January 19, 2016
During the weeks preceding “implementation day” for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), world’s attention focused once again on the Iran nuclear deal. Different aspects of the agreement negotiated between Iran and the “P5+1” or “the US and five other nations” were re-examined. Some analysts saw the deal as a landmark development and expressed optimism that it could end three decades of hostility between Tehran and Washington and usher in an era of cooperation in Middle East conflicts. Others appeared more reserved. And, some continued to reject it as a “bad deal”. Two observations can be made with regard to this debate:
Firstly, the “five other nations” referred to are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and Germany. In other words, Iran’s counterparts at the table were the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, world’s governing body plus Germany, EU’s “primus inter pares”. This in itself is a measure of the achievement which Iranian President Hassan Rouhani described as a “golden page” in his country’s history opening new windows for Iran’s engagement with the world.
And secondly, the nuclear deal will hopefully end just a little more than “three decades” of hostile relationship between Tehran and Washington. It is worth remembering in this connection what President Obama said in his landmark Cairo speech on June 4, 2009:
“… This issue has been a source of tension between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. For many years, Iran has defined itself in part by its opposition to my country, and there is in fact 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. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians. This history is well known. Rather than remain trapped in the past, I’ve 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 rather what future it wants to build…”
This was the first time that the US openly admitted her role in the overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953. A message urging dialogue could not be phrased better and it was well-received in Tehran.
The “golden page” referred to by President Rouhani was opened last Saturday with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officially certifying that Iran had fulfilled its obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the US and the EU lifting the nuclear-related oil and financial sanctions against Iran and releasing roughly 100 billion dollars of its frozen assets.
Despite some last minute stress, the freeing of five Americans in a prisoner swap, including a Washington Post reporter and the announcement regarding the settlement of a long outstanding claim at the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal in The Hague were no doubt reflective of a different atmosphere in US-Iran relations.
The likelihood of new US sanctions in response to Tehran’s ballistic missile tests in October and November 2015 had been in the news for some time. But their announcement on Sunday caused a stir. It may be recalled in this connection that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in approving the nuclear deal, sent a letter to President Hassan Rouhani on October 21, in which he laid out conditions for implementing the deal, warning that, “During the eight-year period imposition of any sanctions at any level and under any pretexts will be considered a violation of the JCPOA.”
Yesterday, Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman described these latest sanctions as propaganda measures which had no legal or moral legitimacy and said that Iran will continue to pursue her lawful missile program and promote her defense capabilities. He also underlined that the Iranian missile program was not designed to develop missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons and did not contravene any international principle. (UN Security Council Resolution 1929 (2010) bars Iran from developing such missiles.)
As for the JCPOA, Secretary Kerry, in a statement to the press in Vienna on Saturday, said that the reaching of “implementation day” marked Iran nuclear agreement transitions from an ambitious set of promises on paper to measurable action in progress. “Today, as a result of the actions taken since last July,” he said, “the United States, our friends and allies in the Middle East, and the entire world are safer because the threat of a nuclear weapon has been reduced.”
And on Sunday President Obama said that the bottom line was the following:
“Whereas Iran was steadily expanding its nuclear program, we have now cut off every single path that Iran could have used to build a bomb. Whereas it would have taken Iran two to three months to break out with enough material to rush to a bomb, we’ve now extended that breakout time to a year — and with the world’s unprecedented inspections and access to Iran’s program, we’ll know if Iran ever tries to break out.
“Now that Iran’s actions have been verified, it can begin to receive relief from certain nuclear sanctions and gain access to its own money that had been frozen. And perhaps most important of all, we’ve achieved this historic progress through diplomacy, without resorting to another war in the Middle East…”
Four years ago, while expressing my appreciation for Iran’s diplomatic traditions independently of the positions taken by the regime on different issues, I had referred to Tehran’s inability to capitalize on its advantages and thus elevate the country’s standing. I had said that if Iran were to take a few steps in the right direction Western nations would be lining up for investment projects there. It seems that this point has now been reached. This is what German Foreign Minister Steinmeier said regarding implementation day:
“… We are now reciprocating by lifting the economic and financial sanctions targeting the Iranian nuclear programme. It will therefore be permitted to do business with Iran once more. This brings with it the chance for relations between Iran and the rest of the world to enter a new phase altogether, even though other conflicts rumble on and differences of opinion or conflicts of interest remain…”
Although the path ahead is not guaranteed to be a smooth one with many critics remaining in the US, Iran and beyond, what has been achieved represents a substantial improvement in Iran’s relations with the West. During his press conference Secretary Kerry also stated that Iran had kept its word; taken every step that it committed to take, dating back two full years. And, the emphasis put on diplomacy by Presidents Obama and Rouhani, Secretary Kerry and Minister Zarif was rather striking and no doubt constituted a message to the Middle East as well as hardliners in the US.
There is, at present, considerable speculation on the internal, external and particularly the regional implications of the Iran nuclear deal. Whatever obstacles may remain, the deal makes Iran a stronger and more credible regional partner.
The following are excerpts from what “International Crisis Group” has said regarding the future:
“Many in the West have high hopes about the nuclear accord’s possible positive knock on effects. Yet, Rouhani’s record, an approach more cautious than audacious, prioritising economic recovery, and the system’s multi-layered nature herald gradual change at best. Some could find the temptation to try to expedite this evolution hard to resist. Already, they have started nudging Iran to improve its human rights record or alter regional policies. Clumsy pressure is sure to backfire. Even more misguided would be an attempt to empower what they see as “moderate” forces, even if not assertively…
“… Though the Iranian polity is anything but unitary, the West should treat it as such and avoid taking sides in an internal debate that outside actors repeatedly have proven unable to manipulate successfully. Even rhetorical expression of such an intention could broaden the fear, already ascendant among theocrats, that the ulterior motive in signing the nuclear deal was to transform the nature of the regime. By the same token, sudden and highly politicized pressure in related areas, such as Iran’s support of militant groups in the Levant or its human rights record, could give credence to suspicion, prevalent among … theocrats, that the nuclear crisis was merely a first step in coercing and containing Iran, and the West will now pursue that goal in other areas.
“… the West no doubt will continue to give diplomatic and military support to Iran’s regional foes to alleviate concerns over what it views as a bid for hegemony. But they should do so knowing that a post-deal arms race, particularly one that exacerbates the existing conventional weapons imbalance, is more likely to empower those in Tehran who advocate doubling down on their forward defence posture of supporting proxies and other asymmetric means of deterrence. It would be more helpful for Iran and its six partners in the nuclear deal to double down on regional diplomatic engagement. The Vienna talks on Syria are a good first step, but the track record is not encouraging. Any calming of violence in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and beyond would be welcome, but ultimately, sustainable stability requires an inclusive regional security architecture, as improbable as that seems for now. The process that has started in Vienna should continue, regardless of its outcome, to lay the groundwork for this goal…” (*)
Turkey will no doubt continue to review, like other regional countries, the long-term implications of the Iran nuclear deal. In such an endeavor, Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (JDP) would be well-advised to examine how Iran inched towards acquiring ascendancy through the nuclear deal while Turkey entered a period of decline through a combination our dwindling democracy and mistaken foreign policy. A reasonable starting point can be Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s election as Iran’s President of Iran in June 2005 and Turkey’s launching accession negotiations with the EU in October that very year. Iran’s case would probably be easier to explain: The nuclear program was becoming a major liability for the country and President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif, with the approval of the country’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, succeeded in turning it into an asset to promote Iran’s national interests. They ably demonstrated that policies which had proved detrimental to a country’s national interests could be changed for the better providing a lesson for others to follow. As for Turkey, our greatest asset was our secular democracy. And, it did not have to be turned into anything else. It simply had to be pursued further.
Under the JCPOA, “transition day” (October 20, 2023) will mark the end of all international sanctions against Iran. And, October 29, 2023 will mark the 100th anniversary of the proclamation of the Turkish Republic. A centennial is good time for any country to take stock of her achievements as well as failures. Turkey has eight more precious years before her to change course and make up for lost time.
(*) International Crisis Group, Iran After the Nuclear Deal, 15 December 2015.