Middle East political scenario

By K.N. Pandita

After thirty years of estrangement, suspicions and bouts of acrimony, Iran and the United States have taken a guarded step along the path of mutual understanding. Signing of nuclear deal between the SC 5+1 (Germany) and Iran in Geneva on 27th of November 2013 will go down as a historic day of great success of cool and calculated diplomacy as against the rattling of sword to no purpose.

Iran’s bid of producing nuclear device has been the most disconcerting issue dogging the US and its European partners for more than a decade.  

Sanctions imposed by the US in 2002 and upgraded in 2005 – direct affront to Iran – undoubtedly contributed to the hardening of postures on both sides. Yet their impact on Iranian oil revenue and financial assets should not be underestimated. Iran’s economy was dealt a severe blow.

This argument was pointedly highlighted by the hawks and the powerful Foreign Relations Committee of the US Congress when Secretary of State Kerry defended the nuclear deal in his briefing.

Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel, too, towed the same line arguing that more sanctions would have yielded the desired result of Iran making more concessions than what she has made or even agreeing to call a total halt to her nuclear weapon programme.

Defending the deal, Kerry told the Congressional Committee that it took US ten long years to secretly hammer out the deal with Iranians and that it was a sensitive diplomatic effort.

November 1979 sack of US embassy in Teheran and a year later, decade-long war with Iraq isolated Iran even though ouster of the Shah and defence of Iran against Saddam had popularized the theocratic regime in its early days. With the passage of time, the clerics came to the conclusion that to deter regional and super power aggression and guard against the dismissal of the regime, the way out was that Iran develops nuclear capability. However, well-informed sources believe and assert that from the very beginning, viz. 2002; Iran has been seeking nuclear technology but not the nuclear bomb. We will come to it later.

Nevertheless, during their secret negotiations in Oman, the Big Five plus one had insisted on controlling nuclear activities at the Arak reactor where heavy water facility has been made available for enrichment of uranium at Natanz.

Soon after signing the deal, the contentious issue of whether Iran reserved the right to upgrade her nuclear technology to the extent of producing nuclear warhead or not is hotly debated in political circles. Obviously, what the Iranian nuclear expert Salahi and Secretary John Kerry said on the subject has been interpreted by observers as the stuff for public consumption. It cannot be that casual.

On Iranian side, the victory of President Hassan Rouhani – a moderate cleric with far deeper understanding of western sensitivity – indicated civil society’s inclination for shift from hardliner posturing of his predecessor Ahmadi Nejad, whose vitriolic against Israel had degenerated into mockery, to positive realpolitik.

That the clerical regime would not move beyond acquiring the technology to making the bomb can be substantiated as this: (a) it would invite quick and coordinated air strikes, (b) lead to regional nuclear arms race obliterating Iran’s primacy in the region, and (c) lead to total multilateral trade embargo on Iran. But more importantly, that would mean ouster of clerical regime which they want to protect at any cost.

Therefore the question is whether Iran’s readiness to sign the deal now means that she has reached the final stage of technical capability of producing the bomb. The simple answer is yes she has (with 18000 operational and 1000 upgraded centrifuges still in her nuclear kitty). But it is rather difficult to accept the pontificating that Iran might have even tested nuclear weapon if the deal was delayed by a few weeks more. US’ insistence on Iran halting heavy water plant programme at Arak nuclear reactor has to be understood in the totality of the concept of de-nuclearizing deal.

On economic front, the US, by virtue of 1996 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) cut off third party investment in Iran by threatening expulsion from the US market. More importantly, 2005 financial and banking sanctions imposed ban on U-turn dollars flow to Iran. US achieved the objectives of cutting off Iran from international financial system, reducing flow of foreign exchange into Iran and pressurizing Iran currency downwards. After 2012, Iran oil exports were reduced by 50 per cent.

The nuclear deal allows Iran recovery from marginally lifted ban on oil exports to the tune of 7 billion US dollars. But the continuing sanctions deprive her of 30 billion dollars she would have made out of normal oil exports. About 100 million US dollars that Iran earned from third party sale of oil remain frozen in US banks.

These are the compulsions for President Rouhani to avert escalation of crisis, economic as well as political, and redraw the roadmap for Iran in her relations with the US and European countries. Concessions given to Iran under the interim nuclear deal do not match the gains she has conceded. Furthermore, riders are set for testing Iran’s sincerity and commitment.

A crucial dimension of the deal is its impact on region and international level. Saudi Arabia and Israel both have derided the deal but for different reasons. Saudi Arabia apprehends a blow to her pre-eminent position in the Middle East and her influence in the Muslim world. Hence she has been heard talking of “new defence doctrine”, which sounds hollow. Her chagrin is that she has been kept uninformed of the deal. This reflects subtler part of US’ revised Middle East policy. Is Saudi Arabia on the verge of losing her primordial political clout in regional strategies? It is pertinent to remember that Washington’s sustained support to monarchical regime has lately come under criticism in many western circles. The former Saudi intelligence Chief Prince Turki, whose close association with CIA and ISI goes to the heydays days of Afghan Mujahideen, had told his America counterpart that a deal with Iran should be the option.

As far as Israel is concerned, Iran’s anti-Israel stance owes more to Iran-Saudi rivalry for leadership of Islamic world and the Middle East than any real clash of interests. Iran has been cashing on Saudi and other Islamic countries’ (like Pakistan, Egypt and Yemen) soft paddling on Israel-Palestine conflict and unwilling to call off US’ leverage with Israel. With Iraq decimated, Iran reined in and Saudi Arabia already in cahoots with US-Middle East lobby, chances for Israel to become target of Islamic bomb will recede with the nuclear deal with Iran stabilizing. This is Washington’s perception.

In the process, India and Pakistan both will be gainers for now they can refresh their quest for Iranian gas and the proposed IPI pipeline that had to be put on hold because of opposition by Washington. For Pakistan the additional advantage is that she retains her position as the only Sunni Muslim country with a nuclear bomb in the basement while the Shia nuclear bomb has received battering for the time being. India can now wriggle out of shackles that denied her chances of a fair and just energy deal with Iran all these years of Iran-US acrimony. Chastened Iran can be instrumental in ushering in new concept of trade as the lynchpin in bilateral and multilateral relations in the Middle East. Anti-Israel rhetoric must now end in Iran because the days of sensitized politics in Iran are over. Iran has a role to play and she ought not to spoil her chances.

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