Despite all the Chicken Little talk from supporters of war with other peoples’ blood, John Kerry and company have pulled a reasonably healthy rabbit out of the hat in Geneva. The interim six-month agreement announced November 23 is, as even some skeptics acknowledge, a bit stronger than expected, including as it does the requirement for Iran to give up Uranium stockpiles enriched above 5%. Combined with the prohibition on enriching above 5% and on constructing new centrifuges, this essentially sets back Iran’s nuclear program to a state it was in several months ago. One can debate whether Iran is being treated fairly in all this or if the interests of other countries in the region are being adequately protected, but that is an endless discussion with many moral and practical ambiguities. Such ambiguities arise whenever “world powers” gather together to decide the fate of any small country. However, here I want to ask a different question: Why has this agreement come about?
Iran has been isolated, hectored and sanctioned for decades. During this period, opportunities have arisen to begin normalizing relations and pre-empting the difficult situation the world faces today. Back in 2003, when the Khatami government’s proposal for nuclear talks was rejected by the Bush II administration, Iran’s nuclear program was little more than a thought experiment. Now, with thousands of centrifuges, hundreds of kilograms of 20% enriched Uranium and a Plutonium reactor in the works, it is a serious program. Purely on a rational basis, then, the US and its allies might have thought that delaying a deal further would only lead to an even worse situation. It can be argued that, thanks to the approach taken by the West over the last decade, Iran’s nuclear program has reached the point where it can only be stopped with Iran’s voluntary participation. McCainiacs, neocons, Israeli hawks and Saudi rent-a-forcers may think that war is the answer, but most reasonable people have concluded long ago that this is not so. More importantly, the handling of the Syrian chemical weapons episode by the Obama administration sent a clear signal to all these groups that the U.S. was not interested in fighting any more wars in the Middle East. Indeed, that may have been a primary objective of the exercise. And not only did it signal the President’s reluctance to go to war, it also demonstrated – demonstrated, not implied – that the American populace and members of Congress, including most Republicans, did not support such adventures. That is when the die was really cast, and Bibi Netanyahu has seemed to be a lost man since then with good reason. Now the next logical step has been taken. If war is practically off the table, negotiations are the only option, and should proceed apace. Yes, there will be a lot of hawkish talk for political window dressing, but there are only two paths from here on. One leads to a negotiated settlement with Iran and the other to an Iran with nuclear capability (though perhaps not a weapon). Everyone has to choose which one they prefer.
But there may be an even deeper reason why world powers think that rapprochement with Iran now makes sense. If one looks at the geopolitical situation today, there is one clear threat to the current world order that rises above all: Jihadism fueled by Salafist Islamic ideology. And against this threat, Iran is a natural ally for the U.S. and other powers. The movement that threatens not only the West but also Russia, China, India, and countries like Pakistan and Libya, is centered not in Iran but in the Arabian peninsula, and is, in fact, at war with what Iran stands for. In spite of all they have said in the past, the recent actions of the Jihadis in Syria, Iraq and Pakistan make it clear that they regard the elimination of Shi’a influence from the Muslim world as an important part of their Islamic purification project. The Western powers thus find their interests aligned more with Iran than with allies such as Saudi Arabia – even more so recently as Pakistan veers off towards a more ideological (or perhaps just more dysfunctional) path. However, this is not the case for Israel, which feels much more threatened by Iran and its proxies. And therein lies the source of the discord between Israel and the West: They no longer agree on enemy number 1. This reality has become increasingly clear over the last decade, but is a harsh one for Israeli hawks to swallow. The U.S., in concert with other powers, just negotiated a deal on an issue that Israel regards as central to its existence, and only briefed the Israeli Prime Minister the following day. As Yair Lapid, the head of the centrist Yesh Atid party said rather wistfully, “We have six months, at the end of which we need to be in a situation in which the Americans listen to us the way they used to listen to us in the past.” Many in Israel must be wondering if that past is now truly a thing of the past. And the royals in Riyadh must be even more worried. They too regard Iran’s influence as their greatest challenge, and had been pushing for military action by the U.S. Now that option seems to have vanished. And unlike Israel, whose relationship with the U.S. is based on real cultural, political and emotional affinity, the Saudi-American relationship is purely transactional and, therefore, fragile.
Of course, geopolitics is too complex to be reduced to simplistic tropes such as “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, but it is certainly worth taking another look at the enemy of my enemy, even if he is also the enemy of (a few of) my friends. This has surely played into the calculus behind the (very slight) thaw in relations with Iran, along with such factors as the election of a new Iranian government and the impending exit of NATO forces from Afghanistan – after which Iranian cooperation will be needed more than ever to keep Afghanistan stable. And all this must be obvious not only to the P5+1, but also to the Iranians, who are past masters at strategy and negotiation. What we are seeing now is a transition in the music of geopolitics, which means that a new dance is beginning in the Greater Middle East. Those who are caught on the wrong foot will find themselves painfully exposed.
For leaders in all countries involved, the next six months will be a testing time. For the U.S. administration, it will be an opportunity to demonstrate that they can pull off a truly remarkable feat of geopolitical engineering in the face of immense odds. Fraught as the process is with distrust, emotion and conflicting agendas, it is still easier to bet on failure than on success. However, it is also important not to lose sight of whom, ultimately, this affects the most: The people of Iran. They have suffered for decades as pawns in misguided ventures by their own leaders and the geopolitical games of other powers. Perhaps – just perhaps – these heirs of one of the world’s oldest and greatest civilizations are about to regain participation in the affairs of the world. If so, that would indeed be a cause for celebration.