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Geneva deal: Is Iran ready to get back into world mainstream?

November 29, 2013 19:45 IST

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali KhameneiThe Geneva agreement is a signal, which at least Saudi Arabia and Israel are so reading, that normalisation of relations between US and Iran is not merely about the nuclear fuel cycle, says K C Singh.

The November 24 Geneva Agreement between P 5+1 nations and Iran on the Iranian nuclear programme has elicited relief, anxiety or scepticism, depending on who is asked the question. Clearly it is not a final deal; it only provides the opening for a lasting solution. The danger remains of hawks, domestic or amongst US allies in the Gulf region, derailing it in the six months provided for negotiating an end-game.

It is ironic that it was Iranian President H Rouhani who began to deal with the nuclear issue, as the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council in October 2003 engaging the foreign ministers of UK, France and Germany. He is now resuming the task after a much changed geo-strategic context. In 2003, the US had ejected the Taliban from their lair in Kabul and ousted Saddam Hussein in Iraq, thus placing US troops both on the eastern and western flanks of Iran.

The danger to the Iranian regime appeared imminent, with unchallenged US military power and a government in Washington of neo-conservative persuasion. Iran came to the negotiating table with a weak hand. Their aim was to buy time, retain their nascent nuclear programme, pleading their right to civil nuclear energy as signatories to the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty, offer calibrated transparency and wait for times to change.

President M Ahmadinejad, today reviled universally, may actually be seen by posterity as the one who, despite his unnecessarily provocative and crude articulation of historic mistruths, held on adamantly till global and regional factors had improved the Iranian bargaining position and concomitantly altered that of US.

Rouhani took over as president as the forces of radical Islam and the Arab Spring finally met in Syria and ground to a halt amidst a bloody exchange. The promise that sprang from the Tunisian regime change and Cairo’s Tahrir Square, of orderly transition in the Arab world to democracy, is today a lesson in how difficult it is to even supplant in a nation like Libya, with tremendous resources and a small population, a dictator by a statesman.

The regeneration of Al Qaeda and its mutation from an Af-Pak centred menace to a global and diffused ideology that can replant in Somalia, sub-Saharan Africa or elsewhere, despite US battling it for more than a decade required a reassessment of US strategy.

Likewise, even Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khaman’ei found that Ahmadinejad, whom he picked from the position of Tehran mayor and used to humble his own comrade in arms H Rafsanjani, was finally a disappointment who left Iran enfeebled by sanctions. On the other hand, in the eight years of his presidency Iranian influence has grown, almost synonymous with the Achaemenid empire (550-330 BC), all the way through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean.

Similarly the Iranian nuclear programme, which had a handful of centrifuges in 2003, has in the eight years grown to over 5,000 centrifuges, albeit still only 10 percent of the industrial size facility that was planned at Natanz. Additionally, Iran has a new enrichment facility being built at Fordow, which is completely embedded in the mountainside near Qom. Finally, Iran is close to completing a heavy water reactor at Arak, ostensibly to produce medical isotopes but which can be used to separate plutonium, a second route to weaponisation.

Post Islamic revolution Iran has traditionally been impelled by two motives: fear of regime change and a grouse about role deficit in the region. The second it has now been able to construct once Saddam Hussein was no longer there to bottle it up in the Gulf region and the Shia population of Iraq, with its religious and historic links to Iran, became its ally. Its traditional excellent links with the Assads of Syria, belonging to a Shia-related Alawite faction, have deepened as the Syrian regime came under pressure from a motley group from amongst the Sunni majority.

President Barack Obama’s unwillingness to act after the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, which he had earlier specified as the red lines for US intervention and hurry to accept the Russian compromise whereby the Syrians undertook to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention and surrender their arsenal, was a signal of US’ weakening resolve in the region.

The Geneva agreement is thus a signal, which at least Saudi Arabia and Israel are so reading, that normalisation of relations between US and Iran is not merely about the nuclear fuel cycle. It is about recognising that on balance an Iran kept engaged may be more useful to handle a destabilising West Asia than an Iran continuing rogue. The deal breakers can be many.

First is to determine the extent of the Iranian nuclear programme that would be acceptable to US and its allies in the region. Will Iran be willing to cap its programme, besides mothballing the plant at Arak? That would imply that Iran, having made its point about its right to have access to civil nuclear energy, despite one of the largest reserves of oil and gas, would trade-off being integrated into the global economy and technology transfers in exchange for accepting that it will subscribe to additional protocol and eschew industrial size and complete nuclear fuel cycle facilities.

Second, will Iran rein in its Quds Force and more militant export of Shia ideology and accept instead to play a role to stabilise West Asia and the Gulf, ceasing to press Shia communities in Bahrain, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon? This may have to come gradually and only partially as the stake holders in Iran may not all be amenable to sudden reversal of dogmatic positions they have matured with.

Third, would be the security of Israel and a possible settlement of the long simmering issue of Palestinian state. Can Iran be coaxed to not be a spoiler, now that the Egyptian flank is controlled by the Egyptian army and not the Muslim Brotherhood. Alongside would be the paranoia of Saudi Arabia and UAE, in particular, and the general concern of all GCC states.

The US is attempting an extremely bold but risky re-configuring of its alliances and interests in the region. Perhaps it has correctly assessed that the worst enemy is radical Sunni Islam. To counter that Shia Iran can be a powerful ally. But it has to be remembered that Taqiyya or dissimulation is inherent to Iranian culture.

Next few months will tell if the US leap is productive or will end in failure. The biggest losers may be the people of Iran who have elected a new president hoping for Iran to find its natural role as a factor of growth and stability in the region and beyond.

Image:  Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

K C Singh