It is easy to foretell that negotiating a comprehensive and final agreement on the Iran nuclear issue is by no means an easy task. It involves hard negotiations, but the hardest step has been taken, says Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar, who was among the first group of foreigners to visit the top-secret Arak plant hidden behind barren mountains south of Tehran.
When neither party shows even the slightest interest to brag about outsmarting the other side and making unilateral gains in a deal, it must be taken as a good sign. The interim agreement struck in Geneva on Sunday at the P5+1 and Iran talks falls into such a rare category.
It was a breakthrough document on modest sanctions relief for temporary curbs on Iran's nuclear activities. Five days have passed and there is a singular lack of interest on the part of either Iran or the United States to resort to triumphalism.
Clearly, Iran bargained optimally over the blue chips it carefully accumulated with great tenacity over the past decade for precisely such use during any negotiations it would have with the US over the nuclear issue -- accumulation of centrifuges, stockpiles of enriched uranium, a heavy water plant at Arak and so on.
In fact, the 'concession' Iran made on Arak is rather revealing. Four years back, when I was given the privilege of a conducted tour of the top-secret Arak plant in the first group of foreigners to be allowed to travel to the project site hidden behind barren mountains a few hours to the south of Tehran, the overpowering impression I got was that my hosts were flaunting their formidable capabilities as scientists rather than rolling up the sleeves and getting ready clandestinely to make plutonium.
The creeping shadows of the Arak heavy water plant were meant to beckon to the international community that time was running out unless Iran and the United States sat down and talked things over. Put differently, Arak was Iran's bait to the Americans to come to the negotiating table without further delay.
Equally, the proliferation and the steady upgrade of the second-generation centrifuges has also had its demonstrative value to drive home the point that unless the West made haste to negotiate, Iran's capabilities and mastery of the nuclear cycle were only getting better and better and things would soon come to such pass that the West would have to negotiate from a position of greater disadvantage.
So, the Iranians are justified in looking back with satisfaction that the one thing that really mattered to them -- namely, the right to enrich uranium -- has been implicitly conceded by the world powers at Geneva. Whereas, from the perspective of the West, it is also a justifiable claim that Iran's route to making nuclear weapons has been barricaded for the present and the dismantling of the sanctions regime will depend on Iran's fulfillment of a host of commitments it made at Geneva and the negotiation of a comprehensive final agreement.
Paradoxically, the hardest part of the Iran nuclear problem has been tackled -- commencement of serious, sustained negotiations after over three decades of diplomatic estrangement in the face of virulent opposition by hardliners on both sides and the candle-light vigil by the US's regional allies, especially Israel, to ensure that the standoff continued to simmer.
Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, one of Iran's shrewdest and most experienced statesmen, put the state of play succinctly when he told the Financial Times newspaper, 'It (Geneva) was breaking ice, the second stage will be more routine.'
For sure, what is emerging is that both within the Iranian regime and the US foreign policy establishment, a substantial groundswell of support for the deal is already available -- and it is growing.
The doubting Thomases are tiptoeing to the ferry to cross over to the other bank and showing a willingness to have an open mind as regards the efficacy of the diplomatic path in search of a solution.
Indeed, it takes time for the full import of a game changer to soak in. Was it any different when the world woke up to learn that Henry Kissinger had been to China?
The vital part here is that the personal stamp of the leaderships of both the US and Iran is very much evident on the historic deal. On the American side, in particular, President Barack Obama has taken virtual ownership of the negotiations with Iran. 'I have a profound responsibility to try to resolve our differences peacefully, rather than rush toward conflict. Today, we have a real opportunity to achieve a comprehensive, peaceful settlement, and I believe we must test it,' he said.
Obama had barely hidden during the 2008 presidential campaign that he anticipated that the US's detente with Iran could be a big legacy-shaping achievement of his entire presidency, if he got elected. In his first presidential address in 2009, Obama offered to extend a hand if the Iranian leadership would 'unclench their fist.' But he was far too ahead of his times.
Meanwhile, he kept pecking at it, and has concluded that Iran not only forms a key part of his nuclear disarmament agenda, but also is crucial to his determination to avert new US military interventions or another war in the Muslim world, which also reflects a genuine wariness of America getting involved in risky foreign crises.
On the other hand, in political terms, neither leadership -- in Washington and Tehran alike -- can afford a breakdown of the negotiations. President Hassan Rouhani's entire electoral pledge to the nation to regenerate his country's economy and society and reorient its politics is predicated on the wholesome assumption that there will be stability and predictability in Iran's relations with the West.
As for Obama, who is facing ridicule over a stumbling healthcare rollout and staring at a low approval rating at home on the whole, a foreign policy accomplishment can only do some good politically. But on a firmer footing, unless and until the US cut its losses and extricated itself from the Muslim Middle East, its 'rebalance' to Asia remains problematic -- and the timeline for China to overtake the US economy is getting shorter by the day.
Suffice to say, this is not accidental diplomacy for either Rouhani or Obama, but it is carefully thought-over, deliberate, and backed by a strong political will to carry forward. Again, both sides realise intensely that the incumbent leader on the other side is offering a rare moment of opportunity to resolve the three-decade old stand-off once and for all, and it must be seized.
Some of this is already rubbing on the US's Arab allies. Saudi Arabia has cautiously welcomed the deal, acknowledging that it 'could be a first step towards a comprehensive solution for Iran's nuclear programme, if there are good intentions.' The other Gulf States, especially the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, have also voiced endorsement of the deal.
Meanwhile, all indications are that the Iranian leadership is contemplating a major initiative to repair the ties with Saudi Arabia. The fact of the matter is that Rouhani is well-known to the Saudi royal family. Ten years ago, as the then chief of national security council, Rouhani was decorated by the Saudis for fostering close ties between Tehran and Riyadh. Again, the Saudi leadership holds former president Rafsanjani, who is a key promoter of Rouhani's policies today, in much respect and high regard for his moderation and pragmatism.
What we may expect that in the six-month period of the interim deal struck in Geneva while the work on negotiating a final agreement begins, the Iranian leadership will also mount on a parallel track a robust diplomatic initiative to bring the relations with the GCC countries on par with the spirit of the times, as it were. In fact, we should expect a path-breaking visit by Rouhani to Saudi Arabia in a very near future.
Now, Tehran knows that a reset of the calculus of the emergent power dynamic will not be complete unless Iran's Arab neighbors came to terms with it. Besides, there is another angle to it. Quite obviously, the Gulf states's endorsement of the Geneva deal, howsoever cautiously and tentatively they could be, nonetheless constitutes a huge setback of Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
His fanciful notions that Israel and the Gulf Arab regimes led by Saudi Arabia will mount a ferocious onslaught on the White House so that Obama is rattled and develops cold feet about moving forward with Iran any further, are coming unstuck.
That, in turn, leaves Netanyahu somewhat like Sancho Panza tilting at the windmill in the Cervantes novel. Netanyahu's rejectionist stance, his maximalist demand that Iran should have no right whatsoever to pursue a nuclear program and his continued threat of launching a unilateral attack against Iran if he felt Israel's security is threatened -- all this becomes completely untenable and unreasonable and there are no takers for it in the international community. Even France, who he counted on playing the role of a dog-in-the-manger at the Geneva talks last weekend ended up sensing it was facing isolation within the European Union for being churlish and petulant.
However, Netanyahu's main problem is going to be that his defiant tone is already being criticised, including even by former senior Israeli national security officials, as counter-productive and eventually damaging to Israel's long-term relationship with Washington.
Put differently, a body of opinion is slowly but definitely shaping up in Israel based on the realistic assessment that politics is the art of the possible.
This was bound to happen at some point and better late than never. Thus, Netanyahu is fast approaching a dilemma -- whether to keep fulminating against the Geneva process or gradually switch tack. Amos Harel of the Haaretz newspaper wrote a brilliant analysis summing up that now that the agreement struck at Geneva is a fait accompli, Netanyahu should focus his mind on repairing his equations with the Obama administration and try to 'influence the quality of supervision at the nuclear sites during the interim period, and help craft the final agreement with Iran, if one is reached.'
Harel warned, 'In recent weeks, there has been an evident decline in Washington's willingness to compromise with Israel on sensitive security issues... The question at this stage is what alternatives Israel has... Iran is gradually emerging from its international isolation thanks to the negotiations with the world powers... The feelings of shock and anger in Jerusalem are legitimate, but they can't be a work plan.'
All things considered, therefore, it is possible to look ahead with a measure of justifiable optimism. It is easy to foretell that negotiating a comprehensive and final agreement on the Iran nuclear issue is by no means an easy task. It involves hard negotiations.
For a start, there is a huge amount of work to be done to implement the interim agreement itself (although the six-month duration is renewable by mutual consent). The objective is to reach a comprehensive solution within one year with multiple elements -- Iran's rights and obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and IAEA safeguards; fully addressing and resolving the concerns related to Arak; a matrix of transparent monitoring; and cooperation on Iran's civilian nuclear programme.
The devil in such situations always lies in the details and fleshing out details takes time and demands patience. But it is equally easy to exaggerate the obstacles that can come in the way. For, without doubt, there has been a paradigm shift.
In essence, the contours of a settlement have already emerged: Iran can have the rights to enrich uranium but under stringent safeguards and provided it gives iron-clad guarantee that it will not pursue a clandestine nuclear weapon programme. This was the hardest part.
As British Foreign Secretary William Hague summed up at the House of Commons, 'The fact that we have achieved for the first time in nearly a decade an agreement that halts and rolls back Iran's nuclear programme, should give us heart that this work can be done and that a comprehensive agreement can be attained.'
Image: United States Secretary of State John F Kerry with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the United Nations Palais in Geneva November 24 after reaching the breakthrough deal to curb Tehran's nuclear programme in exchange for limited sanctions relief. Photograph: Reuters
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar is a distinguished diplomat.