By S P Seth
The good news is that the November 20 deadline for working out a long-term nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 powers that include the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (US, UK, France, China and Russia) and Germany has been extended for seven months to June 30 next year. The bad news, though, is that there are still serious gaps between the two sides, with the US and other dialogue partners wanting to curb Iran’s nuclear capability to suddenly breakout into making an atomic bomb. How and whether these gaps will be bridged during the extended period will be a difficult, if not an improbable, exercise. The opening premise of the negotiations in which Iran is considered a culprit of sorts pursuing a nuclear weapons programme in contravention of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), is seriously challenged by Tehran. Iran maintains that its nuclear research and technology programme is for peaceful purposes as per the NPT charter. The one-year interim agreement signed last year, which virtually froze Iran’s nuclear programme, was a stopgap arrangement to curtail Iran’s nuclear capability until a long-term arrangement was worked out. In return, Iran was given limited relief from some of the sanctions imposed on it.
The US’s intelligence on Iran’s nuclear capability did not detect that Tehran was working on a nuclear bomb, which enraged Israel. It is quite clear that despite all the sanctions it has suffered and is still suffering, Iran insists that it will not give away its ‘peaceful’ nuclear programme as it is a matter of national sovereignty. Even if it were to accept a low level of enrichment capability at 10 percent or below — an unlikely prospect — it still would not be acceptable to the Zionist lobby in the US that, with Israel, has a veto of sorts when it comes to Iran’s nuclear programme. They are unlikely to let it go through, with threats of more sanctions. For them, the only real solution is the dismantling/destruction of Iran’s nuclear capability because Tehran cannot be trusted to abide by any agreement.
Israel is simply dead set on stopping Iran from a nuclear path, peaceful or otherwise. It believes that Tehran will use its nuclear capability against Israel. Therefore, it has sought to subvert it by all sorts of subterfuges. For instance, it infected the programme with a computer virus targeted at Iran’s nuclear centrifuges to enrich uranium, possibly with US help/involvement. In the process, it was reported to have, at the time, ruined almost one-fifth of the centrifuges, thus seriously complicating and slowing the programme. But Iran apparently was able to fix the damage.
Israel has also reportedly been behind the killing of some of Iran’s nuclear scientists. Israel had reportedly tried hard to persuade the Bush administration to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities but it did not succeed as the US was already bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq, and did not have the stomach to buy into another adventure with all sorts of unpredictable consequences. Israel would have liked to do this on its own but wanted US help and backing that was not forthcoming. The US, however, made it clear that all options, including military action, were on the table if Iran acquired nuclear weapons. Israel is not satisfied with such assurances. One thing though is clear. Whether or not Iran’s nuclear programme is legitimate, Israel certainly does not have any political/moral case to oppose it, being the first to introduce nuclear weapons in the region and said to have an arsenal of a few hundred bombs.
Israel is not the only regional country strongly opposed to Iran’s nuclear programme. Among Arab countries, Saudi Arabia is in the vanguard of such opposition, though it does not seem coordinated with Israel. It is part of the larger sectarian conflict in the Muslim world between the Sunnis and Shias and the attendant geopolitical rivalry. Iran is believed to have ambitions to destabilise the Arab world and establish its dominance. One way to do so would be to stir up support among Shias in Arab countries, like in Bahrain where there is a majority Shia population ruled by a Sunni monarch, in the restive Saudi oil producing eastern province with a Shia majority, and in Yemen. Iran’s nuclear status would enhance its regional position and further stir up Shias in Arab countries, with direct or indirect support from Iran. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners are, therefore, strongly opposed to any US nuclear deal with Iran.
Of course, the US has no intention of facilitating an Iranian nuclear programme. That is why there are so many obstacles in doing a deal. It has to be so foolproof that Iran will not be able to ‘breakout’ into making a bomb through its existing nuclear facilities. Hence, the need for the US to keep Iran’s capability to enrich uranium to the lowest possible level and to keep its nuclear facilities under strict and widest scrutiny and surveillance. While Iran is willing to accept reasonable curbs and be transparent about its programme, it is not willing to let international inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) roam around anywhere and everywhere to demand instant inspections and interview its scientists. In return for accepting curbs on its nuclear programme, Iran wants economic sanctions lifted substantially, if not completely. The US, on the other hand, would like any lifting of sanctions to be limited both in scope and time to Iran’s compliance to Washington’s satisfaction, thus keeping it on life support. It is, therefore, not difficult to see what a maze the nuclear dialogue is between Iran and its six dialogue partners, particularly the US, UK, France and Germany.
However, last year’s interim agreement was a breakthrough of sorts between Iran and the US, though a limited one. John Kerry admitted that some progress was made in recent negotiations but not enough to clinch a deal. Serious gaps remain in their respective positions. The extended time schedule is meant to iron out and bridge those gaps, which is a big task. One thing, though, is clear: without Iran’s constructive involvement, the Middle Eastern region is likely to remain volatile, even more so after the runaway success of the Islamic State (IS). There is considerable scope for the US and Iran for cooperation against the IS, and some of it is already happening informally in Iraq. Indeed, John Kerry described recent Iranian aerial sorties against the IS as “positive”.
Although Saudi Arabia remains opposed to Iranian involvement and/or any cooperation between it and the US, Riyadh is not unaware of the serious threat IS poses to the Saudi regime by seeking to destabilise and/or overthrow the monarchy. The threat would probably have to be more concrete before Riyadh considers any opening with Iran. However, for Iran to become part of the Middle Eastern geopolitical solution against IS and a range of other issues, a deal with Iran on its nuclear programme is imperative.
(The writer is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney, Australia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Daily Times, December 10, 2014