Rouhani’s Nuclear Deal is Old Wine in a New Bottle

By Rouba al-Fattal on December 16, 2013

Lost in Translation, seems to be a fitting title to describe the discrepancy between the Iranian and American understanding of the nuclear deal. On 24 November, an interim agreement was signed in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany). The White House published a ‘fact sheet’ on the agreement a day before the text of the pact was officially released, and the Iranian government also published its translated version of the pact. The American version claims that the agreement ‘halts the progress of Iran’s nuclear program’; while the Iranian version states that the US ‘concurs with Iran’s right to a nuclear energy’. Even on technicalities the two versions seem to clash that the only thing they seem to agree on is to disagree.

The President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, hailed this agreement as a victory for Iran because it will ease the political and economic sanctions put on the country, while protecting its nuclear program. President Obama, on the other hand, took so much heat from his allies in the Middle East including Saudi Arabia and Israel about this deal. Both of them consider the agreement a Trojan horse, one that will not stop Iran’s nuclear enrichment or help curb its power aspiration in the region. So, why then was the US in such a hurry to sign a murky deal with so much at stake?

The Obama administration is arguing that Iran would have continued to build up its nuclear program, with no constraints or inspections – meaning a bad deal is better than no deal at all. But that explanation does not make sense, because Iran will still not give up its nuclear program with or without this agreement. Also, Tehran was starting to feel the economic squeeze, which made it soften its tone with the West in the first place. The sanctions were starting to pay off, and the US administration realizes that a crippled economy in Iran leads to limited enrichment (the reason why the sanctions were imposed in the first place). But the US did not want the Iranian government to collapse. This might sound puzzling but not if we look at the bigger geostrategic picture of the whole region and understand the American reasoning behind its decision. 

Iran plays a major role in the Syria crisis, but it is not alone. Russia is also a culprit in the growing civil war, and the two are feeding into each other’s power game. It is no secret that Russia sells weapons to the Syrian regime, while Iran pays the bill. The Assad regime, in return, guarantees both countries their strategic interests. Russia’s involvement in Syria has restored the American-Russian balance of power to the region, while Iran’s contribution strengthened the Shiite crescent of the Middle East (in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon). This symbiotic relationship between Iran and Russia has become worrisome to the US administration. Thus, one way to weaken the Iran-Russia pact is by opening a door for negotiations between Iran and the US – a door that has been shot for more than four decades. 

Iran also proved to be a more important card to play in the long run than the Syrian card. The conventional wisdom that if Assad loses then Iran will also lose its biggest asset in the region does not hold true anymore. With many new players introduced to the Syrian swamp (e.g. Al-Qaeda and other groups of a sectarian and jihadist nature), Iran’s influence in Syria is not expected to diminish anytime soon. Thus, whether Assad wins or loses this battle is not of importance anymore, but whether Iran wins the Sunni-Shiite war is. 

But can the US partner with Iran if the latter emerges victorious from the regional Sunni-Shiite conflict? So far, with all the kerfuffle surrounding the two versions of the nuclear deal, not much Iranian good will has been shown. Also, who is to guarantee that until then other countries in the Middle East won’t react to ensure their survival? With mounting fears in the Gulf region of a nuclear Iran, nuclear proliferation might become a reality sooner than expected. Is the West ready to deal with a nuclearized Middle East? Well, perhaps the US is right in not putting all its eggs in the Saudi basket, but shaking hands with the devil might cost it some fingers.

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