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Jeffrey Simpson
Jeffrey Simpson

Jeffrey Simpson

Iran bashers display a dangerous lack of worldliness Add to ...

The potentially most consequential negotiations in the world this year will centre on Iran’s nuclear program.

Until June, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany will continue negotiating with Iran a possible deal on preventing that country from building nuclear weapons in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

Negotiations were supposed to end in early December. But negotiators did not reach a deal, so they agreed to a six-month extension. Both sides declared that serious progress had been made, such that more talks were worthwhile.

A deal is there to be had, and the collapse of oil prices can only put even more pressure on the Iranians to be reasonable, given the double whammy their country faces with sanctions and low oil prices.

The devil for a deal lies in the politics of Iran and the United States, but also in important details such as how many centrifuges Iran would be allowed, what level of uranium enrichment would be permitted, how large would be the stockpiles and the time frame for Iran to turn its nuclear capability into a weapon – the so-called “breakout.”

Critics of the negotiations – led by Israel, of course, and the Harper government that follows Israel’s lead on all Middle East issues – insist Iran should be stripped of centrifuges and essentially of its entire capability ever to make a weapon. For the critics, it’s all or nothing, which is not how any successful negotiation ever ends.

The critics’ bottom line would mean, of course, no possible deal, which is presumably what Israel, the Israel lobby in Washington, the U.S. Republican Party and irrelevancies such as the Harper government want. Their short-term alternative is to apply even more economic sanctions on Iran, hoping that the country would bend under their weight, which is what would not at all happen.

Instead, some of the six negotiating partners (Russia and China for sure; France perhaps) would assume no deal and likely begin to make their own arrangements with Iran. Other countries (India, for example) would increase economic ties. Iran would continue without bothering with any international inspections to spin more centrifuges and move closer to the possibility of some day wielding a nuclear weapon which, in turn, would so frighten Saudi Arabia (and perhaps Turkey) that a nuclear race might begin in the world’s most volatile region.

No deal with Iran, coupled with phobias about the country elsewhere, would tempt Israelis and some Americans into a military option that could, at best, merely cripple the Iranian nuclear program but not prevent it from eventually unfolding. Such an attack would destroy the moderates (by Iranian standards) who won the 2013 presidential election and embolden the hardliners. It would also enjoin Iran to further support Hezbollah, Hamas and even the Syrian regime.

Professor Thomas Juneau at the University of Ottawa warns, quite wisely, in a recent paper for Middle East Policy of Iran’s “strategic loneliness.” By this, he means that Iran has no natural or historic partners in the region. All Iranian regimes, whatever their composition, will be prickly because the Iranians believe themselves surrounded by “threat and encirclement.”

Iran has been attacked, after all, by Iraq, which was supported in that war by the United States. Iran’s relations, as the world’s leading Shia country, with Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia are poor. Iran’s government was overthrown once by a U.S.-inspired coup. Around it, nuclear weapons are in the hands of China, Russia, Pakistan, India, Israel and the Western powers of the United States, France and Britain.

Given Prof. Juneau’s warnings about “strategic loneliness,” and Iran’s sense of its own history (and importance), no one should expect a nuclear deal would transform the country’s foreign policy. But it might, over time, lead to some thawing of relations with the United States, with which it has co-operated on such issues as the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Islamic State.

Iran is a very complicated place. It has a governmental system with elections but where ultimate power over internal and external security lies with the Supreme Ayatollah and the Revolutionary Guards, who own large chunks of the Iranian economy.

The middle-class and more educated Iranians – the kind of people who elected Hassan Rouhani as President – want to break free from the rigidities imposed by the regime and the sanctions imposed by the West.

To see Iran as a monolithic society with a monochromatic political system reflects a dangerous lack of sophistication and a failure to imagine possibilities.

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