There’s good news for once from the Middle East, as Iran and the international community (as represented by the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany) have reached an agreement that will limit Iran’s nuclear program in return for the softening of western sanctions.
The deal is to run for six months, but all being well it should be the precursor to a more far-reaching agreement.
I’ve been writing about the Iranian nuclear issue at intervals for several years now (see, for example, here, here, here and here), and it seems to me that this deal confirms the general view that I’ve formed in that time. The basis of that view is that the fundamental interests of Iran and the west are not incompatible.
Iran’s interest is in developing a nuclear energy program, primarily for three reasons:
(a) for international prestige, and especially the importance of not being seen to back down under pressure;
(b) as a fallback source of energy for domestic consumption;
(c) to maintain the capacity to move to a nuclear weapons program at some point in the future if that seems desirable.
The west’s interest is in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and also preventing it from reaching a point where they could be developed before the west had time to react. It has no particular need to dent Iran’s image, or to maintain sanctions unnecessarily, or to prevent Iran from producing electricity from nuclear power.
The problem all along has been political rather than strictly diplomatic. The weekend’s deal, or something very like it, has been on the table for a long time, but until now it has not been taken up.
Iran’s rulers have shied away from a deal because of their own paranoia, and apparently a degree of sheer bloody-mindedness: it seems as if keeping Israel and the west in a state of anxiety has been a positive good for some Iranian leaders.
Obstacles in the west have been more complex. There has probably been some bloody-mindedness as well, and certainly a deep reluctance to trust the Iranians. But the main problem has been the neoconservative influence in the US, and its constant promotion of the point of view of the right-wing Likud government in Israel.
Benjamin Netanyahu, of course, has dissented from the general chorus of approval of the weekend’s agreement. As I’ve suggested before, in addition to preventing the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon, Likud has a slightly different set of interests:
(a) ideally, regime change in Iran, replacing the Islamic theocracy with a government more friendly to Israel, as was that of the Shah prior to 1979;
(b) failing that, at least deligitmising and discrediting the Iranian government so that its point of view is not taken into account by the west (the more moderate the Iranian leadership, the more urgent this task becomes);
(c) keeping the whole nuclear issue in the public eye without ever reaching a resolution, both for domestic political purposes and to give Israel a ready-made foreign policy grievance.
The western powers probably share a general desire for (a), but less so for (b) and not at all for (c).
Netanyahu, however, has powerful friends in the US Congress, and it looks as if attempts will be made there to derail the agreement by the imposition of further sanctions. Peace, however, is always popular, and assuming Barack Obama puts his authority on the line behind it, it’s hard to imagine its opponents being able to put together a veto-proof majority.
(For more on the Iran deal, Juan Cole has an excellent summary, although his opening line – “The decade-long Neoconservative plot to take the United States to war against Iran appears to have been foiled” – is perhaps a little hyperbolic.)