Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1167, (3 - 9 October 2013)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1167, (3 - 9 October 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Window of opportunity in the Middle East

A diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear question could be within reach, which is an unprecedented opportunity that must not be wasted, writes Hussein Haridy

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Middle East has witnessed lately something that has been unprecedented since 4 November, 1979, when Iranian students stormed the American embassy in Tehran and took American diplomats hostage for 444 days.

From that date onwards, relations between the United States and Iran went from bad to worse with little chance for improvement. From 1979 until today, Washington has lived through six administrations evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Presidents James Carter, William Clinton and Barack Obama have come from the Democratic Party, whereas presidents Ronald Reagan, George Bush senior and George Bush junior came from the Republican Party. All of them have tried to approach Iran, but as a result of domestic reasons and regional imperatives the Iranians have always been distrustful of American intentions.

It seems that things could change under the new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and President Obama. They have exchanged letters recently, a first since 1979, and the Washington Post published an opinion piece by the Iranian president before his arrival in New York this month to attend the General Assembly of the United Nations. In it, Rouhani called for an end to what he termed “blood feuds” and for Washington to make the most of the mandate “that my people have given me”.

There were rumours that the American and Iranian presidents could even meet, but they talked over the phone instead. In the meantime, the American secretary of state met with his Iranian counterpart last week. All these overtures open a window of opportunity, not only for the American and Iranian governments, but also for the governments of the Middle East and the Gulf.

The American-Iranian confrontation that kept the two powers apart could now be nearing its end. It all depends on how the Obama administration views the strategic benefits that would ensue once this confrontation disappears, and how the White House will manage the fierce objections of an Israeli government that is suspicious of the true intentions of Iran under a new president, who, unlike his immediate predecessor, chooses his words rightly.

Rouhani has adopted a positive approach towards negotiating a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear question. Similarly, he has stressed the need to improve relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. The victory of Rouhani in a fair and democratic election is testimony to the fact that Iran is looking for a change in the status quo at home and abroad. After eight years of the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran and as a result of the crippling international sanctions against the country, the Iranian people surely want to turn the page and the ruling establishment wants to safeguard the regime.

President Rouhani, with the blessing of Iran’s Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei, knows that without an agreement concerning Iran’s nuclear programme it will be next to impossible to lift the sanctions that have devastated not only the economy but also the oil industry of the country. In this regard, Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s high representative for security and foreign affairs, met the Iranian foreign minister in New York last week to discuss how to proceed on the question of Iran’s nuclear programme. She termed the meeting “positive”. The Iranian foreign minister has been appointed the head of the country’s negotiating team to streamline negotiations with the 5+1 Group, which means that the chief negotiator on the Iranian side reports directly to the president.

Addressing the General Assembly of the United Nations on 24 September, Obama made it clear that in the near term “America’s diplomatic efforts will focus on two particular issues: Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and the Arab-Israeli conflict.” He added that the solution of the Iranian nuclear question “can serve as a major step down a long road towards a different relationship, one based on mutual interests and respect”. To reassure the Iranian regime, Obama stressed in his remarks that Washington was not seeking regime change in Tehran and that it respected Iran’s right to use nuclear energy for peaceful ends. These reassurances are meant to put to an end to Iranian fears that the United States is bent on overthrowing the rule of the mullahs in Tehran.

As a measure of the changes brought about by the election of Rouhani and how it has impacted positively on American attitudes, just one year ago and in front of the General Assembly of the United Nations, the American president said “make no mistake: a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained. It would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations, and the stability of the global economy. It risks triggering a nuclear arms race in the region… that’s why the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

When Obama entered the White House in January 2009, he made it clear that “all options are on the table” in dealing with Iran’s nuclear programme. This formula has been interpreted to mean that the use of force should not be excluded in case of the failure of negotiations. It has also reassured Israeli hawks that the United States will not back down if Iran decides to militarise its nuclear programme. Accordingly, there is no need for Israel to strike Iran’s nuclear installations on its own and without prior consultation with Washington. Today, this approach should be reinterpreted in the light of the overtures made by Rouhani. It should now mean that diplomacy will have the upper hand, particularly in the wake of the American-Russian Framework Agreement on the Syrian chemical weapons. The fact that Iran is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty makes diplomacy all the more imperative.

On the other hand, the Israeli government has been ringing the alarm bells over the new Iranian strategy. The office of the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu issued a statement last Thursday (19 September) that said that “the Iranian regime’s goal is to reach a deal that would require it to give up an insignificant part of its nuclear programme, while allowing it to charge quickly towards acquiring a nuclear weapon whenever it chooses.”

The Israeli prime minister said that the world should not be fooled by words, adding that whatever Rouhani might say the real test lay in the deeds of the Iranian regime, which continued to advance its nuclear programme, with vigour according to Netanyahu. He even went as far as to depict Rouhani as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”. One wonders how the Israeli prime minister should be described if Rouhani is to be considered a “wolf”.

The Israeli Minister for Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz said on 20 September that the Iranians were six months away from developing a bomb and that “there is no more time to hold negotiations.” He added that Washington’s promise that “all options are on the table” had not been enough. It is interesting to note that Israel has laid down four conditions of its own to solve the Iranian nuclear question to its satisfaction, namely: halting uranium enrichment; removal of enriched uranium from Iran; dismantling of the Fordo nuclear plant; stopping the plutonium track.

I believe that the hardening of the Israeli position is intentionally geared towards exerting the maximum pressure on Obama and his administration to obtain the best possible deal — that is, to take all the necessary precautions to ensure that Iran will never master the technology for manufacturing a nuclear bomb, and nor will it keep the capacity to do so, should it decide to do it. Not to be outdone, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee made a statement last Friday stating that “Iran must allow inspectors into a military plant at Parchin where Iran tests explosives” and adding that “pleasant rhetoric” would not suffice.

If Iran fails to act, according to this statement, sanctions must be increased. Such positions on the part of Israel and its main American backers are meant to raise the ante before the meeting between Obama and the Israeli prime minister on 30 September. The latter will address the General Assembly the following day. Last year, in the same place, he had spoken of his own “red lines” and made it clear that Israel would reach these sometime in 2013.

Fortunately, the Obama administration believes that there is time and space for diplomacy. Let us hope that when the American president meets his Israeli counterpart he will be able to convince him that international diplomacy has a greater chance of success with the changes taking place in Tehran than the threats of the use of force or going to war over the Iranian nuclear programme. What Obama reiterated in New York on 24 September — that diplomacy must be tried — is a guarantee that negotiating a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear question could be within reach, and this is an unprecedented opportunity that must not be wasted.


The writer is assistant to the  foreign minister.

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