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U.S. politicians and allies go nuclear over Geneva deal

The interim nuclear deal signed in Geneva in November between Iran and six world powers was a momentous breakthrough

Sharif Nashashibi

Published: Updated:

The interim nuclear deal signed in Geneva in November between Iran and six world powers (the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany) was a momentous breakthrough after many years of tensions, threats and stalled talks. It represents the first formal agreement between long-time rivals Washington and Tehran in no less than 34 years.

The deal itself is a win-win for both sides. Iran gets to continue enriching uranium and maintain its nuclear program, while getting sanctions relief to the tune of $7 billion, which will help its struggling economy. The agreement leaves room for further relief and benefits in this regard, depending on successful implementation and cooperation from Tehran.

The potential for a complete lifting of international and unilateral sanctions would be a tremendous economic boost not just for Iran, but also for Western companies that have long been forbidden from doing business with a country that possesses great potential wealth, and represents a large and relatively untapped market.

The agreement also paves the way for a thawing of relations between Tehran and key Western powers, which have been strained since the Islamic revolution of 1979. Crucially for the West, Iran has committed to halt uranium enrichment above 5% purity, well below the threshold required for weapons-grade material (more than 90 percent).

Iran comes out on top

Despite the fact that both sides gain tangible benefits from the deal, Tehran clearly comes out on top when looking at the broader context, vis-a-vis the United States in particular.

Iranians gave their nuclear negotiators a hero’s welcome, subsequently boosting the popularity of recently elected President Hassan Rowhani. On the other hand, his American counterpart Barack Obama has come under strong criticism domestically by Republicans and Democrats alike, with lawmakers from both parties threatening new sanctions that Tehran says would scupper the Geneva deal.

Despite the fact that both sides gain tangible benefits from the deal, Tehran clearly comes out on top when looking at the broader context, vis-a-vis the United States in particular

Sharif Nashashibi

Israel, which has huge political and electoral influence in the United States, has also expressed strong condemnation, its Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu bluntly describing it as “a bad agreement.” Though America’s Arab allies, particularly those in the Gulf, have publicly expressed cautious optimism, their reactions in private are likely to be more negative.

Prior to the deal, regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia had been uncharacteristically vocal in its concern about the possibility of rapprochement between its arch-rival Iran and the United States. There were even reports in November - denied by Riyadh - that it was working with Israel on contingency plans to attack their common enemy. Besides Israel and the Arab Gulf states, Jordan and Egypt are also likely to feel wary about the Geneva deal.

Little surprise, then, that it was quickly followed by visits and phone calls by Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry to their Middle Eastern allies to assure them that they had their best interests at heart. This would have been no easy task given the already-strained relations with Tel Aviv, Riyadh and Cairo due to their anger over issues including Iran, the conflict in Syria and the turmoil in Egypt.

Reasons for opposition to Geneva

Although those against the Geneva deal are basing their stance on the belief that it will not stop Iran becoming a nuclear threat, the agreed enrichment levels negate that possibility. As such, opposition probably has much more to do with Iran’s regional strength and influence, which this agreement will likely enhance.

Its rivals in the Middle East are less able to rely on its international isolation since the Geneva deal, and more generally since the election of a reformist president whose style differs greatly from that of his hard-line predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
It will now be much harder for Israel to carry out its repeated threats of military action against Tehran, and for other countries to participate in any way, when the latter has agreed to limit uranium enrichment to levels well below those required for weapons-grade material.

An attack under these circumstances would be seen worldwide as brazen, unwarranted aggression. It would severely impact relations with the global powers that brokered the Geneva deal, not just because of the dangerous implications of military action, but because all the arduous work involved in reaching the agreement would be swiftly, and perhaps irreversibly, undone.

In the interests of maintaining the positive momentum established in Geneva, the United States, Britain and France are likely to turn a blind eye to Tehran’s direct involvement in Syria. This would enable Rowhani to carry out his pledge to maintain “unwavering support” for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, which “no force in the world can shake.”

The Saudi foreign minister has said his country “cannot be silent” about Tehran’s intervention in Syria, but other important voices may well start going quiet. This would benefit Iran’s other key regional ally Hezbollah, which is also directly propping up Assad.

A string of Western policy decisions - the U.S.-led invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, sanctions on the Palestinian movement Hamas following its 2006 election victory, and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon that same year, among others - greatly bolstered Iran’s regional strength.

However, this opportunity was largely squandered by Ahmadinejad, who systematically alienated his country from the region and the international community. Tehran’s rivals see in Rowhani and the Geneva deal a potential reversal of this alienation. Other than Saudi Arabia, this is most acutely felt by Israel, which perceives a challenge to its regional hegemony from a rehabilitated Iran.

Spotlight on Israel’s WMD

Another fundamental reason for Tel Aviv’s opposition to the Geneva agreement is that it turns the spotlight back on its nuclear weapons. It also highlights the hypocrisy of the Middle East’s only nuclear power complaining about others in the region obtaining them, and the subsequent absurdity of its constant self-portrayals as vulnerable and existentially threatened by its neighbors.

Indeed, since the Geneva deal, calls for international pressure on Israel’s vast nuclear arsenal have resurfaced, either directly, or via general statements urging a Middle East free from Weapons of Mass Destruction.

“It seems a touch unbalanced to have so much concern about nuclear bombs that do not yet exist, and so little apparent concern for the thousands of nuclear bombs that already do. Israel’s nuclear arsenal is an obvious example of this because of its status as the only country in the Middle East actually with nuclear weapons,” wrote Kate Hudson, general secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Even Saudi Arabia responded to the Geneva deal by calling for a comprehensive solution that leads to the “removal of all WMD, especially nuclear, from the Middle East and the Gulf.” This is as direct a reference to Israel as one can get without mentioning it specifically.

In December, the head of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons called on Israel to give up its chemical weapons in light of Syria’s decision to do so. The Geneva deal was signed soon after this decision, Libya agreed 10 years ago to dismantle its WMD programs, and Iraq gave up its own ambitions in the 1990s.

With Israel no longer threatened by WMDs, the rest of the region calling for a Middle East free from such weapons, and Tel Aviv’s undoubted conventional military superiority, it can no longer rely on its already-spurious excuses of self-defense and deterrence. Israel’s concern is not about being threatened, but about being able to impose its will on the region unchallenged.

After the signing of the Geneva deal, Rowhani said some countries had tried to isolate his, but instead, “now our enemies are isolated.” In referring to “an illegitimate, occupier regime,” he obviously meant Israel.

Implications and prospects

It remains to be seen what the long-term implications of the deal will be on Iran and the wider region, but for now at least, Rowhani has out-manoeuvred his opponents. Given that they are either key allies of the United States, part of American polity or highly influential over it, this is causing considerable headaches in the White House.

If we take Iran at its word that its goal was always civilian nuclear power, not atomic weapons, then it has given away nothing in signing the agreement. The Obama administration, on the other hand, is paying a high price domestically and regionally. The question is whether the price will prove to be worth it.

The answer will only come if or when a final deal is reached. However, if that does not happen, Tehran has more to lose than Washington, as economic sanctions will be ramped up, as will political isolation and the beating of war drums. As such, both sides have a vested interest in a conclusive agreement, and though Iran’s enemies do not seem to realize it, so do they.

This article was first published in The Middle East magazine.

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Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash

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