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Orienting to the new West Asia

After only a second round of talks in Geneva, an interim agreement between the P5 plus Germany and Iran was announced on 24 November 2013, unleashing fury in Israel and Saudi Arabia. The rest of the world heaved a collective sigh of relief that the agreement, although temporary, would at the least ensure a pause in Iran’s nuclear (weapons?) programme and avoid yet another military intervention in an already boiling West Asia.

Almost simultaneously, the American media revealed that contacts had been underway between the U.S. and Iran – mediated by Oman – since 2011. The media leaks debunked the chatter that the change was a result of a charm offensive by Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, rather than hard-headed geopolitics by a militarily-exhausted and financially-strapped America trapped in a global economic downturn and two costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a collapsing Iranian economy.

The negotiations led by the European Union’s High Representative Catherine Ashton and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, must indeed have been painstaking. But they were a mere sideshow to the search by both Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei and, more publicly, by U.S. President Barack Obama, for the terms on which to seek a normalisation of bilateral relations.

At any time, it would have been amazing if Israel’s government and famed intelligence agencies were unaware of the Iran-western contacts. Now, however, we know that Israel had been informed by Saudi Arabia, which may have had a hand in the mediation by Oman. We can also deduce that Israel received information from its close ally, the U.S., which may be the key to comprehending the Obama administration’s stoicism in the face of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s increasingly shrill denunciations over the last few months. That may also help explain the fairly early and cautious welcome of the agreement by Saudi Arabia, even as all the players continue to pretend to be outraged.

Shorn of details, the interim agreement effectively halts Iranian weaponisation plans by keeping enrichment below 5%, and enshrines daily access to the three facilities of concern – Natanz, Fordow, and the under-construction heavy water plant at Arak. In return, Iran – which loses an estimated $5 billion a month from its inability to sell more oil and gas, and billions more in exchange rate losses from the falling value of its currency and gutted economy – gets relief from sanctions worth $7 billion of its own frozen funds and an easing of restrictions on exports of precious metals. Sanctions have also been made less severe on the import of spare parts for Iran’s dangerously unsafe aviation sector, automobiles, pharmaceuticals, food, and shipping insurance cover.

Over the next six months, the signatories will work towards a final agreement, including details of how many centrifuges Iran may retain, what levels of enrichment will be permissible, and the frequency and intrusiveness of inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Also to be determined will be the synchronisation for relaxing sanctions against Iran. But six months is enough time for opponents of an American-Iranian rapprochement to create difficulties in Washington and other western capitals and in Iran itself, with its fierce political rivalries and vested economic interests – especially of the ruthlessly powerful revolutionary guards and opponents of Rouhani.

An anguished Israel continues to recite its fears and mistrust of the Iranian government, making overblown comparisons to Hitler, which is out to destroy Israel’s very existence in its present geography. Israel claims that Iran is a “mullahcracy” unrestrained by rational considerations. It says that even Rouhani is a wolf in sheep’s clothing – incidentally the exact term the Chinese use for the Dalai Lama – and the West is naive to fall for his gentler persona as compared to his reviled predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Sinister comparisons are also made with appeasement a la Chamberlain’s Munich agreement of September 1938. And the world is reminded of Israel’s existential fears that although it is not militarily vulnerable, a nuclear Iran will be a threat to the survival of Israel.

So is Israel exaggerating the threat from Iran – as it did about Iraq in the 1980s – to the point of annoying its supporters in the American administration and Congress? Or is it simply trying to safeguard its nuclear monopoly while sidelining the rights of the Palestinians? Maybe both, but there is no doubt that its insecurities are deeply-felt in the context of its history and its urgent need for the unqualified support of the U.S. Anxious Israelis, at every level, speak of the smallness of their geography, the paucity of natural resources, the deep hostility of their neighbours grown more threatening with political Islam, and the turmoil set off by the Arab uprisings in their region. They also recount the terrorist activities of the Palestinians, of Hamas and of Hezbollah.

But Israelis are oblivious of how they too threaten their neighbours – by their scientific and industrial achievements, their social cohesion, and their very real military superiority and nuclear programme, buttressed by western allies. However, the Israelis are pragmatic and will soon adjust to the changes in their neighbourhood.  Sadly though, they still show no willingness to accommodate the long-suffering Palestinians.

India, after recent foreign office consultations with Iran, has welcomed the P5-Iran agreement, which could enable a return to higher oil imports and hopefully promote peace in Afghanistan. Further afield, Iran has a positive role, if allowed to play it, in taking the murderous civil war in Syria towards a solution. But a worry for everyone in the region, including India, is whether other regional countries will seek nuclear capability and the role Pakistan may play in that quest.

Neelam Deo is Co-founder and Director, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations; She has been the Indian Ambassador to Denmark and Ivory Coast; and former Consul General in New York.

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