The Iran nuclear deal and its discontents

From the beginning of his presidency, President Obama looked at Iran, and saw the old Persia beckoning

Hisham Melhem
Hisham Melhem
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For almost two years, the Islamic Republic of Iran, one of the oldest, most intractable countries in the world, found itself, negotiating secretly, dueling publicly and bargaining incessantly and cunningly with the six most powerful countries in the world, led by its arch-nemesis for more than three decades, the United States of America. It has emerged with an empowering nuclear deal legitimizing it as a threshold nuclear state and marking its return from the cold.

As one of those harsh critics of the theocratic regime in Tehran, who abhor its brutal suppression of the human rights, aspirations and tremendous potentials of a talented youthful population, I have to grudgingly admit that the Iranian negotiating team more than held its own, hence my use of the word ‘cunningly’ should be seen in a positive and not a pejorative context. As one who tries not to get swept away by the immediacy of events, even those billed as ‘historic’ and is always conscious of the long, complex and tumultuous history of the region I have to note that the nuclear deal came into fruition at a time when the dominant perception in the Middle East is that the United States is a declining power in the region and beyond; that the ‘Arab world’ is not only a house divided, but a house with no roof, and some of its rooms are literally in flames, with Iran poised to elevate its dual role as the arsonist and the fireman to new levels.

A river of ink was used to explain, judge, justify or denounce every word and punctuation in the text of the ‘Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’ and its annexes. The maestro of the large chorus of supporters is President Obama, who conducted the orchestra in an unusually brash and even giddy style, particularly when he was playing to the American people and their representatives through the media. But the opponents of the deal inside the United States, as well as beyond the seas have more than one conductor and more than one chorus and different musical sheets.

The Republicans and the Israelis poured over the details of the technical aspects of the deal, crunched the numbers, spoke of ‘core reactors’, centrifuges, percentages of enriched uranium, breakout time, international inspections and their discontents with all the above. For the Arabs, particularly those who resent living in the shadow of Iran, the technical components of the deal were not their primary concern; they did not bother much with numbers, fuel cycles, heavy waters or plutonium and they certainly did not see the devil in the details of the annexes, but their heavy hearts saw the devil in the blunt regional ambitions and machinations of an assertive, even belligerent Iran, that has mastered the art of proxy wars by fighting Arabs with Arabs from Lebanon, to Syria, to Iraq and all the way to Yemen, and is still bent on becoming the regional hegemon.

There were serious arguments presented by the opponents and the supporters of the deal. The yea corner stressed that the deal will stop the production of heavy waters which eliminate Iran’s ability to produce plutonium, it places a ceiling for a decade on the quantity (and quality) of the centrifuges Iran is allowed to operate under a relatively enhanced, but not full proof, inspection regime, and that Iran will limit enrichment of uranium to 3.7 percent and cap its low enriched uranium to 300 kilograms, an amount insufficient to quickly assemble a bomb, for 15 years. The nay corner, stresses the limitations on the inspection regime which gives Iran at least 24 days’ advance notice before International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors can visit the nuclear facilities. The agreement will achieve Iran’s main immediate objective which is sanction relief, and release up to $150 billion that will enhance Iran’s ability to do more mischief through its proxies in the region. It is possible that in order to compensate the hardliners, who would supposedly ‘lose’ if the agreement is implemented, that more resources will go their way to buy their acquiescence. The agreement puts short limits on Iran’s ability to acquire ballistic missile technologies to eight years, and sales of conventional arms to Iran will be prohibited for only five years.

From the beginning of his presidency, President Obama looked at Iran, and saw the old Persia beckoning

Hisham Melhem

What is not in dispute are the facts that Iran will be a threshold nuclear nation even before the expiration of the 15 year duration of the agreement, that most of the physical infrastructure of the nuclear program will remain intact, and the scientific knowledge will expand, and even if Iran remains in full compliance, the agreement gives it more nuclear capacity than it would need, if it is truly interested only in a strictly civilian program. The harsh reality is that while there are military options to degrade and to delay Iran’s nuclear program, there is no military solution to this problem; and if Iran wants to develop a nuclear device 15 or 20 years from now it will be next to impossible to prevent it from doing so. If a backward country with limited resources like North Korea can built nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them and a poor country like Pakistan can assemble scores of nuclear warheads with delivery systems, then surely Iran can do so. In this context, a region-wide system of containment, robustly enhanced and supported by the United States, including an American protective nuclear umbrella, similar to the one the U.S. erected in Europe during the Cold War, can go a long way in satisfying the legitimate concerns of America’s allies.

The allure of ancient cultures

The American-Iranian negotiations over the nuclear deal were a reminder of the contrasts between old and new powers. For an ancient culture like Iran that measures its history in millennia and centuries (almost 2500 years ago Persia was engaging the Greek city-states in battles that shaped Western Civilization) suspending a nuclear program for 10 or 15 years is barely a fleeting moment. Iran badly needs sanction relief to ensure the regime’s survival, and a tiny interregnum in the life of an ancient civilization can barely be noticed. Every time American officials negotiate with representatives of old, non-democratic cultures, like Iran or China, they encounter the civilizational heft of these cultures.

The diplomats of these cultures don’t operate like American diplomats do, that is according to 4 year cycles, or the myriad of domestic constraints from public opinion to congressional oversite, that are also measured in short attention spans. Secretary Kerry maybe very conscious of his legacy while negotiating with minister Zarif, and while Mr. Zarif may be interested in ensuring a legacy, his mandate is broader than that. These old cultures usually convey a sense of permanency, empowerment, endurance and patience. Their sense of time is very elastic, and they have a capacity to endure pain and absorb sacrifices. Their influence throughout history went way beyond their geographic boundaries. These old civilizations have their own allure and charm. See how Alexander the great was seduced by the allure of Persia. From the beginning of his presidency, President Obama looked at Iran, and saw the old Persia beckoning.

A president in search of a legacy

After almost six and half years of trying to shape events and influence outcomes in the Middle East, President Obama has very little to show for except the nuclear deal with Iran. From his first inaugural speech, the President wanted very much to reach out to Iran. President Obama would like his nuclear deal with Iran to be the Middle Eastern equivalent of President Richard Nixon’s historic opening to China. Although the President says he is not betting on the agreement to change Iran’s regional behavior or improve its abysmal human rights record, there is nonetheless ample evidence (and wishful thinking) to the contrary. In their on- the- record and background briefings, administration officials talk about their hope that the agreement and its financial windfall will hasten Iran’s reintegration into the global economy, by empowering the ‘moderate’ forces in the regime and the middle class and Iranian youth seeking to open up the country to the outside world. If Iran decides to partake in economic globalization, which is almost inevitable, it is likely to follow in China’s footsteps. The regime will maintain political control through the alliance of the clerical establishment and the powers that be behind the Revolutionary guards, while gradually opening the country to the world and the very products that the Iranian middle class and youth are yearning for. But the opening to the world will remain as long as possible, limited to the economic domain solely.

Humming a similar tune

The agreement itself is a recognition of Iran’s regional weight and influence, and represents an American (and European) shift in attitudes towards ending the old policy of isolating Iran. In April, the President said ‘it is possible that if we sign this nuclear deal, we strengthen the hand of those more moderate forces inside Iran’. It is not an exaggeration to say that President Obama would like to see the next decade (assuming the agreement is complied with) as one of transformation in Iran. The President hinted at that when he said ‘the deal offers an opportunity to move in a new direction. We should seize it’. Iran’s chief negotiator, the ever smiling foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, was humming a similar tune before the end of the Vienna talks when he issued a YouTube message in English hoping that the nuclear deal could create ‘new horizons to address important, common challenges’. Even the austere, unsmiling Ayatollah Ali Khamenei hinted in April, that Iran could entertain a different approach and cooperate on issues of mutual interests, of course with the usual caveats; ‘ if the other side gives up its usual diversionary tactics, this will become an experience for us that, very well, we can negotiate with them on other issues’.

The striking irony is that theocratic Iran, the country that sponsors major non-state actors such as Hezbollah and others that engage in violence and terror on its behalf in the region and beyond is projecting itself now as the bulwark against Islamist (Sunni) terrorism. Once again, the ever slick Zarif in an interview with CBS after the deal ‘ it is important for the people in the U.S. to look at the realities in the region. See who is supporting these very serious threats to our regional security and stability and who is defending the region against the threat of extremism, violence and sectarianism, and then they will see’. The emergence of the so-called ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS) as a common threat against the Iraqi regime, has helped to rehabilitate in practical terms, Iran’s notorious al-Quds force and its leader Qassem Soleimani designated as a terrorist by the U.S. because of the American blood on his hands, who is very instrumental in establishing the sectarian Shiite militias as an effective fighting force against ISIS.

Arabs exposed

Iran is saddled now with a plethora of regional burdens, stretching from propping up a failing regime in Syria and a disintegrating state at the same time, a persistent challenge from ISIS in Iraq, and a new challenge in Yemen. These burdens have deprived Iran from its previous hollow claims that it is seeking the mantle of leadership of the Muslim world, and not simply acting as a regional Shiite power. Yet Iran remains the major outside and decisive player in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, and to a lesser extent in Yemen. If anything, the nuclear deal which alarmed the main players in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, will likely lead to the intensification of the on-going civil wars with regional powers doubling down on their support for their proxies. There is no prospect whatsoever, in the foreseeable future for an entente between Tehran and Riyadh. The Arab states talk occasionally about creating an effective joint Arab force, but that force at best is a chimera. The hemorrhaging and the disintegration in Syria will continue, Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic polarizations will continue to deepen, while Iran tighten its grip on it, and Yemen will experience more deprivation and despair and Lebanon will become more marginalized with Hezbollah, Iran’s formidable proxy penetrating its brittle institutions and destroying what’s left of its sovereignty.

Walid Jumblatt, a veteran Lebanese leader may have articulated what many Arabs feel about the nuclear deal with Iran at these painful and confusing times in the region when he said that the deal was reached ‘over the ruins of the Arab world’. In a short commentary, Jumblatt added: ‘It was concluded on the wreckage of the Arab world which has descended into chaos and darkness at a time when regional and international players content to watch Arab blood wasted as they seek only their interests’. Jumblatt linked the deal to the American invasion of Iraq and the war in Syria. Jumblatt’s hyperbole aside, he is touching a raw nerve in what seems to be a fading Arab region. While we should not ignore the centrality of human agency in understanding (and ultimately solving) these conflicts, Jumblatt’s observations bring into bold relief the depth of malaise, despair and alienation most Arabs feel while watching their world disintegrating.

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.
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