Even though there is a substantial difference of interpretation between the US and Iran of the interim nuclear deal struck in Geneva in November 24th, it is crucial to remember that the deal with the major powers aims to halt key aspects of Iran’s nuclear programme in the next six months and to provide a solid base for negotiations on a permanent agreement. So although the deal does not dismantle the programme, it is a significant initiative to cease the increasingly hazardous rhetoric over Iran’s progress towards the capacity to produce a nuclear weapon.
As explicitly recognised by both John Kerry and Mohammad Javad Zarif, respectively foreign ministers of the US and Iran, even under rigorous sanctions the Islamic regime had been able to continue its nuclear programme. ‘Reaching from 200 centrifuges to about 20,000 under the most unfair sanctions in the last ten years we demonstrate our capability,’ Zarif said in Tehran after the deal. In other words, while the alternatives are ratcheting up sanctions or military action, there is no assurance that those steps would stop Iran’s nuclear advances.
Although Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, and his foreign minister have asserted that the interim deal explicitly recognised Iran’s right to enrich uranium and effectively removed the threat of military strike, in an interview with CBS Kerry rejected both claims: ‘The fact is the president maintains the option to use force and he has said, specifically, he has not taken that threat off the table.’ So Iran and the US are interpreting crucial parts of the agreement differently while insisting it represents significant progress.
To shed light on this apparent contradiction it is necessary to consider their domestic situations. While it is a maxim in international relations that a good agreement is based on similar discontent among all parties, it seems the ambiguity of the document has been deliberately designed to provide sufficient room for both the Iranian and US presidents to cope with their domestic hardliners. Given subsequent reports that the interim deal was made possible by months of unprecedented secret meetings between the two countries’ officials and Zarif’s suggestion that the negotiators spent most time in Geneva selecting appropriate words, this difference of interpretation does not seem accidental. Devil in the detail: Sergei Lavrov (left), Russian foreign minister, and his US counterpart, John Kerry, exchange notes. St Dept
Gestures of victory
Facing huge economic difficulties from which they were keen to shift attention, both presidents required a gesture of victory. For Barack Obama, although Iran’s nuclear programme will not halt completely, it will not progress to providing the Islamic regime with access to a nuclear weapon. And from the Islamic state’s point of view, Iran imposed its nuclear rights on the western powers, convincing them to accept its peaceful programme. There remain, however, many domestic and indeed international discontents that might severely affect the deal.
Although Iran’s ‘supreme leader’, Ali Khamenei, endorsed the deal and most Iranian newspapers reported a popular sense of hope and satisfaction, criticism came from some top-rank Revolutionary Guard generals and fundamentalist milieux. The most influential hardline media lamented what they deemed the position of infirmity from which Iran had been forced to negotiate. The Fars News website linked with the Revolutionary Guards declared there was ‘no doubt the agreement is oppressive’. Kayhan, a newspaper associated with prominent fundamentalists, questioned technical details of the deal, noting discrepancies with a White House briefing paper. It argued that nowhere had the west conceded Iran’s right to enrich and thus Iran should revise the agreement. Both pointed to a comment by Kerry on CNN—‘From this day, for the next six months, Israel is in fact safer than it was’—to suggest Rouhani had made a crucial mistake in trusting the US.
But the most important challenges come from the international adversaries of the deal. Obama and Kerry said Israel, Saudi Arabia and some other countries in the region had a right to be skeptical of Iran’s intentions. They claimed however that the US and its negotiating partners had addressed that by insisting on strict monitoring and verification. Yet the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, described the interim deal as an ‘historic mistake’, while Saudi Arabia’s reluctant response indicated huge concern among some Arab governments.
One of the most influential figures in the Arab world accused the Obama administration of being manipulated by Iran, which he described as far more dangerous to the region than Israel. The Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal even told Bloomberg that since Sunni Muslims were hostile to Shia-dominated Iran, Arabs would love to witness an Israeli strike on the country.
Although Israel and Saudi Arabia consider Iran their enemy for different reasons, its hegemony in the region is the common fear of both—unassuaged by Rouhani’s clear message to Iran’s neighbours that the deal aimed to eliminate all such concerns. This anxiety, shared among the most conservative sections in both Iran and the US, as well as on the international plane, provides a unique foundation for domestic hardliners and regional fundamentalists to exacerbate the situation.
The US hopes via the deal to persuade Iran towards a broader diplomatic opening and a realignment of its strategy in the region—‘from Syria, where the Iranian-backed group Hezbollah is fighting alongside President Assad, to Afghanistan, where the Iranians could be helpful in brokering a postwar settlement with the Taliban’, as the former senior State Department advisor Vali Nasr put it. Yet the administration finds itself in a predicament similar to that on Syria, where allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar favour more robust support for the rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime. This may partly explain why the discussions leading to the deal were kept hidden even from America’s closest friends—including its negotiating partners and Israel—until two months previously.
There is some evidence that the conservatives in Iran consider the deal as a tactical shift, rather than a strategic change of course. There has been no rethink by the major decision-makers in Iran, Khamenei or the Revolutionary Guard leadership, of the Islamic regime’s policy on Syria. Yet such a strategic revision could issue from effective continuous dialogue between the two sides, for which the deal provides, after such long hostility. This is why Rouhani insists his government aims to sustain the path of negotiations.
Although both Kerry and Zarif clearly said they did not trust the other side, this should not be considered as a prerequisite for negotiation but the very outcome. ‘You don’t trust,’ Kerry said on CBS, before adding: ‘It’s not based on trust. It’s based on verification. It’s based on your ability to know what is happening.’ Similarly, Zarif told the Islamic Republic of Iran News Network: ‘We do not trust them. However, we will continue our negotiations to solve the issue.’
That may explain why Olli Heinonen, the former deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said: ‘Now the difficult part starts.’ Nevertheless, while many radical differences remain between the two sides, the very condition of reaching the interim deal might be thus be a sign of hope.