The longer the international standoff over Iran’s suspect nuclear programme continues, the more dangerous and volatile the situation becomes. All seven countries involved in Monday’s last-gasp negotiations in Vienna understood this, which is why they strove so hard and so long to forge a comprehensive agreement.
By extending the talks again – this time to June next year – they have avoided a total collapse, but they have also raised the stakes, ensuring that failure, if that is what eventually transpires, will be all the more cataclysmic.
The governments and leaders favouring a deal did not exactly lose in Vienna, but it is clear who came out ahead – the conservative rejectionists and clerical last-ditchers who dominate Tehran’s political establishment, Parliament and media; the mostly Republican hardliners in the United States Congress who oppose an agreement at any price; Israel’s leadership and the Gulf Arab monarchies, who distrust everything Tehran says; and Islamist Sunni extremists in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, who exploit differences between Shia Iran and the West to pursue their vicious hegemonical fantasies.
Negotiators representing the Obama administration, Britain and European governments can justifiably claim important progress has been made in narrowing gaps in the nine months that followed last year’s interim agreement.
Of greater significance, however, is the sense that a window briefly opened after the 2013 election of the centrist Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s president is closing, and that a unique opportunity for a historic rapprochement has been, or is about to be, missed.
Those opposing a deal can now be expected to intensify their efforts to kill the extended talks, while simultaneously blaming supposed Iranian intransigence and bad faith, and the naivety of President Barack Obama and other Western leaders, for the failure to achieve a breakthrough. Their argument is that a safe, sustainable and effective nuclear deal with Iran was always an impossible dream, and the latest failure to agree simply proves that contention.
“This camp believes that a deal, should it be reached, will enshrine Iran’s right to a nuclear programme in international law – an idea it finds an anathema,” said analyst Jeffrey Goldberg. “It thinks that Iran, once sanctions are lifted, will rebuild its economy and then ignore its nuclear obligations. It believes that the Iranian government is probably already cheating and obfuscating in its effort to go nuclear, and will redouble these efforts once a deal is signed. This group thinks that sanctions, combined with the credible threat of force, are the only means to keep Iran from going nuclear.”
The alternative could be worse, Goldberg said: “The collapse of negotiations could move Iran and the West quickly towards confrontation that could end in disaster, and could set Iran on the fast and steady path to the nuclear threshold. There are no fail-safe choices here.”
The possible negative consequences of a continuing impasse or total collapse of the negotiations include the following:
• The newly installed and Republican-controlled US Congress, which takes office in January, could impose a new tranche of sanctions. The push for new measures, tightening financial and economic curbs on Iran and targeting its links with Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon, would be as much about domestic US politics as international policy as battle-lines are drawn with the weakened Obama administration ahead of the 2016 presidential election;
• The pressure inside Iran to replace Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s West-friendly foreign minister, and other members of Tehran’s negotiating team as part of a larger effort to undermine Rouhani by his conservative opponents could become irresistible. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, cannot be expected to protect Rouhani. His support for the talks has always been lukewarm. In such circumstances, Iran could even withdraw previous concessions and harden its stance on its “nuclear rights”, enrichment and co-operation with the International Atomic Energy Agency;
• Increased sanctions-busting, principally by China, which is Iran’s largest oil customer, and Russia, which has agreed to build a new generation of nuclear reactors in Iran. A senior Iranian official was quoted this month as saying that Tehran could play the “Eastern” card. “We have always had good relations with Russia and China. Naturally, if the nuclear talks fail, we will increase our co-operation with our friends and will provide them more opportunities in Iran’s high-potential market,” the official said. “We share common views [with Russia and China] on many issues, including Syria and Iraq.” Such a scenario would destroy the United Nations security council consensus on Iran policy;
• Israeli military action against Iran, egged on by US neoconservatives and the Gulf Arab monarchies, principally Saudi Arabia, becomes more likely the longer the impasse continues. Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has distracted attention from the Palestinian question by using the spectre of a nuclear-armed Iran to rally domestic opinion and silence foreign critics;
• Any Israeli military action against supposed Iranian nuclear targets, however limited, could quickly suck in the Saudis and US forces in Bahrain, which might become the object of Iranian retaliation. Any such confrontation could also see Iran attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz, cutting off Western oil supplies and threatening a new global economic crisis; and
• The longer the negotiating process continues without results, the less likely that benefits accruing from a breakthrough will materialise. Such benefits potentially include the opening of Iran’s vast domestic market of 76-million people to Western products, trade, travel and investment, the emergence of Iran as an alternative to Russia as a major oil and gas supplier to Europe, co-operation with the West in addressing regional problems such as Islamic State terrorism and the Syrian civil war, an exemplary success for international nuclear nonproliferation efforts, a prospective liberalisation of Iranian society and an end to Iran’s deeply damaging 35-year political, cultural and human isolation. – © Guardian News & Media 2014