Negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran were finally wrapped up after 18 months of intense diplomatic discussion. A final agreement to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions is slated to be drawn up by the end of June. For years, talks between Iran and the six world powers had been in a deadlock because of concerns over the possible military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear programme.
Years of distrust and suspicion were followed by a raft of economic and financial sanctions against Iran by the UN, EU and other countries.
Under the EU embargo and US sanctions, Iran’s oil exports had fallen to 7,00,000 barrels per day (bpd) by May 2013, in contrast to 2.2 million bpd in 2011. The impact of sanctions was also devastating for the Iranian currency, which plummeted by at least 40 per cent, and the soaring price of food. The health of millions of Iranians was compromised because of the shortage of Western medical supplies. So crippling were the sanctions that they began to look like an existential threat to the Iranian economy. Given the economic strain, Iran was absolutely desperate for a deal, though supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had repeated on several occasions that any agreement must preserve Iran’s “dignity and integrity”, giving it the freedom to pursue a civilian nuclear programme.
Although Iran’s 75 million citizens seem broadly supportive of their country’s nuclear programme, many of them prefer the Rouhani administration’s dialogical and cooperative tone to Ahmadinejad’s populist and confrontational stance. For months, US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, have been under immense pressure from political hardliners, in both Tehran and Washington DC, opposing the negotiations and trying to blow up any agreement they didn’t like. Worse, at times, hardliners in both countries tried to sabotage negotiations either by putting pressure on Khamenei to reject an agreement or through suggestions that the American Congress pass a new sanctions bill and undercut President Barack Obama’s ability to negotiate with Iran.
However, with the post-Arab Spring chaos in the Middle East and the re-emergence of Iran as a stable and key political player in this crisis-torn region, the US and European countries finally realised that the only way to manage the complexity of the Middle Eastern geopolitics was to engage Iran in international diplomacy.
It is in this context that Rouhani’s administration, unlike his predecessor’s, has defined and determined Iran’s understanding of strategic stability in the region, insisting on its multiple tasks in cooperation with the US, to pacify and steady Iraq as well as Afghanistan. The reason is simple: as a rising power and a rational, logical state actor in the Middle East, Iran, more than any other country in the region, is interested in a stable neighbourhood. Despite all that has been said in the past 36 years, Iran’s regional and larger policies are an interesting mix of pragmatism and defiance, with diplomatic capacities to take on its strategic ambitions. These ambitions have led Iran to cooperate with its longtime enemy, the US, on a broader political strategy designed to stop the Islamic State, but it has naturally complicated American efforts to rally an Arab coalition to defeat the IS.
A radical Sunni group, the IS is a danger to Shia Iran and its allies in the region; that is why Iran is acting proactively in attacking the IS in Iraq and Syria rather than waiting for the threat to come to its borders. With Major General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds brigade of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, directing operations in the city of Tikrit, Iran is on a massive offensive against the Sunni rebels under the cover of a US-led war on terrorism. But this is also in order to gain strategic depth that extends its areas of control all the way to Yemen. Iran’s presence in Yemen is a grave national security issue for Saudi Arabia, an ally of the US which has opposed the nuclear deal from the very first day. Located on Saudi Arabia’s southern border and with a population that is 35 per cent Shia, Yemen could become a base of operations in Iran’s rivalry against Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, it should be underlined that Yemen, as much as Iraq and Syria, is a strategic bargaining chip that Iran holds vis-à-vis American and European diplomacies in the Middle East. By playing it, Iran would seek to pressure the Western world to tread lightly in Iraq and Syria or risk a chaotic Middle East. It would also prompt them to accept Iran as a major player in the great game of the Middle East.
It goes without saying that the US nuclear deal with Iran could deeply intensify a new sectarian war that has been unfolding between Saudi Arabia and its allies on one hand, and Iran on the other. Moreover, though a nuclear deal with Iran is a handsome reward of diplomacy in today’s world, in contrast to military options, it is too early to say what the prospects and consequences of such a deal would be. The events and decisions of the next months may well decide the political future of Iran and the balance of power in the Middle East for several years. For never have the Iranians or other nations of this region had so much to lose or so much to gain in a diplomatic bargain.
The writer is Noor-York Chair in Islamic Studies, York University, Toronto