Nuclear deal that changes geopolitics

S. Madhusudhana Rao

Iran’s international isolation is over. That’s how the nuclear deal the Islamic Republic and six major powers had struck on Tuesday in Vienna could be summed up.

Ever since the Western countries had sensed that Teheran had launched a nuclear programme around 2002, they had been trying to contain it, using both carrot and stick policy. But the US-headed efforts have led to more resistance and defiance from Iranian leaders than buckling under Western pressure.

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S. Madhusudhana Rao

For more than a decade, despite crippling economic sanctions imposed by the US and the UN from time to time, Iran has forged ahead with its nuclear programme, including enrichment of uranium as a prelude to test allegedly a nuclear device. Simultaneously, Teheran has also developed missile technology for short, middle and long-range strikes. While the twin developments have sent shockwaves through the Western world, Iran’s adversaries in Middle East have seen a potential and existential threat from Iran.

The Iranian threat perceptions have increased further with the fall of President Saddam Hussein in 2003 and Teheran’s increased interest in Iraq’s political future. The growing Shiite Iran influence, coupled with its military might, in the highly volatile Middle East region has made mainly Sunni Arab neighbours who are also US allies jittery.

More concerned about Iran’s rise is Israel which had faced the threats of “being wiped out from the face of Earth” by Iranian leaders. Thus, in the eyes of West, Arabs and Israel, America’s closest ally in that region, Iran is nothing but an aspiring regional evil power. All these countries are also worried about Iran developing and testing nuclear weapons and flexing its nuclear muscle once it acquires the capability.

Against this background, if we look at the agreement, it is historic. The principal aim of the deal reached between Iran and the six major powers –the US, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia – is to cap Teheran’s nuclear programme. That is, not to allow it to pursue any weapons-related nuclear agenda at least for a decade. So far, Iranian leaders have been claiming that their country’s nuclear plan is for peaceful uses of atomic energy.

Now, with this historic deal clinched after years of tortuous negotiations, both Iranian negotiators and US President Barack Obama who has persistently worked for an agreement see it as a win-win outcome. But his Arab friends, particularly Saudi Arabia, and Israel disagree. They view the deal as letting Iran off the hook. The terms under which it has been agreed upon explain why Washington’s allies have grave doubts and reservations about it.

Among the important conditions are: Teheran will accept a number of restrictions on its nuclear activities, some of which will last more than 10 years, and allow inspection of known and suspected nuclear sites. In return, the US, European Union and United Nations will lift sanctions which have crippled Iran’s economy. A UN arms embargo will remain in place for five years and a ban on buying missile technology for eight years. If Iran violates the deal provisions, some sanctions could be re-imposed in 65 days.

For the Obama administration and Iran, the deal is the end of hostilities between the two sides which began with the 1979 Iranian Revolution that brought Ayatollahs to power. While the former sees a potential nuclear threat to the US (and the world) is removed, the latter considers it as freeing itself from the sanctions regime that has locked up billions of dollars. Now, the Islamic Republic can use the freed funds to develop its economy. Moreover, it can resume oil and gas exports and trade commodities. The socio-economic impact on the country will be transformative.

No doubt, the agreement is a personal triumph for Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate and a pragmatist, who is bent upon ending his country’s diplomatic isolation. Now, among the challenges staring at them is convincing the hardliners that the deal is for the common good of both countries and the world at large.

However, doubts remain. First, the ten-year ‘nuclear moratorium’. What happens if economically strong and powerful Iran decides to resume its N- programme after a decade or so?  Obama has said “the deal was built on verification, not trust and every pathway for Iran to get a nuclear weapon was cut off.” But how far they will be foolproof is anyone’s guess, considering the fact that UN sanctions had served limited purpose.

Two, Washington’s thinking that if a deal was not struck, it would have led to war is based more on perceptions than realities. Obama’s predecessor George Bush Jr had gone to war with Iraq on the premise that Saddam Hussein was producing weapons of mass destruction. An obvious lie. Now, Obama sees it necessary to befriend Iran since they have a common enemy in Sunni militant Islamic State that has gobbled up swathes of land in Iraq and Syria and is spreading its tentacles throughout Middle East.

Both are fighting IS in their own ways, though their agendas are different. If the US aim is to halt the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, Iran’s mission is to check Sunni influence in the region. The differing interests with a common cause are pitted against other regional heavyweights like Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Both have rejected the deal, implicitly and explicitly. Ironically, the two sworn enemies have found a common cause in denouncing US-Iran nuclear deal. While Israel has stressed that it will do everything possible not to make the agreement operational, Saudi reaction is one of disappointment and disenchantment with American policy.

Riyadh’s bitterness is understandable. Saudi and other Gulf forces have been aerially fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen. The insurgents are allegedly getting Iranian moral and material support. Similarly, backing to militant organisations like Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza Strip, insurgency in Syria and support to other radical splinter groups has created bad blood between Iran and other regional countries. In post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, Teheran’s power play is well known.

In Middle East, friends turn foes and foes turn friends and their equations change in dramatic fashion. Thus the US has made a friend out of an enemy at the cost of other allies.

Obama has nothing to lose. Republicans have already opposed the deal and since they are in majority in both Houses of Congress they can shoot down the deal. But Obama will veto and it can’t be overturned. His successor will face the music. For now, another feather in Obama’s cap for ending four decades of hostilities with Iran.

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