July 18, 2015
Co-authored with Yusuf Buluc (*)
July 14 will no longer be remembered only as the French National Day commemorating the storming of the Bastille. It will also be remembered as the day of the nuclear deal with Iran or V-Day for diplomacy.
In an interview he gave in early April 2015, President Obama told Thomas Friedman of The New York Times that “engagement,” combined with meeting core strategic needs, could serve American interests vis-à-vis countries like Burma, Cuba and Iran far better than endless sanctions and isolation.
The intention to engage Iran had already been made clear by President Obama in his landmark Cairo speech on June 4, 2009, well before the election of Hassan Rouhani:
“…For many years, Iran has defined itself in part by opposition to my country, and there is indeed a tumultuous history between us. In the Middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government. This history is well known. Rather than remain trapped in the past, I have made it clear to Iran’s leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward. The question, now, is not what Iran is against, but what future it wants to build…”
Rouhani’s election and his appointment of Javad Zarif as Foreign Minister prepared the ground for engagement on the nuclear issue.
The deal of July 14 increases the time it would take Iran to acquire enough material for a bomb from 2-3 months to one year; reduces Iran stockpiles of enriched uranium; reduces the number of installed centrifuges by two-thirds; prevents Iran from producing weapons grade plutonium; places Iran’s nuclear activities under monitoring and verification.
It is now becoming increasingly clear, however, that the underlying challenge of coping with a potentially nuclear armed Iran has led to heightened expectations from a process that sought to mitigate if not totally eliminate that challenge. As such, a sense of anti-climax on locking in the “deal” has led to assessments that are highly misleading or misplaced.
Those who seem to have missed the paramount focus of the process undervalue the outcome as failing to achieve a wholly normalized Iran.
On the other side of the divide are those who misconstrue the “deal” which in effect acknowledges Iran’s rights to” enrichment” as having dealt an injurious blow to global non-proliferation efforts.
The holders of both these views must take a deep breath and ask themselves the following questions: What was the paramount goal of the exercise? How much of that goal the “deal” has achieved? Were there an alternative approach and means to achieve the same amount or more of the goal without risking wider fundamental interests? Does the “deal” have in it a dynamic that could shift the current paradigm of relations from confrontation to potential cooperation and as such create a foundation to build on?
The deal’s most notable international critics are Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Israel’s criticism goes beyond the parameters of the deal and personally targets President Obama. Some of this criticism may also be attributed to Preseident’s more nuanced policy on Palestine. With Iraq and Syria conveniently out of the way, PM Netanyahu wished Iran to be pushed further into a corner. His opposition to the deal however has only enhanced Tehran’s international standing. It seems that he will now engage in an intense lobbying effort to have the deal rejected by the Congress. Targeting a deal strongly supported by President Obama would be a bad investment in the future of US-Israeli relations and no argument will convincingly refute the fact that the critics of the deal have utterly failed to propose a credible alternative.
As for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, there is little to be said. Riyadh needs to see that grumbling about the nuclear deal does not score points. This is what President Obama told Thomas Friedman last Tuesday on relations with the Gulf countries:
“…That’s part of the reason why my argument has been to my allies in the region, let’s stop giving Iran opportunities for mischief. Strengthen your own societies. Be inclusive. Make sure that your Shia populations don’t feel as if they’re being left out. Think about the economic growth. Make sure that we’ve got better military capacity for things like interdiction. The more we do those things, that’s the level of deterrence that’s necessary because it is highly unlikely that you are going to see Iran launch a direct attack, state to state, against any of our allies in the region. They know that that would give us the rationale to go in full-bore, and as I said, we could knock out most of their military capacity pretty quickly.”
In a nutshell, Israel’s priority should now be resolving the Palestinian issue and Saudi Arabia should concentrate on getting itself out of Yemen and engage in reform.
What does the July 14 deal represent for Iran?
The deal is not a bilateral one between Iran and the US. It is a deal between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany. In announcing final agreement on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) EU High Representative Federica Mogherini and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif used the same text in English and Persian respectively. In her brief introductory remarks Ms. Mogherini said that with courage, political will, mutual respect and leadership they were able to deliver what the world was hoping for: a shared commitment to peace. By simple mathematics, facing the P5+1 across the table Iranian diplomacy is entitled to half the credit for this achievement and the respect that comes with it. This is a lesson in soberly promoting a country’s national interests and regional countries need to draw appropriate conclusions.
The deal represents a sea change for Iran’s future. Tehran comes out of the negotiation process as a successful interlocutor for the P5+1 giving a tremendous boost to regime’s legitimacy. For the West, it has moved from being an adversary to a potential partner. Considering its already good relations with Russia its regional role will thus be enhanced. The gradual removing of the sanctions will bring dynamism to its economy. To put it briefly Iran has moved up to a higher league.
Will Iran honor the commitments it has undertaken? The JCPOA contains elaborate monitoring and verification measures to be implemented by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). But what about the overarching political trust upon which the technical provisions of the JCPOA are supposedly based? This is what President Obama told Mr. Friedman:
“Well, I haven’t learned yet to trust the Iranian leadership although I think that what John Kerry learned in his interactions with Foreign Minister Zarif — and that then traces back to President Rouhani — is that when you nail down an agreement, they do seem to follow it to the letter, perhaps thinking there may be a loophole here or there, which is why you have to button this stuff down. But the notion that once you put something down on paper that somehow they’re just going to ignore it and try to pocket what they’ve gained, that’s not what we saw during the last two years of the interim agreement. There is, I think, restraints that they feel when they have an agreement and they have a document, that they need to abide by it…”
The President calls the nuclear deal a historic opportunity for Iran and nobody contests that. Squandering that opportunity will be Iran’s loss. Following the agreement, Secretary Kerry said that “Confidence is never built overnight. It has to be built over time.” Indeed. And, Iran would have to bear in mind that confidence can be lost overnight.
It must be viewed with certain dismay that the Turkish officialdom is almost tight-lipped on what the “deal” portends for Turkey, except for a few disconnected remarks which could not hide a reticence to genuinely welcoming it. It is all the more sad that such an attitude stands in sharp contradiction with Turkey’s earlier efforts to lay a positive groundwork with a view to facilitating a resolution of the issue, at the expense of jeopardizing its own ties of alliance and friendship. This contradiction in respective positions owes itself to a tangible shift in the essential parameters of Turkey’s foreign and security policies which in the meantime have been aligned with different power equations and balance of interests.
Our own assessment of Iran nuclear deal is that, given its geo-strategic location, the scale and scope of its interaction with Iran and their historical neighborly ties, its positive yields for Turkey would be among the highest. That the nuclear breakthrough came right in the wake of general elections and coincided with endeavors to craft a coalition government do not go far enough to explain Turkey’s remarkable silence. Understandably not having a seat at the negotiating table is a handicap, but failing to follow the process with keenness and to take appropriate policy steps designed to encourage a positive outcome and once it is in hand to convert its yields to national and collective regional gain must be a lack of political foresight and prudence.
Fortunately, not all is lost. Turkey’s unique geo-strategic location affords it undeniable advantages. If and when a coalition government is formed, which must rest on serious compromises including a comprehensive revision of foreign policy, an opportunity would open up for it to address as a matter of priority the state of Turkey’s relations with Iran with a view to spearheading a historical remit of overcoming the destructive Sunni/Shia divide.
(*) Yusuf Buluc is a retired Turkish Ambassador and a former Head of NATO’s Department of Defense Plans and Policy