Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment 11 – 18 October 2013

Conflicts Forum

Suddenly, surprisingly suddenly, the atmospherics in the US towards Iran have shifted.  Now – commentators who have been known over the years for their ‘never give an inch’ stance toward Iran – have turned; and have begun loudly to call for a new open approach.  An ambitious timescale of 6 – 9 months seems to have been set by both parties to resolve the tortured relationship between the US and Iran.  The swiftness of the turnabout is remarkable; but as so often, what this type of sudden lurch in the geology of politics reveals – is that the underlying political dynamics have quietly, been changing course – almost unnoticed, until the US’s Iran turnabout took shape: and then we see it more clearly. 

See here for James Clad & Robert Manning’s thoughtful piece, speculating that America now is facing its own ‘East of Suez’ point of inflection, just as Europe did fifty years earlier:  the authors weave the significance of the US having domestically produced no less than 22 million barrels of oil (equivalent) during the month of July: thus “fundamentally altering the geopolitics of energy” and its dependency on the Middle East -  into the broader tapestry of “a shrinking US appetite for global responsibility”.  The final effect of this marriage is to create a tableau of the US today, which the authors suggest, tones closely with that of the post WW II years of European weariness, and flagging ‘will’ to impose its mission civilisatrice.  In that earlier era, the ‘yielding’ of political ‘will’ amongst the former colonial powers was ‘giving way’ and yielding before the potent thrust for Independence.  Today, US will is having to become more submissive before the irruptions from old and new powers, insisting on their sovereignty and autonomy (see Xinhua’s striking op-ed piececalling for a ‘de-americanised world’, and Lavrov’s RT interview touching on American exceptionalism).

But, US ‘mood’ apart, the dynamics of the US perception of its ‘interests’ seem to be changing beyond that of the energy equation: the ‘canary in the mine’ signalling Saudi Arabia’s newly diminished position in Washington is David Ignatius. The latter (now) says, that to leave the Syria issue to Syria and Qatar “and their chequebook jihad, would be nuts”, noting that “the Saudis and Qataris are still pumping money into a Syrian opposition that’s dominated by jihadists. This is like filling a balloon with poison: Foreign fighters are rushing to Syria to join the well- financed jihad, including nearly 100 British Muslims, more than 130 French, more than 100 Australians and as many as 800 Saudis. This is truly dangerous”.  Ignatius is underlining that defeating jihadism in Syria now trumps ousting President Assad.  And anyway, it is hardly the moment for landing a blow on Iran – through Assad’s ouster – as delicate discussions with Tehran are about to begin, and the idea that Iran might be an ally, and have common cause in this new struggle, takes hold.

On the surface, it may seem that we have a clearer idea of what the American’s want from Iran (assured non-weaponisation, and guaranteed low-enrichment); but in practice it is not that simple:  there is no indication – and perhaps no thought given, up until this point – about what the US understands to be the ‘end-game’.  What would ‘normalisation’ of relations actually mean?  What are the strategic trade-offs that this might open up to the benefit of both; and what might be the trade-offs that both parties would be required to make in order to reach a solution.  The opacity of what America ultimately is seeking in any new relationship with Iran is already shaping the Iranian negotiating strategy –  a strategy which has been designed to tease out from the P5+1 what they see to be the final aim to such a process.   This may prove to be something on which consensus in the Administration will not easily be reached; and consequently, there may be a tendency to underrate the utter importance of this aspect to Iran.

The other guiding principle to the conduct of these negotiations (from the Iranian perspective) will be the preservation and enhancement of Iranian sovereignty and autonomy. The Iranian public’s perception and adherence to the nuclear programme is not rooted so much in defense issues, but in Iranian sovereignty.  The electorate is highly affected by what happened in 1953.   Then, when Iran attempted to forge an independent energy sector (oil), the CIA and MI6 mounted a coup to overthrow a popular Prime Minister so that the West would not lose control over these resources.  It is not hard to understand then why many Iranians would see the present attempt to deny Iran autonomous nuclear power as simply a prolongation of the doctrine of 1953 into a new era.

This reading implies that any demands for a surveillance regime (additional IAEA inspections) that tilts towards insistence on Iran continuously ‘proving a negative’ (i.e. that Iran not only has no weapons programme, but no hidden ‘intentionality’ either) – and which encroaches on sovereignty by seeking a ‘go anywhere, go anytime’ mandate, will be resisted, and could cause the process to fail.  Again, here there is the prospect that the two parties may end at loggerheads:  There is a conviction amongst many in the West that Iran, weakened by sanctions, is ready to offer up concessions – and that these concessions may be pocketed with no need for reciprocity to be given.  This would be a mistaken understanding of the Iranian situation; but one which is widely held.  To a significant extent the prospects for success in the negotiations will hinge on Rowhani’s ability deflate such expectations that sanctions have somehow absolved the West from needing to offer any quid pro quo – such as some substantive lifting of sanctions. 

Iran nevertheless did begin to implement the ‘additional protocol’ (of intrusive IAEA inspections) in 2003, but ceased implementing it in 2006, after the rupture of talks with the EU 3.  In an important signal of current intent, the Iranian Majlis is due to take up the question of Additional Protocol on Sunday, since parliamentary approval is needed for Tehran to proceed further on this track; but Mohammad Javad Zarif was at pains to emphasise that any technical confidence building measures by Iran must be met with reciprocity.

Beyond these primary potential cross-currents between the two parties, there are other landmines that could well blow up the process.  These are issues such as the outstanding, unresolved nuclear matters on which the P5+1 have sought clarifications (now referred to a committee of experts), and the residual hankering amongst some in the West to load the agenda with items such as women’s rights, gay rights, human rights, political rights and Iran’s way of running its democracy and its system of justice, which will be seen in Iran to impinge on their sovereignty.   To make success contingent on an Iran being coerced into adopting a western style of society, is an invitation to failure, which is why we may expect certain interests to press hard for their inclusion.

That the initiative has pitfalls, and may fail, however, is beside the point.  The Iranian negotiators will understand this.  They will well understand that this US President – or indeed any President – faces possibly insurmountable difficulties in rescinding sanctions on Iran.   There has been thirty years of inter-related, rhizome-like legislation which may have originated in an Executive Order, but which has subsequently been enshrined in legislation – and under the omni-present AIPAC influence – has has accreted further legal conditions (such as severance of relations with Hesballah and other resistance movements). There is no readily visible solution to this legislative mess; yet it is striking that for the first time ‘sanctions experts’ have been included along with nuclear scientist in the panel of experts who will continue to work in the interim, until the next formal meeting  – expected to be held within the coming three weeks.

Iranian negotiators will know that a few crumbs from the European table (in terms of easing of European sanctions) will not suffice to meet the aspirations of the Iranian people, if the US simply persists with tightening its siege (as a letter signed by Congessional leaders, and sent last week to President Obama proposed).   Yet, they, the Iranian team, continue to press ahead.   It may appear that they seem oblivious to the prospects of failure, or that they have forgotten the odium that attached itself to their predecessors on the collapse of the earlier talks.

The point here, is to recall that this Iranian ‘Apertura’ is not directed solely at the US.  It is intended as a global message of openness and transparency.   It is aimed towards the Gulf states, Russia and China – as much as to Europe or the US.  And it is a message to business, and to the international oil and gas companies that Iran (together with Iraq) represents the coming ‘pivot’ of the energy world.  Even now, Iran is preparing a receptive response to enquiries from energy companies – in the expectation of a lifting of EU sanctions.

It is precisely on this fundamental point that Iran’s initiative meshes into a changing world order.  The unipolar world is ‘yielding’ to the advances urged upon her for a new system of relations between states, or coalitions of states.  The unipolar power’s soft power increasingly being rebuffed.  This is the inherent ‘leverage’ underlying the Iranian initiative.  It is appealing over the US’s head, to a wider audience.

Can President Obama – already engaged in an open warfare with Congress – really hope to persuade lawmakers  to dismantle the sanctions regime – when there is a long history of bi-partisan support amassed by AIPAC to oppose him?

It is here that the ‘leverage’ comes into play:  America will be aware that the world is watching.  The world will be watching closely to see whether the US is able to respond to this Iranian initiative.  In a sense, it is now American credibility that will be on the line – showing whether it can respond or not.  And as one commentator rightly notes, should the “talks show traction and develop a dynamics of their own and as a critical mass begins to form – not only on the nuclear issue but also in terms of a broader engagement on other issues – the detractors on the home turf in the Washington political establishment and among the US’ regional allies in the Middle East will become isolated gradually and may have to come around, even if grudgingly, to appreciate the greater logic of the US-Iranian normalisation for regional security and stability”.

In a way, ‘failure’ in Washington will not be ‘failure’ of the initiative; because the ‘Apertura’ is already transforming Iran’s relations with the outside world – especially with China and Russia.  And astute businessmen will perceive this.



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