By Ghassan Michel Rubeiz
Washington DC — The global strategy in dealing with Iran has changed for the better over the last twelve months.
As the November 24 approaches speculation on peace with the Islamic Republic intensifies. In one of a series of special reports, the Economist magazine discusses Iran as a rapidly changing society, and rightly argues that “An agreement to shackle the nuclear programme would have wide-ranging geopolitical consequences and could push Iran further towards modernity”. (Click to read article.)
Peace with Iran is a sound investment. Iranians would rejuvenate their economy and enhance relations with the globe. Tehran and Riyadh may reconcile and reduce regional sectarian tension. A diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict – mediated by Iranian President Rouhani, would have a better chance. Washington and Tehran would coordinate their efforts to defeat ISIS. In a more stable region, Israel may take the peace process more seriously; ther would be one less excuse to ignore a festering occupation.
President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have been trying to introduce a measure of stability to the region by pushing negotiations for a nuclear agreement between Iran and the US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany. If a nuclear deal emerges Obama would take credit for an immense diplomatic breakthrough. In taking the lead the US president would stand to secure a lynchpin of his foreign policy. After losing the battle with Netanyahu on Palestine’s peace process, Obama badly needs to improve his image in the Middle East.
Progress in talks is evident, but not sufficient. Tehran would want to reduce its capacity and level of uranium enrichment. Tehran accepts international monitoring of its program. In return, Iran expects to be relieved from sanctions immediately. There is still a wide gap in positions. The sticking points seem to be the number of centrifuge installations Iran would be allowed to possess, the level of uranium enrichment it is allowed ( 5%?), the duration of the treaty (20 years?) and the speed of sanction relief (3-5 years?).
On November 12, Robert Litwak, Mark Mazetti and David Sanger addressed a packed Washington DC audience on Prospects for a Nuclear Agreement with Iran. In this panel, which took place at the W Wilson Center, the three speakers agreed that there is little chance for a final accord this month. What the speakers expect is not a “breakthrough, not a “breakdown” but a “muddlethrough”. An interim agreement would retain progress made so far, allow some sanction relief and project another extension of negotiations for a grand bargain.
Peace with Iran is complicated by politics in Washington, Tehran and Tel Aviv. If an agreement is achieved an Iran-phobic US Congress may not approve sanction relief. On the other hand, the Iranian parliament may push to withdraw its negotiators if the process takes the Islamic Republic to an embarrassing position.
There are two theaters of confrontation with Iran. One between Tehran and the six powers; this theater is technical, the risk of Iran becoming a nuclear power. The second is a political war, where public relations explode. Iran battles with Israel, Saudi Arabia and Obama’s US political opposition using hostile analogies and threats. Israel has led an international campaign against dialogue with Iran. This strategy argues that the Islamic Republic seeks the elimination of the Jewish state with an atomic weapon in progress. Prime Minister Netanyahu conducts a diplomatic speed train with a bumper sticker that reads “Iran is a nuclear threshold state”. For its part Iran has consistently described Israel as an imperialist nation, a source of trouble, an alien presence in the region.
How Congress would receive the emergence of a nuclear agreement in the future is not clear. Obama and Kerry had been trying to achieve an agreement in time before the new Republican- majority Senate and House convene in January. Obama’s presidential authority will be challenged by congressional authority on Iran every step of the way.
If a final agreement with Iran is hammered out its momentum cannot be easily stopped. The world community would welcome an initiative of hope in a Middle East gone politically wild. The multilateral sanctions are imposed by the US, the EU and the UN Security Council. If Europe commits to an agreement with Iran, unilateral US sanctions would no longer be effective.
The fate of an agreement with Iran may not be resolved this month but the momentum for peace with the Islamic Republic seems to be too strong to stop. Over the last year of negotiations the debate about Iran has shifted from the possibility of an airstrike to the likelihood of a grand bargain consummated in the foreseable future.
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