Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment 22 – 29 November 2013

Conflicts Forum

One of the most significant aspects of the Geneva Accord reached between Iran and the P5+1 is that it happened – in spite of the reported millions spent by Saudi Arabia in opposing it, and in spite of Netanyahu’s and AIPAC’s total condemnation of it. This, in itself, suggests that US relations with both allies has already undergone a quite profound metamorphosis and re-configuring: indeed, it seems that the sheer negativity of the Saudi (informal) and Israeli (formal) responses is no longer so influential, but rather is directly contributing to a notable decline of their influence in Washington.

Of course the agreement does represent a strategic turn – a moment of great potential, a tipping point: both Iran and the P5+1 have made significant concessions; and have secured an interim agreement.  That is a formidable negotiating achievement  – given the substantive forces ranged against it.  But already, in the way this interim agreement has been approached – the template on which it will unfold – it is not difficult to perceive the flaws that ultimately may collapse it.  In a sense, the structural weaknesses implanted into it, represent some sort of ‘victory’ for the ‘rejectionists’, since the template adopted in a way represents more the need of both parties to innoculate themselves against the deliberately inflated demands of the rejectionists.  It is therefore a template that is skewed more to the real interests of the rejectionists – which is to say the ability to manage and leverage a continuation of sanctions – than it is to the wider interests of the US.

As Professor Stephen Walt has suggested, there exists a huge disparity between what the negotiations are supposed to be about (Iran’s nuclear programme) and what they are really about: “the real issue is the long-term balance of power in the Persian Gulf and Middle East. Iran has far more power potential than any of the other states in the region: a larger population, a fairly sophisticated and well-educated middle class, some good universities, and abundant oil and gas to boost economic growth (if used wisely) … Israel and Saudi Arabia don’t think Iran is going to get up one day and start lobbing warheads at its neighbors, and they probably don’t even believe that Iran would ever try the pointless act of nuclear blackmail. No, they’re just worried that a powerful Iran would over time exert greater influence in the region, in all the ways that major powers do. From the perspective of Tel Aviv and Riyadh, the goal is to try to keep Iran in a box for as long as possible — isolated, friendless, and artificially weakened”.

In fact, the elements to how one may have ‘assured’ and surveilled uranium enrichment in Iran for peaceful purposes have been about for a decade (when Iran proposed them in 2004).  Of course, it is possible to devise a system of transparency that allows a clear differentiation between militarized enrichment and low-concentrate industrial reactor feedstock enrichment.  That really is not so difficult.  And there is no doubt that the possession of such a fuel cycle is precisely what Article IV of the NPT describes as an ‘inalienable right’ (see here for the wording).

But what has literally haunted the Iranian nuclear issue was the claim made by Albert Wohlstetter, a hugely influential figure in America in the 1960s and 1970s that the NPT was fatally flawed. Note: he did not say that states had no rights to the fuel cycle, but simply said that the NPT was flawed: States that the US mistrusted should never be allowed to enrich,because they could not be trusted (on the doubtful argument that peaceful enrichment was materially the same as weapons enrichment).

Since then the US and three close allies have held that the NPT does not grant the right to enrich – thus effectively voiding the elemental bargain at the core of the NPT: that the non-weapons states would disavow nuclear weapons in return for guaranteed access to the technology of the fuel cycle.  (The weapon-holding states undertaking in return to disembarrass themselves of their weapons – something yet to be achieved).

Thus most of the ‘dance’ at Geneva centred on this old chestnut of whether or not Iran has a ‘right’ to enrich – with both sides claiming that the accord supported their reading of the NPT.   The discussions therefore did not touch on the more fundamental issue at stake which is about power in the Middle East.  The Saudi and Israeli fears transcend the nuclear programme and the possibility of a ‘break out capacity’ (all states that enrich have a theoretical ‘break out capacity’.)

As former State Department official Jeremy Shapiro notes, what really inspires fear in Saudi Arabia is “Iran itself” – as a potential mini-‘China’ in the region; as a model of Islamic governance; and above all else the potential effect of ‘revolutionary shi’ism’ on the reigning al-Saud family’s hold on power. In this context, the international sanctions regime on Iran that restrained Iran’s ambitions and capacity for power projection has become a pillar of Saudi foreign policy.  From this point of view, a nuclear deal would not rehabilitate, but rather free a dangerous regional rival to harass and threaten the kingdom.

So the second aspect to Geneva therefore has been the sanctions issue – not because sanctions have served to curb Iran’s nuclear programme: they haven’t. Iran has become – in any meaning of the term – a nuclear state under sanctions.  But rather because it is international sanctions (and political isolation) as a tool of long term containment that has allowed Israel and Saudi Arabia to dominate.

What is of concern here is that this narrow structure of requiring Iran to prove its ‘non-intent’ in respect to weapons, with the overwhelming western focus on maintaining sanctions precisely makes for the type of rigid structure that opens itself to malicious lobbying over a series of ‘concerns’– just as we saw in Iraq — the purpose being to maintain sanctions. The weak point is always national sovereignty.  And the rejectionists will know how to push this ‘button’ – contriving ‘issues’ that can only be resolved through sensitive intrusions onto sovereignty  – as in Iraq.   This flaw – that allows a ratcheting up of demands and consequent sanctions – effectively was built into the process when the EU3 demanded that Iran prove its intentions  – following the failure of the Paris talks.

Iran’s objective at Geneva was to insist on the West specifying the end-game.  Were Iran to satisfy, on all the nuclear issues – would it then be allowed to take its place as a populous, well-educated, resourceful and powerful nation, generously endowed with oil and gas?

This, of course, is the substance of the negotiation – even if its language is couched in the technicalities of the nuclear fuel cycle.  And on this point, there is cause for concern.

“But within hours of the agreement”, Gareth Porter, a knowledgeable commentator on national security and nuclear mattersnotes, “there are already indications from senior U.S. officials that the Barack Obama administration is not fully committed to the conclusion of a final pact, under which economic sanctions would be completely lifted. The administration has apparently developed reservations about such an “end state” agreement despite concessions by the government of President Hassan Rouhani that were more far-reaching than could have been anticipated a few months ago”.

[Ironically] the Rouhani government’s moves to reassure the West may have spurred hopes on the part of senior officials of the Obama administration that the United States can achieve its minimum aims in reducing Iran’s breakout capacity without giving up its trump cards—the harsh sanctions on Iran’s oil expert and banking sectors.

The signs of uncertain U.S. commitment to the “end state” agreement came in a background press briefing by unidentified senior U.S. officials in Geneva via teleconference late Saturday night. The officials repeatedly suggested that it was a question of “whether” there could be an “end state” agreement rather than how it could be achieved.

The same official prefaced that remark by stating, “In terms of the ‘end state’, we do not recognise a right for Iran to enrich uranium.”

Three more times during the briefing the unnamed officials referred to the negotiation of the “comprehensive solution” outlined in the deal agreed to Sunday morning as an open-ended question rather than an objective of U.S. policy.

“We’ll see whether we can achieve an end state that allows for Iran to have peaceful nuclear energy,” said one of the officials.

No doubt, these comments are at least partly induced by the Administration’s need to inoculate itself against the familiar appeasement accusations.  They are intended to mollify domestic critics, more than to be a true reflection of what is passing on the one-to-one channel, and there are fairly clear indications that Iran in fact has been given some sort of reassurance about future low grade enrichment.  But nonetheless the type of briefing that has been issuing from Washington is bound to have an adverse effect on the Iranian consistency which is deeply skeptical of America’s bona fidesin these talks (fearing a repetition of 2004/5 when the EU3 ultimately unveiled their position to be zero enrichment).  But more seriously, this type of briefing precisely is what we meant when we wrote earlier that the US Administration risks locking itself defensively into a template which does not address the real issues, but sticks tightly to a rigid technical nuclear template which will leave itself much more open to manipulation by the rejectionists, as in the Iraq model.  This is where the rejectionists do have their small ‘victory’.

The technical nuclear issue lies on one side of the equation; it cannot be ignored. But the equation needs to be balanced by a wider optic that contemplates Iran’s future role as a historic regional power, and looks to the areas in which the West and Iran share common interests (there are many).  Obama will have to be very ‘hands-on’ in this negotiation (not his usual style) if he is to halt the US slide back to the sterile default framework of  the 60s Wohlstetter doctrines.  Obama must find the way to address the main issue – power in the Middle East – and not leave the negotiations beached on technical issues.  Without some understanding on the future of the region, the technical outcome will not be available anyway:  Iran ultimately will opt out.

It is clear that the US is aiming for a new ‘balance’ in the Middle East, in which no one power will enjoy unqualified US support and influence over American policy.  America intends to stand back.  It is confining itself to limited objectives and will rigorously limit its commitment to these attenuated aims.  Americans suggest that Israel and Saudi now will just have to come to terms with the new doctrine: the US will maintain its support for Israel and Saudi Arabia, but only in the context of an emergent new balance of regional power, shaped particularly between the two regional poles of Iran and Saudi Arabia.  US officials acknowledge that Saudi Arabia and Israel will not find the new disposition wholly to their liking (being, as they are, used to unqualified US support), but these same officials say that these states must get used to it – after all to whom else can they turn?

If this indeed is the unstated motive behind the US officials’ comments about an end-game that does not relinquish harsh sanctions on Iran (perhaps intended somehow to give balance to a weaker Saudi Arabia), then one must have some sympathy for the Saudis’ ‘head-holding’ despair at US policy.  Does anyone really think this is truly viable in the conditions of a disintegrating, fractious region?  The region is in a state of extreme volatility and disarray.  It is beyond any state or balance-of-power structure to really contain or manage regional dynamics.  Events will trump power centers – and in this context, the Saudis have every reason to be fearful.


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