State of play: the Iranian nuclear negotiations Interview with Dr Farhang Morady and Dr Dibyesh Anand By Kurosh Amini The interview was conducted before Iran’s deal with the International Community originally published in QH newspaper What do you think of the current negotiations? Will they lead to any results? Farhang: It has already led to some results: the threat of yet another war in the Middle East and the fact that Iran is talking to America after 33 years are a reflection that some progress has been made since the revolution in 1979. In fact Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, has declared that he is determined to find a resolution to settle the continuing dispute between the western powers and the Islamic Republic. During his election campaign, Rouhani promised to find a conciliatory approach towards the West, hoping this would reduce the increasing impact of sanctions on Iran’s economy. Indeed, since the beginning of the dialogue between the West and Iran, pressure on Iran’s crisis driven economy has lessened. The heavy Western sanctions have had a huge impact with inflation reaching over 40%, unemployment heading to four million and the Iranian currency losing its value by 100%. Although there has been some progress since, the signs for Iran remain ominous if the negotiations do not reach a good outcome. The positive outcome of the negotiations would mean an acknowledgement by the West of Iran as a regional power. Even partial reconciliation between Iran and the West, particularly the US, will result in a transformation of the whole geopolitics of the region. Iran and the US can fight the common enemies such as Salafi-‐ jihadists in the region. Or, although unlikely at the present time, the possibilities of future US investment in Iran, especially in the energy industry, as this would give the US the chance to muscle out their competitors China and Russia and kickstart Iran’s economy. Hence the US hopes this will extend its influence of Southwest Asia. Therefore, a new discourse appears to be developing on both sides and it remains to be seen how the implications of the new language of moderation will have a positive long term impact in policy initiatives in both Iran and the West.
Dibyesh: To add to what Farhang is saying, to me the interesting question related to this is why this is taking place right now, why are they willing to negotiate right now and not 10 years ago? Two important contexts which most of the media does not cover, one is Asia. The main principal focus of the US is going to be Asia and not the Middle East, they have made it very clear that by 2020 they want more than 50% of the energy of the US military and navy to be focused on Asia: China, India and Japan. America is very keen
on reducing their footprint in the Middle Eastern region and very few people talk about that in this context. In one sense they need tensions to be reduced in the region and to have all the regional powers trying to balance each other off. They don’t really want to have a problem with Iran. The second possible factor, we don’t really know for sure as it’s just a speculation, is to do with the War on Terror, or the so-‐called War on Terror. The US has allies from where most of the terrorists come from and America’s enemies in the region are mainly Iran, then Syria, who are Shi’ite and generally haven’t been involved in international terrorism. That could be another factor in US calculations as to why they want to therefore have better relations with the Shi’ite powers and not only Sunni powers. Israel and Saudi Arabia do play a crucial role here, so they are trying to balance them. I think what’s helping the US in this context is the recent elections in Iran and the realisation of the Iranians that they need to negotiate with the US partly, at least on what’s happening in Syria. I mean Iran is an important power, but it is surrounded by different powers that see Iran as an enemy. In Syria, Iran is unlikely to win but it is also unlikely to lose, if these negotiations succeed -‐ and it is a big if -‐ it would create a new balance of power in the region, where the US can leave Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia and possibly Egypt to balance each other without anyone becoming paramount. What will be the implications of a potential agreement for the region? Or the implications of there being no agreement? Farhang: To answer this question one needs to understand the Middle East over the last 30 years. The region has been unstable for decades, especially since the Iranian revolution of 1979, threatening the Middle Eastern states who ruled undemocratically for years. We also witnessed the occupation of Afghanistan by Russia in 1979, resulting in the emergence of the Taliban supported by the West. This was followed by military invasion in Afghanistan by the US and the allied forces in 2001 and then Iraq in 2003. The consequences for the US have been huge in terms of economic loss and lives. Indeed, according to some polls 73% of the US population do not wish to support yet another war. Iran has a population of 75 million, over 70% of whom are under 35 years of age, alongside Turkey and possibly Egypt, who have similar demographics and play an important role in a region littered with conflicts. Although Egypt is going through domestic political uncertainty, it continues to play a vital role in the Arab world. Iran is very well geopolitically situated in the region, in terms of being close to Central Asia, possessing 16% of the world’s oil reserves from the north and to the Persian Gulf in the south. The key question should be: how stable will the Middle East be for all the different powers by having a stable region. For Iran the negotiations could be a win/win situation: domestically it can provide some kind of breathing space for its crisis-‐driven economy, regionally it will increase their influence, particularly important as the Syrian crisis could have led to Tehran’s reducing influence. This may also provide the US and its
European partners with access to the Iranian market and thwart a potential Russian and Chinese challenge. The sticking point for the Islamic Republic is its legitimate security and the threat that the US and its allies may cause to Iran. It is this that forced Iran to develop its nuclear capacity. This negotiation may provide a resolution to solve both Iran’s nuclear energy programme and its security.
Dibyesh: If there is a deal, the biggest impact would be that the region will take a step closer to normality; it’s unlikely to be a case where the US and Iran will become allies or friends, that will not happen, what is more likely to happen is that the relationship would become normal and less toxic than it is. I mean it is difficult to imagine the Iranian Revolution will survive if it completely gives up on anti-‐Americanism and all of that. So it will be more likely a normal state, so that’s one impact on Iran. The impact on the US would be that it will allow them to keep its policy to reduce its footprint in the Middle East and move towards Asia. As Farhang is pointing out, unlike the First Gulf War that was funded by Saudis and Kuwaitis and therefore was profitable for the West, the Second Gulf war cost the US a lot of money and much of the power has shifted to Iran or the contracts have gone to the Chinese or others. So they do need to tackle this region. If there is a resolution, it would be a normalisation of US-‐Iranian relations but it’s contingent on what happens with Saudi Arabia and Iran and what happens with Turkey and Iran. Turkey is a pragmatic state; a lot of what happens could still lead them to deal with Iran in a decent manner. The bigger issue is what the Saudi reaction will be, as we have seen how Saudi Arabia is working closer with Israel in order to prevent the US having any type of deal. If the deal does not happen, what we are going to see is an unstable region. It will remain unstable and the war in Syria will spread and in Iran, because of economic sanctions, it will be more unstable and therefore the region will be more unstable. Something I will add to the first question is why Obama is suddenly keen, and it’s partly because he is in his second term and wants to make a mark -‐ he can’t do anything in Palestine as Americans have no power to persuade Israel to do anything on Palestine, but to be honest no Arab states are worried about the Palestinians. So now the secondary legacy that Obama can can have is maybe normalise relations with Iran and therefore try to detoxify it and focus more attention on the more dynamic and economically active regions of the world and that is Asia Pacific. What do you make of France’s position? Farhang: This depends on what 5 + 1 is planning to do; they could play a good cop, bad cop role. It could be interpreted as the French are supporting the Israelis. There may be some truth in that but the biggest supporter of the Israelis since its establishment is the USA. To suggest anything different is mistaken. I believe the French anti-‐Iranian stand in the negotiations and its support of Israel is a bit exaggerated. What seems interesting is that the content of the negotiation was supposed to be secret but somehow
the French Foreign Minister revealed his country’s anxiety over certain elements of Iran’s nuclear programme. It is not clear whether this leak was agreed with the US, Britain and the others. France, like any other Western country, is concerned at what a possible deal means for them i.e. would they have access to the Iranian market? According to some reports France has already signed a contract worth $913 million with UAE to buy military satellites. The Saudis have also signed a deal of $1.5 billion with the French to refurbish their six navy ships. It is also important to note that the French and Saudis have been very frustrated with the US hesitancy to overthrow Bashar Al-‐Assad, Iran’s close friend. Indeed, diplomacy between Iran and the US means a kind of victory for Iran. Dibyesh: Partly I would not buy into the idea about the lucrative Iranian market, because if the Iranian market does open up and this is a big if, then given what the US has followed elsewhere, it would benefit everyone, and the country that is most likely to benefit the most would be China because they are quite good at capturing markets. But with Saudis supporting what Farhang is saying, who knows what goes on behind the deal? It could be good cop bad cop, the new story is that the French and the Americans had signed and it was the Iranians who backed out of the deal. This might be to support the regime in Iran to say to its hardliners that ‘look we are trying to resist’, so all of this is possible. But given the French conduct of foreign policy, it could be that the French are looking for new allies in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia. If the Israelis are assured that Iran doesn’t have nuclear weapons, the Israelis will benefit but Saudis wont benefit as it has a deeper problem with Iran. So the only country that will be steadfast in its opposition to Iran will be Saudi Arabia. One of the ways that Saudi Arabia can apply pressure on the deal is by working with Israel. But they can’t rely on them much as the US can possibly assure Israel that it will stay quiet on Palestine in exchange for support. The second way of applying pressure is through arms buying and Saudi Arabia is one of the largest buyers of arms; right now the Saudis buy most of their weapons from the Americans, so they might play games by saying that they will buy French arms and not American in order to put pressure on American law makers who live in states that produce a lot of weapons. There was a story of a particular diplomat leaking stories on how Saudis are worried about the deal and it turned out that the particular diplomat was French. And the French have had an autonomous foreign policy unlike the British. So they might be doing this for a larger arms deal with Saudi Arabia. How do you think Saudi Arabia and Israel will affect the negotiations? Farhang: I think 5 +1 should not be treated in the same way, they all have different interests even though they had agreement to impose and follow the US led sanctions on Iran. The differences between the 5+1 will
be revealed more as time progresses. I think what’s happening however is that the negotiations have opened up the whole space and the differences are arising as a result. Indeed, this demonstrates how two arch enemies in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Israel, are now working hard to ensure that there would be no positive outcomes from the negotiations. Saudi Arabia has been against any deal between Iran and the US for the last 30 years, ever since the revolution. A good example of this is in 1985 when Robert McFarlane, National Security Adviser, to Ronald Reagan, was involved in negotiating a deal to supply arms to Iran. Saudi Arabia was the first country to be furious at what would happen if America expanded their relationship with Iran. The situation has not changed since then because they don’t want to see their competitor to be the main player in the region. What has changed since then is that Iran's influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon has increased since the end of the Iran-‐Iraq war in 1988. So it does put Iran in a different light. Dibyesh: In terms of Israel, I think they face a lot of challenges; it is a deeply paranoid state that has had an existential crisis from day one. If you look at Israeli foreign policy, it is in the interests of Israel for the US and Iran to have a good relationship as it would normalise Iran and reduce the threat to Israel. Yet, if we look at how Israel acts, it thrives on being paranoid and being under threat as that is the only way that it can ensure that it will receive unqualified support from the US. In a certain sense we can see a contradiction between Israeli interests, which should be the normalisation of relations with Iran, and their actions, where they want to live in a situation in which they are always under threat. So this is the dilemma that the Jewish state faces. So from the very beginning it was under attack from its neighbours and yet it was able to defeat them all the time and now most of them don’t bother with them in substantive terms. They don’t recognise them as a state. But it seems like it wants confrontations to justify its military actions and its own crackdown on Palestinians all the time. So that’s one part. Now Israelis have been constantly been opposing any deals with Iran as they do not trust them. I mean, if the Israelis can’t trust Iran and they can’t be persuaded to trust Iran by the US, it could mean that either the Americans are fools, which is what the Israelis are saying, or that the Israelis are self-‐harming and want this conflict. But it’s unlikely that it’s either of these two, it’s more possible that they want the conflict because they want to remain at a high military level and therefore justify arms deals that it gets from the US. But I still believe that if the Iranians were clever, they could have sought to send soft messages to Israel, because in the end Israel could manage a normal relationship with Iran. The problem is Saudi Arabia, because out of all the regimes in the region, they are the most problematic one. They have no strong support base unlike Israel has: remember that Israel is a democracy, a flawed democracy but it is still a democracy. Now the Saudis have survived in the past due to oil but that will not last forever, therefore they want to remain strategically important in geopolitical terms. Now if the US moves towards Asia, which it is going to do, then the Saudis realise that they would be in a more vulnerable position. A few years ago it was revealed through WikiLeaks that Saudi Arabia would allow Israel to bomb Iran using Saudi airspace. So even when the Israelis are not ready to act, the Saudis are encouraging them to do so. So why is Saudi Arabia so paranoid with Iran? It is to do with sectarianism: their regime is based on protecting the holy places of Islam yet the regime itself is anti-‐Islamic, it’s
Islamic but as it is a monarchy of a certain kind it is anti-‐Islamic. Now the only way of justifying their position is by portraying themselves as defenders of Islam but the only version of Islam they can think of is one that preaches hatred and they manage to do this by sponsoring various movements around the world. They have portrayed themselves as more Islamic after the Iranian revolution that gave a lot of hope to Sunni Arabs that you can have a regime that’s Islamic but also anti-‐imperialist. So the Saudis are worried about this, that somehow the relationship between Iran and the US normalises and if Iran normalises then Saudi Arabia will be exposed as a monarchy that doesn’t offer any rights to anyone and a monarchy that’s practically useless except for itself. Farhang: As I mentioned before, Saudi Arabia are anxious about the implications of the negotiations on the balance of power in the region and their role. Just like the Arab Spring, the political change in one place can have a domino effect on others. The Iranian regime are also aware of this fact and they have faced political challenges internally because of this; they all want to have a deal, but what type of deal do they want, they have differences. These differences are not in isolation from the region. The normalisation of relationships between Iran and the US would have domestic political implications. This would open up the space for different political forces in the country that potentially could lead to increasing confidence and expectation of the Iranian people to fight for their democratic rights that have been undermined by the Islamic Republic. Dibyesh: Iran with all its flaws is still democratic; you have at least elections of some kind. Israel with all its flaws is democratic, so is Turkey, whilst the region that is the most undemocratic is Saudi Arabia and they so far have been the main ally of the US. And they are the most worried, because if there is more normalisation it would lead to more democrisation in the region which will threaten gulf monarchies. Therefore they want the status quo of Iran and the US being enemies. And one more thing that adds to the uncertainty to the gulf monarchies is that, unlike Iran and Israel, the prosperity of the gulf monarchies is based on a perishable commodity, and that prosperity is based on tens of millions of workers from other countries coming in and working. Iran has a population that works but the gulf monarchies don’t have a population that works. They are very much based on a very racialised and racist kind of work pattern and we see from recent news, for example yesterday (11th November 2013) migrant workers were protesting and fighting in Saudi Arabia. So they are very worried because they don’t have a durable time, so the only way to survive for them is for conflict to survive there and for a superpower like the US not to withdraw from there.
Kurosh Amini is an MA student at the University of Westminster studying International Relations and Security