Iran’s nuclear deal: the ticking time bomb

What is the future of Iran’s nuclear programme?

After decades of fits and starts, the political deadlock over Iran’s nuclear standoff was broken in the early hours of Sunday morning, November 24. High-level talks, extended into their fourth day, culminated with the arrival of US Secretary of State John Kerry, as well as other senior politicians from the P5+1. The interim agreement, lasting for six months, will see Iran halt its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of sanctions worth £4.3 billion. Barack Obama hailed the deal as a ‘new path towards a world that is more secure’. Israel, for its part, described it as a ‘historic mistake’. The potential breakthrough represents a nascent new stage in Western-Iranian relations – but it is one that should be greeted with cautious scepticism.

The election of President Hassan Rouhani in June of this year was welcomed as a new beginning for Iranian foreign policy. Promoting his credentials as an agent of fundamental change, the moderate cleric won over 50% of the vote, hailing his success as a ‘victory of moderation over extremism’. On the diplomatic front, the tentative steps towards a détente in Iranian-Western relations began with a simple telephone conversation between Rouhani and Obama, the first between the two sides’ leaders since the Republic of Iran was established in 1979.

It is a far cry from former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s penchant for open confrontation and hostile rhetoric, who was widely condemned in 2005 for calling for Israel to be ‘wiped off the map’ (later put down to a translation error). In an editorial the Wall Street Journal described Ahmadinejad as ‘crazy’, though his Iranian nickname, ‘dark genius’, may be more fitting. The relative contrast, however, has served Rouhani well – clamouring political leaders have swooned over the new President, and the mainstream media has paraded him as the archetypal poster-boy for lasting peace. After all, who could deny the spotlight to a man who once declared that ‘a nuclear weaponised Iran destabilises the region, prompts a regional arms race, and wastes the scarce resources in the region’.

Rouhani, a former postgraduate at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland (he is now alleged to have plagiarised parts of his thesis), campaigned on a platform of reform and liberalisation, advocating freedom of press and the promotion of women’s rights. In his landmark speech he called for ‘the reduction of social and political tensions’ and ‘the healing of wounds’. Rouhani’s first 100 days in office, however, have proved more a chimera than reality. Over 300 people have been arrested on political charges, and the number of executions has risen to an unprecedented level not seen since the presidency of Muhammad Khatami in 1997. Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, warning of the dangers of rapprochement, described Rouhani as a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’.

The turning point of Iranian foreign policy has been the conflation of Iran’s economic problems with the resolution of its diplomatic isolation. Widespread sanctions, focusing on military, trade, and financial actions, have stifled the Iranian economy – costing between £2.5 billion and £5 billion in lost revenue each month. Yet it is the collateral damage, the impact upon the ordinary citizen, which has proved the most salient. The Iranian rial has lost two-thirds of its value against the US dollar, causing inflation to rise by more than 40%. Kouroush Ziabari, a journalist for Iran Review, described the effect of sanctions on Iranian life as an ‘arduous odyssey of struggling for survival in an ailing economy’.

Rouhani’s shrewd commitment to resolving the nuclear impasse lies not in his pragmatic and pacifistic disposition, but in the very survival of the regime itself. The Iranian Republic was established in 1979 on egalitarian and revivalist ideals, envisioning full employment and curbing the rise of inflation. Economic woes are seemingly incompatible with a social contract predicated on correcting past mistakes. Small nuclear concessions in return for sanctions relief give Iran access to much needed revenue, allowing it to keep its economy afloat and placate its restless youth.

‘A nuclear weaponised Iran destabilises the region, prompts a regional arms race, and wastes the scarce resources in the region.’

Yet failing to strike when the iron is hot and push for further concessions represents a missed opportunity , or to borrow France’s turn of phrase, ‘a sucker’s deal’. Under the agreement, Iran will be free to continue to enrich uranium and maintain its centrifuges and plutonium reactor. Naive optimism perhaps precludes the reality that the nuclear issue will always remain a lynchpin of Iranian domestic and foreign policy – moderates and conservatives simply draw different lines at which point the costs outweigh the benefits.

In the echelons of Iran’s power makers the nuclear issue remains divisive. The Revolutionary Guard have less interest in the economic and diplomatic costs of the nuclear programme, rather seeing it as another means of consolidating their aspirations for regional hegemony. It is perhaps why the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, recently chose to reaffirm Iran’s anti-Israeli credentials to show its hard-line factions that it wasn’t going soft – calling it ‘the roughish, filthy, rabid dog of the region’. Khamenei, who yields ultimate authority over Iran’s nuclear programme, also has a history of temperamental decision-making, effectively ifying the 2004 Paris Agreement by ordering the resumption of uranium conversion.

Geneva talks on Iran’s Nuclear Program / Photo Credit: US Mission Geneva

Regionally, Israel has been left out in the cold. Netanyahu ominously responded to news of the brokered deal by declaring ‘we cannot and will not allow a regime that calls for the destruction of Israel to obtain the means to achieve this goal’. Its precarious political isolation has seen it form an unlikely alliance with Saudi Arabia, who, in a serious of leaked diplomatic cables, was revealed to have exhorted the United States to ‘cut the head off the snake’ and attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. Israel has sought to pre-emptively defend its territory before, destroying Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981. A political deal that fails to placate the worries of key regional players is, at best, naive idealism, a mere plaster for the wound that contributes directly to the insecurity that drives conflict.

Obama, for his part, had been determined to see a deal through, having failed as of yet to add his name to the pantheon of presidential greats. Domestically, ‘Obamacare’ has evinced itself as more of a political graveyard than lasting legacy – ideologically divisive and the root of Congressional sabre-rattling. Internationally, Obama’s adoption of an irresolute foreign policy to deal with the Syrian crisis scored his political foe a public relations victory. The most obvious and easy pickings has been for America to reach a historic agreement with Iran, at expense of its erstwhile allies in the region, Israel and the Gulf monarchies.

The Iranian nuclear deal nuclear may be a seminal break from political wrangling, but with a constellation of vested interests and ulterior motives at hand, the outlook for a more comprehensive agreement remains bleak.

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