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Which Iranian face?

The Iranian interim nuclear deal has sparked strong reactions and controversy

Hisham Melhem

Published: Updated:

As expected, the Iranian interim nuclear deal signed in Geneva last Sunday between Iran and the P 5+ 1 has sparked strong reactions and controversy not only in Washington and Tehran, but also in the region. In many a commentary exaggeration; embellishment was mixed with wishful thinking. Those who supported the agreement hailed it as a historic breakthrough, a game changer and a prelude for the full rehabilitation of Iran and its eventual return to the “family of nations,” whatever that means. The detractors of the deal exaggerated its flaws and saw that the implicit recognition of Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium even at a level below five percent as an unacceptable violation of previous American commitments and a betrayal of a number of United Nations Security Council Resolutions denying Iran such “right.” Reading the commentary from this camp you would think that the deal with Iran will spell the demise of Western Civilization. Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens went as far as proclaiming the agreement a capitulation “Worse than Munich.” The agreement is not a “historic mistake” and it is not a “historic breakthrough.”

The ‘Joint Plan of Action’

Any serious reading of the agreement shows that it is truly an important step that could potentially lead to a historic breakthrough, just as it could lead to a drawn out process like many “interim” agreements relevant to the region, the interim Oslo agreement between the Palestinians and Israel being the most infamous in recent memory. If Iran implements its obligations, this will suspends much of Iran’s nuclear activities during the initial six months, it puts in place mechanisms to ensure that Iran will not enrich uranium above five percent, more importantly Iran committed itself to neutralize its whole stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium by diluting half of it below five percent and converting the rest to a form not suitable for military use. OVer the duration of the agreement Iran will halt the progress on its enrichment capacity by not adding new centrifuges. Iran also agreed not to activate the Arak reactor and suspends progress on its plutonium production. The agreement calls for an effective IAEA verification system including snap inspections.

In return, Iran will get limited but reversible financial relief, which will allow purchases of Iranian oil in the amount of $4.2 billion, lifting sanctions on the sale of gold and other precious metals as well as the export of Iranian petrochemical products, activities that could provide Iran with modest amount of revenues not exceeding $1.5 billion. This financial relief, as David Cohen, undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence at the Treasury Department said is “insignificant” for an economy the size of Iran’s. The P5+1 committed themselves not to impose any new nuclear related sanctions during the next six months if Iran delivers on its obligations.

The hard transition and the ‘D word’

The initial euphoria that accompanied the announcement of the deal was somewhat tempered by the sober assessment of some analysts, particularly after the swift initial harsh criticism leveled at the deal by powerful voices in the U.S. Congress, Israel and serious if muted criticism from Washington’s Arab allies particularly in the Gulf region. And even some of the supporters of the deal admit that moving from and interim agreement to a final or comprehensive one will not be easy or guaranteed. For one, it is very unlikely that the P5+1 will ever allow Iran to enrich Uranium above five percent maybe for the next 25 years at least. The whole so-called “architecture of sanctions” will not be lifted unless Iran commits itself to very low levels of enrichment activities. The U.S. congress will not accept any permanent agreement that will lead eventually to lifting those comprehensive economic sanctions that Congress itself imposed in a number of resolutions, unless it is convinced that Iran’s nuclear breakout capacity (to manufacture nuclear devices) is neutralized. You can always rely on the hardliners in Washington and Tehran to play hardball and push for maximalist positions. Their capacity to stall and create hurdles is almost boundless.

The initial euphoria that accompanied the announcement of the deal was somewhat tempered by the sober assessment of some analysts, particularly after the swift initial harsh criticism leveled at the deal by powerful voices in the U.S. Congress

Hisham Melhem

One of the objections voiced by the critics of the deal, whether in Washington or in the region, is that it does not require Iran to dismantle any of its significant nuclear infrastructures, particularly those built clandestinely such as the underground Fordow enrichment plant or the heavy-water reactor at Arak which is designed to produce plutonium for weapons. In the next phase of negotiations, the U.S. and its allies will be under tremendous pressure to demand the dismantlement of these facilities or demand that they be radically transformed for other uses. While there is no consensus about the total number of working centrifuges (the figure of 19,000 is disputed by those who say that large chunk of that total is inoperable) nonetheless, Washington and its allies will be asking Iran to significantly dismantle this capacity. One would expect that there will be stiff resistance from Iran if the P5+1 insist on the D word: Dismantlement.

The view from the region

Some in Washington expressed indignation and annoyance because some of their friends and allies in the region are concerned or even afraid of the deal and its ramification. However, regardless of the content of the agreement these concerns and fears are legitimate since the deal is not linked to Iran’s regional policies and behavior, which would be a serious challenge and a source of concerns to other regional players particularly Arab states even if Iran did not have an active nuclear program. For the Arab Gulf states, Egypt and Jordan the immediate fears of Iran go beyond the nuclear ambitions; these fears are generated by Iran’s game changer direct military intervention, and its Shiite allies such as the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi militias in the Syrian war, and Tehran’s growing meddling in Iraq and in Lebanon. The timing of the deal came in an uncertain and shaky strategic and political environment brought about in part by what many saw as the vacillation, dithering and indecisiveness of the Obama administration in its handling of many regional issues including Iran’s nuclear program, the civil war in Syria (President Obama’s failure to deliver on his promise to punish the Syrian regime for its use of chemical weapons against his own people, has had a profound negative effect on his standing in the region), the Arab uprisings, and the Palestine-Israel conflict, particularly the issue of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories.

Many in the region believe that President Obama is sincere when he says he will do whatever he can to reach an agreement with Iran through diplomatic means, and they believe also his repeated pledges to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. But, they also believe that Obama’s strong commitment to the above mentioned goals will drive him to reach an accommodation or compromise with Tehran that would remove from the table the poison chalice of resorting to military force against Iran before the end of his presidency. The regional strategic environment, which reflects Obama’s obliquely stated objective of disengaging partially from the region so that he can “pivot” to Asia, such as withdrawing from Iraq without making a serious personal sustainable efforts to convince the Iraqis to allow a residual American force after withdrawing the bulk of U.S. forces, and his lamentable handling of the Syrian tragedy, just to mention two issues has convinced many that America’s great historic moment in the Middle East is beginning to fade. America’s fantastic progress on the road of becoming the world’s biggest producer of energy has strengthened these concerns. In a Middle East where the U.S. is not the de facto hegemon, Iran will make a serious bid to become the dominant regional hegemon. A serious long term negotiation process between the U.S. and Iran, whether in the context of the P5+1 or on a separate bilateral track, can only raise fears that since Washington’s eyes are focused on the big prize ( a comprehensive nuclear deal) it will not hold Tehran responsible if caught misbehaving on a massive scale in Syria’s civil war for example, or making the situation worse in Iraq, or if it encourages its ally Hezbollah to be even more reckless that it is today. Those responsible for the nuclear program in Iran cannot influence the hardliners in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards who are responsible for meddling in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Which Iranian face?

The fact that the agreement came into fruition in part because of secret U.S.-Iranian negotiations that began during the tenure of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, when the U.S. kept its allies, particularly the Arabs, in the dark, has deepened the mistrust. These fears will be re-enforced if Iran is invited to the Geneva II conference scheduled for next January to settle the Syrian conflict. Russia and the U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi believe that Iran’s participation is crucial. Before the nuclear deal, the Obama administration put up strong resistance to Iran’s participation. That position may have changed now. The nuclear deal not only will freeze a significant part of Iran’s nuclear activities, but also any military option against it, be it Israeli or American. The question is: Which Iranian face, during this interim agreement, are we likely to see in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon? The smiling face of Iran’s sophisticated, urbane and charming Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif ? Or, as is very likely, the glum face of Iran’s powerful enforcer Qassem Suleimani, the leader of al-Quds Force?

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Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.