The Iran Nuclear Deal: Tension on the Horizon

With hopeful signs coming from the Gulf, Israel and Congress promise a fight.

The early hours of November 24, 2013, witnessed the signing of a new nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran in Geneva. After prolonged negotiations, both sides came to an agreement that would halt and even roll back parts of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for a limited relief of sanctions.

The deal’s main points are: Iran will halt enrichment of uranium above 5%, and neutralize its stockpile of near-20% during the interim phase; pursue no further installations of centrifuges, and no further progress on the Arak plant; and Tehran is required to provide increased access for IAEA inspectors, including daily access to the Natanz and Fordow facilities. In return for Iranian compliance, the P5+1 will not implement new nuclear-related sanctions during the agreement; it will unfreeze assets worth $4.2 billion; and suspend some sanctions on gold and precious metals.

Whereas Iran continues to claim that its nuclear program is solely for civilian purposes, main players in the international community suspect the Islamic Republic of working on a weapons program. UN sanctions, imposed in 2006, are complemented by comprehensive US and EU restrictions that target "Iran's nuclear, missile, energy, shipping, transportation, and financial sectors."

Iran analyst Alireza Nader states: “Hassan Rouhani was elected with a mandate to improve the economy. He promised he will improve the economy and decrease Iran’s isolation.” Iran has defied the sanctions regime, but despite continuous economic relations with several Asian countries like China and South Korea, reports have pointed to the sanctions’ severe impact on the Iranian economy.

Iran’s Special Role in the Middle East

Understanding Iran’s historic role in the region is crucial to being able to comprehensively analyze the deal and its foreign policy implications. During the reign of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Iran was a close ally of the United States and the West. Under the Nixon administration, Iran and Saudi Arabia became key parts of US foreign policy under the Twin Pillars strategy.

As recently declassified CIA documents prove beyond any doubt, the US (together with the British government) helped to plan and execute the ouster of democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, which re-installed the Shah into power.

With regards to the Middle East, before 1979 the Shah promoted a discourse of Iranian superiority and Iranians as an Aryan race in contrast to an Arab-Semitic “other.” This was partly done by emphasizing Iran’s pre-Islamic heritage and “undervaluing the Islamic identity of the Iranian populace.” This discourse, described by Arshin Adib-Moghaddam as “ultra-nationalism,” brought Iran in direct confrontation with Arab states. After the revolution, however, the tone changed drastically.

Before the Islamic Revolution, the US supported Iran's nuclear initiative — which it helped set up in the 1950s. However, US-Iranian relations completely deteriorated after the revolution, especially in light of the hostage crisis at the US embassy.

Alongside his strong pan-Islamic and anti-imperialist rhetoric (with the US being the main target), revolution leader Ayatollah Khomeini also held strong anti-monarchy views. The latter was mainly directed at the al-Saud family and the hereditary regime in Saudi Arabia. Until this day, many analysts see Iran and Saudi Arabia as key opponents vying for power in the Middle East.

One concrete example for that is Iran’s support for the Assad regime in Syria and Saudi Arabia’s strong backing of predominantly Sunni armed opposition groups. As exposed in Wikileaks’ US diplomatic cables in 2010, Saudi Arabia urged the US multiple times to take military actions against Iran’s nuclear program.   

Similarly, Iranian-Israeli relations have declined since 1979, with Israel being the main supporter of military action against Iran’s nuclear program that it deems to be of hostile nature and directed against the Jewish state. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has repeatedly presented his case before the UN General Assembly. On the other side, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently called Israel the “rabid dog of the region” and prophesized that “the Zionist regime is doomed to destruction.”

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric towards Israel did its part in upholding hostile relations. Moreover, Iran has been a long-term supporter of Hamas and Hezbollah.

A US Foreign Policy Challenge in the Middle East?

The issue here is the impact of the nuclear agreement on US foreign policy in the region. How hard will it be to sell the deal in Tel Aviv and Riyadh?

The reaction from Israel was as predicted. The Israeli government had intensely lobbied the involved parties to refrain from striking a deal that would fall short of completely ending Iran's nuclear program and bring a relief in sanctions. Before the deal was reached, reports were floated that Israel and Saudi Arabia were working together to prepare for an attack against Iran in case of an unsatisfactory agreement with the possibility of Israeli jets using Saudi airspace.

After the deal was announced, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman stated in reference to other Middle Eastern states: “This brings us to a new reality in the whole Middle East, including the Saudis. This isn’t just our worry.”  

Netanyahu called the agreement a “historic mistake,” seeing it as only demanding “cosmetic steps” from Iran while he pointed to a lack of incentives for Tehran to actually dismantle its program.

While not clearly stating whether Iran would seek military action, the Prime Minister Netanyahu did not rule out military strikes and made clear that Israel “is not obliged to the agreement.” An Israeli delegation led by National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen will soon be on its way to Washington to discuss the deal. Tough talks lie ahead.

What is clear at this point is that the Obama administration will need to spend significant time reassuring Israel of the American commitment to its security, as well as the benefits of the new deal. Secretary of State John Kerry, trying to assuage the Israelis, presented the US government’s interpretation of the deal: “Israel and the United States absolutely share the same goal here. There is no daylight between us, with respect to what we want to achieve at this point.”

This certainly has not appeased the Israelis. Through meetings with US officials and lawmakers and other channels to exert influence, Israel will put heavy pressure on the administration. At present, there is clearly a lot of daylight between the two allies. The Iranian nuclear program is further testing the strained relations and continues to be a real challenge for US foreign policy in the region.

A secret diplomatic back channel to Iran which was established in March 2013 and was only revealed to Israel on September 30, has the potential to add further damage to the relationship.  

Although Israel failed to prevent the current deal from happening in the first place, it has a six-month proviso, putting pressure on all parties. The time frame provides sufficient opportunities for Israel to lobby in Washington to ensure a comprehensive agreement will either be avoided – consequently leading to renewed sanctions or even military actions – or will impose tighter restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program.

Reaction in the Gulf

Despite Lieberman’s outreach to Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern states traditionally opposed to Iran, at the time of writing, mainly positive signals are coming from the Gulf. Saudi Arabia has stated: “The government of the kingdom sees that if there was goodwill, this agreement could represent a preliminary step towards a comprehensive solution to the Iranian nuclear program.” In a reference to Israel, the Saudi statement has the potential to lead “to the removal of weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons, from the Middle East and the Arab Gulf region.”

US allies Bahrain, the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar voiced their official approval of the deal. Qatar called for a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East which can, like the Saudi statement, be seen as a reference to Israel who is known to possess the only nuclear weapon arsenal in the Middle East.

Despite the fact that these initial statements signal a potentially easier diplomatic front with the US’ Gulf allies, one should not jump to conclusions about the extent to which Saudi Arabia approves of the deal and the improvement in US-Iranian relations that might come with it. A potential rapprochement between Iran and the US has already strained US-Saudi relations, and Iran remains a difficult issue for bilateral relations. Many read the Saudi rejection of a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council as also being in protest of the Western, US-led approach towards Iran.

The Saudi minister of culture and information, Abdulaziz bin Mohieddin Khoja, carefully added to the kingdom's support for the deal and the possibility of a comprehensive solution, “if there are good intentions.” Saudi-Iranian relations, both on an ideational and material level, have a long history of antagonism with both sides accusing the other side of meddling in its affairs.

Many analysts identify a potential rapprochement between Iran and the US as one of the kingdom’s main fears. A complete end to Iran’s international isolation goes against Saudi Arabia’s core interests.  

Saudi Arabia, like Israel, will not acquiesce and, in all likelihood, will exert sufficient diplomatic pressure to counter an improvement in US-Iranian relations.

A Fight at Home

With mixed signals coming from the realm of foreign policy, first reactions out of the domestic arena signal an uphill battle for the Obama administration. President Barack Obama and Secretary Kerry will have to go to Capitol Hill to sell the deal. Congress has only postponed voting on another round of sanctions.

Although the Senate majority leader, Democrat Harry Reid from Nevada, called the deal an “important first step,” he also stated his intention to table a bill calling for tougher sanctions after the congressional recess. Reid explained that he understood Netanyahu’s concerns.

In immediate response to news of the deal, several Democrats and Republicans voiced their criticism. Senator Marco Rubio made his stance clear: “There is now an even more urgent need for Congress to increase sanctions until Iran completely abandons its enrichment and reprocessing capabilities.” Congressman Mike Rogers, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, saw the deal as a mistake that “rewarded very bad and dangerous behavior” and suggested tougher sanctions instead.

This signals a future clash with Obama. In the deal, the P5+1 promised “not [to] impose new nuclear-related sanctions for six months, if Iran abides by its commitments.” Both House majority Whip Kevin McCarthy and minority Whip Steny Hoyer want to have sanctions as a backup plan. Hoyer argued for a delay in implementing new sanctions until after the interim period. However, there remains the possibility that Congress could pass non-nuclear related sanctions against Iran that could still derail a future comprehensive solution.

Conclusion

Altogether, the Obama administration will not only have a hard time selling the deal, especially to long-time ally Israel, but will also face a tough battle at home with party leaders from both sides highlighting the benefits of sanctions and comparing the situation to the North Korean nuclear negotiations. Recent political struggles over Obamacare and the filibuster have shown Congress' polarized state at present.

Criticism of the deal and doubts about Iran’s trustworthiness in the US political scene have the potential to seriously undermine Iranian trust in the negotiations in the lead-up to a comprehensive agreement. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest warned of the negative effect further sanctions would have.

As made clear by all parties involved, negotiating a comprehensive solution will be very difficult with issues like Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium as a Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT) member state remaining a sticking point. The US, the key P5+1 state, has challenging months ahead.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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