismayed by the vehemence of positions of those favoring or opposing the deal. For its proponents, it represents a major breakthrough, potentially yielding tougher binding conditions than thought previously possible. Meanwhile, for its detractors – here in the USA and abroad Like U.S. Sen. Lindsay Graham (see above quote) – it is seen as worse than no deal at all and posing a major threat to stability in the Middle East.
Added to this, many ongoing conflicts around that region – most notably now in Yemen, but also in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Bahrain and Lebanon – are seen as pitting long-time U.S, regional allies among the Sunni controlled states, led by Saudi Arabia, against Iran, as leader of the Shia states. Already the U.S. government has come out publicly warning Iran not to destabilize the situation in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition of Sunni states is pounding sites across that country with air strikes to push back the advance of Shia Houthi rebels who have taken over widening parts of it.
Oddly, in the process, scant attention has been paid to the potentially important peaceful uses of nuclear power as a key growing element in the world’s energy mix as it combats climate change. That even though Iran is now supposedly to be limited to these. Perhaps, more worrying has been the lack of balance in reporting and news coverage in the wide circulation media. The complex, multi-layered context of regional politics, instability and conflict across the Middle East is all too facilely over-simplified to portray Iran as the sole aggressor, where clearly other powerful forces are involved arrayed against it.
Key Questions : So what are we to make of the proposed deal? How workable and sustainable are its main features? How far can we trust the Iranians to adhere to it? How does it fit into the broader security context of Middle East politics and conflict and U.S. foreign policy and interests there? What are the implications of so little attention being paid to the peaceful uses of nuclear power by Iran and other Middle East states? How should the upcoming hot debate on the proposed deal best be handled here and abroad?
Contours of the Deal : The overarching goals of the proposed pact would be to restrain very substantially Iran’s nuclear development program for a period of up to fifteen years, in return for providing Iran relief from current draconian economic sanctions imposed by the USA and other NATO powers, as well as by the United Nations. Specifically, Iran would be required to reduce by two-thirds its nuclear enrichment capacity (centrifuges), the level of uranium enrichment (to below 5%), reduce its stockpiles of low enriched uranium, close its plutonium production capacity, limit its research and development, and allow thorough inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of all its nuclear facilities. Economic sanctions would be lifted in phases as Iran complied. However, new restrictions are envisaged to be imposed by the UN going beyond nuclear capability including restraints on conventional armaments and ballistic missiles. These were spelled out in a P5+1 Fact Sheet put out by the U.S. State Department. By contrast, a separate Iranian Fact Sheet differed on timing and on scope of verification by IAEA – giving rise to concerns agreement was not yet reached.
Overall the combative – almost punitive – tone of the P5+1 Fact Sheet points to a low level of trust between the parties. The goal of the deal is clearly stated as extending Iran’s “breakout time” for it to be able to produce a nuclear bomb – should it wish to – from 2-3 months to over a year. This would supposedly allow time for renewed sanctions to forestall it. But it is, despite the ‘fatwa” issued by the Ayatollah Khameini, Iran’s supreme leader, in the 1990s, against Iran ever doing so. And it is despite the fact that, to date, no nuclear weapons program has been detected by the IAEA.
By not focusing at all on any peaceful uses of nuclear power in a more positive way, the fact sheet ironically appears almost as a self-fulfilling prophesy of what it says it is trying to prevent. Explicitly, it is stated that any breach would cause sanctions to “snap back” in full force at any point in future. This, even though Iran is seen to have complied fully with interim confidence building freeze on its nuclear program over the past two years. This is most probably why Ayatollah Khomenei has recently said Iran wants sanctions lifted at the same time the deal is agreed and implemented.
Regional Context of Politics and Conflict : For months now, and even more in the past two weeks, politicians, reporters, pundits and analysts have all delved obsessively into the technical details of Iran’s nuclear program. There have been – and will be surely – endless debates about numbers of centrifuges, levels of uranium enrichment, “breakout times”, heavy water plants and the like. By contrast, there has been almost complete silence concerning the broader regional context – most particularly as it might be seen from the Iranian perspective. Only perhaps President Obama – in his widely reported April 5 interview with New York Times columnist Tom Friedman – referred to the threats Iranians perceive from a history of Western aggression – deposing Mossadeq’s democracy in 1952 and aiding imposition of the Shah’s dictatorship, then aiding Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, and more recently deep conflicts with rival Sunni Muslim powers.
For all the obsessing on nuclear minutiae, Western media and politicians have by and large failed to bring out the already for decades well established nuclear weapons capabilities of Iran’s two main regional rivals – Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel already has an undeclared nuclear warheads arsenal as large as the U.K. and France – major world nuclear powers. Meanwhile, as Simon Henderson of the hawkish Washington Institute for Near East Policy recently noted (see above quote) – Saudi Arabia has a pact with Pakistan to call upon its nuclear weapons arsenal in case of need, in return for having bankrolled its development in the early 1990s. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have in the past stated willingness to create a “nuclear free zone” in the Middle East. But Israel has always adamantly refused – just as it has never publicly acknowledged it by now well known nuclear weapons capacity. Ultimately, any nuclear deal with Iran stands as much chance of failing due to perceived nuclear threat that in future might push Iran to seek its own mutual “assured destruction capability” vis-a-vis its regional rivals – just as former U.S. Defense Secretary, the late Robert S. McNamara explained so eloquently for the USA in 1967 – see above quote.
As many American commentators and politicians (such as Sen. Lindsay Graham – see above quote) have frequently stated over recent months, Iran is widely perceived as perhaps the largest national sponsor of terrorism in the Middle East. Yet this most probably over-simplifies a far more complex reality in the region. Iran has by and large limited its role to providing support to its co-religionist Shia groups in other Middle East nations – particularly where they are – or have been – an oppressed minority, as in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Yemen, Jordan – or even an oppressed majority, as in Bahrain and Iraq.
Against this, Saudi Arabia – along with other Sunni led powers – has championed Sunni groups. In Yemen today the bloody campaign waged by the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis is as much part of a decades long ongoing conflict by Saudis to repress their own Shia minority, as it is an attempt by Iran to attack them through proxies. Meanwhile Saudi Arabia has been responsible for using its vast oil wealth and growing military power to promote and spread its own extreme puritanical and brutal form of Islam – Wahhabism – that has few other adherents in the Muslim world. Extremist groups such as Nigeria’s Boko Haram, as well as ISIS, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, among others have benefited from this.
Conclusions : Twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War, after 9/11 and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the political landscape of the Middle East is fast changing. As President Obama said to Tom Friedman, Sunni as well as Shia powers face mounting major challenges to modernize, promote greater freedom, education, opportunity and prosperity for their peoples. By mid-century the Middle East population will be vastly bigger and many under age thirty. It is not in the long-term interest of the United States to heighten regional conflicts by backing one side against the others. Rather a stable, more peaceful and sustainable regional balance of power needs to be achieved.
The Iran nuclear deal could potentially be the beginning of just such a process of change. But to succeed, it cannot be purely punitive or one-sided. It has to be accompanied by trust building and mutual reassurances that come from closer ties in other areas – trade, economy, culture. In China’s opening to the West in the 1970s, so-called “ping pong” diplomacy helped jump start this. Today with Iran – and in parallel with other Middle East nations – similar reaching out is needed. Most of all, American and other Western politicians, pundits and officials must resist the temptation to grand-stand for short-term political gain by currying favor with major vested interests. At this vital time, it will pay to take the long view and be open to building new relationships. I, for one, hope that they – and we all – have the courage and persistence to do so.