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Probable outcomes of nuclear negotiations with Iran

Nuclear talks between Iran and the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany will reach a historical juncture

Raghida Dergham

Published: Updated:

By the end of next month, nuclear talks between Iran and the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany will reach a historical juncture that will determine the future of nuclear armament in the region, regardless of whether the talks fail or culminate in an agreement. From now until then, the American-Russian relationship will go through several phases, including coming to an agreement on Iran – a country that is relatively reconciliatory even though Russia is practically an ally of Iran while the United States has not yet officially normalized relations with Tehran. U.S. President Barack Obama has singled out nuclear negotiations with Iran from all his other policies, devising a special strategy for it while leaving his other stated goals without an action strategy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sees in the Iranian nuclear issue a space for seeking accords with the West, the other being the war on ISIS, especially in relation to the accord with the United States. The two presidents are clashing on Ukraine, where one is firm and stubborn and the other is flexible and open. They are intersecting on Iran and Syria even though one of them is in a clear alliance with Tehran and Damascus while the other has declared a policy of disallowing Iran to possess military nuclear capabilities and called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down. These contradictions and interactions are not lacking in seriousness and are not just a diplomatic ploy. Rather, the dispute between the two countries is extremely serious especially when economic weapons overlap with strategies of international alignment. Here, the United States appears completely reassured because of economic considerations and its new position of power in relation to oil, while Russia appears to be in the eye of the storm suffering from the low oil prices and tough economic sanctions. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel will not save Russia from the sanctions, even as she went to Washington to insist that Obama not supply weapons to the Ukrainian government and antagonize Putin, and to not take measures that would implicate NATO in Ukraine against Russia. Merkel was assuaged as the U.S. president said all the options are on the table but he has not made his decision yet.

Avoiding involvement

This is a position that we have grown accustomed to from President Obama, who has rarely rushed to make a decision - whether on Syria or Ukraine - and who wagers on avoiding involvement and engagement in the hope that patience and caution will pay off.

The United States is not solely responsible for the situation in Syria, or even primarily responsible. Russia and Iran intervened in the war as allies of the regime in Damascus

Raghida Dergham

The result of this was clear in Syria. There, this policy led to a terrible humanitarian tragedy in which all parties refuse to admit their responsibility, including Bashar al-Assad who considers himself innocent on the killing of innocent people because he says he is engaged in a war on terrorism on the world’s behalf. The result was clear because Obama’s diffidence and insistence on clinging to the policy of non-engagement, patience and waiting contributed fundamentally to turning Syria into a magnet for terrorists, until it became an arena for terrorism where conflicts are being reduced to the war on ISIS.

Of course, the United States is not solely responsible for the situation in Syria, or even primarily responsible. Russia and Iran intervened in the war as allies of the regime in Damascus, in a civil war before Syria became a breeding ground for ISIS. This is despite the fact this axis has benefited greatly from the war on ISIS, and is grateful for the coalition.

What is the strategy of the Obama administration which is leading the international coalition against ISIS? If the National Security Strategy (NSS) published by the administration last week is any indication, the Obama administration seems not to have a strategy to achieve the goals stated in the NSS, which include the destruction of ISIS. If that strategy exists, then the Obama administration must have decided to keep it secret instead of sharing it with allies in the coalition, or has done so quietly.

A source told me that military reports indicate the immolation of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh led Washington to make a decision to make a qualitative shift in military operations that will be implemented at the beginning of April. The shift involves a strategy to crush ISIS using air strikes accompanied by U.S. and coalition soldiers in the region.

Making a decision

Washington may have had known about the death of U.S. hostage Kayla Mueller when it made the decision. However, according to the same source, the decision was made in coordination and agreement between the executive branch and the U.S. legislature and is firm and decisive. According to the decision, operations carried out by the coalition will be expanded in the air and on land.

Clearly, the U.S. military command, like Assad told the BBC, notifies its Syrian counterpart when it intends to carry out strikes against ISIS, through Iraq and other third parties, to avoid incidents in Syrian airspace. Clearly too, the Syrian military command consents to breaches against its sovereign airspace by accepting notifications, and justifies this by claiming it is in its interests because the coalition is fighting ISIS on its behalf. At the same time, Damascus can focus on its battle with the moderate armed opposition, because the coalition relieves it from having to fight a fierce battle with ISIS.

Accordingly, the question we go back to is: What is the U.S. strategy vis-a-vis Damascus and its allies Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia, as the U.S. leads a coalition against ISIS? What does the U.S. administration have to say to reassure its partners in the coalition, who will not accept being turned into bullets in the rifle that saves Bashar al-Assad and gives Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia the opportunity to triumph against the opposition.

There is a view that holds that crushing ISIS is an absolute priority, not only for Washington but also for the Arab capitals taking part in the coalition, because of ISIS’ existential threat to them. Therefore, these countries have no qualms about accords that would maintain parts of the regime in Damascus in power with Assad’s departure, while the accords being discussed and prepared include the U.S. and Russia, and Iran if a nuclear deal would require it.

In that case, the following question may be asked: Which Iran would consent to accords that would lead to Assad’s departure or that would abandon the bid to win in Syria through a pro-Iranian regime after investing in the Syrian conflict? Indeed, divisions inside Iran are real, though the final say remains in the hands of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. So, will he stand against the Revolutionary Guards and say that Iran must reconsider its calculations to avoid losing in Syria and to realign itself after sanctions are lifted in the event of a nuclear deal?

Once again, there is something that goes beyond the de facto link between the nuclear talks and Iran’s regional encroachment. One leading issue is the economic element, because Tehran will not be able to prevail in Syria if it does not free itself from the sanctions.

And again, there is something that goes beyond a Russian attempt to realign itself between Moscow’s ambitions in Ukraine and Moscow’s alliances in Iran and Syria. For this reason, Moscow believes it would be in its interests to capitalize on Washington’s need for Russia in the nuclear negotiations with Iran and in the war on ISIS in Syria, to recover from the fallout of the showdown with Washington and NATO.

What could happen?

What will happen following the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 countries, both in the event of success and in the event of failure?

Failure will not lead to a war because Washington’s strategy does not involve that. It will lead to further economic restrictions on Iran to the extent of an embargo perhaps. The United States would implement several measures to trim Iran’s tentacles in the region, be they direct ones or through proxies like Hezbollah. Washington will take all precautions against possible revenge attacks, possibly through terrorist groups. Later on, the United States may even have to carry out limited military strikes against targets to eliminate Iran’s nuclear capabilities, including nuclear reactors.

Failure may not lead to curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. This in turn could lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East involving Arab nations and Turkey.

Success in the negotiations, in turn, may not lead to curbing a nuclear arms race because success requires essentially admitting to Iran’s nuclear abilities that would be a “screw’s turn” away from making nuclear bombs. This means, as Henry Kissinger told the Armed Services Committee in the House of Representatives, that the Obama administration transferred nuclear negotiations from being the subject of an international consensus on non-proliferation and on preventing Iran from having the capacity to develop nuclear weapons, into being the subject of bilateral talks about the “scope” of that capacity for a specified period of time. This means moving from trying to prevent nuclear proliferation to trying to manage it.

It would also mean consenting to Iran’s military nuclear capabilities, which could lead the countries in the region to insist on their right to have those capabilities as well, perhaps by buying them rather than trying to develop them domestically.

The first country that acquired nuclear weapons in the Middle East was Israel, which considers that its mere denial of possession of nuclear bombs is enough to spare it from accountability and inspection. The Arab nations had persistently called for a WMD-free Middle East, until former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein tried to acquire them. His stockpiles were ultimately destroyed by international resolutions but Iraq was destroyed in the process. The firm U.S. position was to prevent any Arab nation from even thinking of having nuclear capabilities.

The United States has not taken a similar position on Iran acquiring nuclear capabilities. This is how things ultimately reached negotiations over a “framework” that could give Iran the right to have nuclear capabilities, provided they are not designated as military capabilities immediately. Such an agreement would launch a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

For all these reasons, what the nuclear negotiations will ultimately produce seven weeks from now is not an end to the debate. The talks will result in a major turn, whether the talks ultimately fail or succeed.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on February 13, 2015.

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Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women's Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University's Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women's Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham.

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