Iran ‒ an unanticipated rapprochement

A year or so ago there would have been few, if any, takers on a bet that the events culminating last Sunday could have occurred. A year ago too, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with a reputation for a degree of unpredictability, was in office, but it was already being assumed that he would not be allowed by the Ayatollah Khamenei to run for another term.

As the Ayatollah’s favourite for the position became known, however, and it was becoming evident that the chosen one had developed a reputation for a certain degree of understanding of the ways of the West (having studied at Glasgow Caledonian University previously); and as the Iranian campaign proceeded in its own way, observers were beginning to perceive the possibility of a new face, proposing a somewhat different way for a change in relations between Iran and, in particular, the Western world, or Nato powers.

New President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to the General Assembly in September seemed to confirm this prospect, and President Obama, apparently encouraged by Secretary of State John Kerry, felt that they could throw out some feelers which, indeed, seemed to get a warming, if not completely warm, response.

The early news of last fortnight’s engagements and formal discussions between a collection of not simply Western powers, but including UN Security Council permanent members China and Russia, indicated that this encounter between the Iranian team was seeming to suggest that President Obama’s instinct about the possibility of a rapprochement with Iran was possible. And last Sunday’s news confirmed this.

At the beginning of the most recent discussions, not all the negotiating powers were aligned. Apparently initially playing a diplomacy that would seek to represent the interests of concerned non-participants, in particular Middle Eastern states like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, and most vocally Israel, France sought to hold out on what seemed, at first, to be a negotiation that could quickly be concluded. But President Obama, seen in recent times to be willing to take into extra consideration the views of these powers, appeared as the last phase of talks commenced, to develop a new assertiveness about reaching some acceptable conclusion.

The results of the negotiations announced last Sunday have indicated that the President would not be swayed by those inclined to hesitation, in order to permit continuing pressure on Iran. Undoubtedly he was helped by the almost bull-doggish determination of Secretary Kerry to consolidate some, at least, initial conclusions. And France seemed in the second round to sense the determination of the US, supported by chief Nato ally, Britain to conclude.

Further, the negotiations have shown that President Obama came clearly to the position that the Israelis’ hostility, initially and continuing, to any negotiations at all, could not be permitted to impede his own strategy. And indeed, President Netanyahu’s continuing hostility can be seen in his description of the results as an “historic mistake.”

All participants in fact insist that the agreement is limited and strongly dependent on the Iranians’ indication of willingness to fully abide by it. Such behaviour has been taken, by the West and others, as a prerequisite to releasing the economic pressure that has been placed on Iran. And reactions from within Iran, including obviously, the Ayatollah, suggest that such have been the effects of the sanctions imposed over the years, that indeed a breathing space, at least, was really needed.

Perhaps an appropriate description of what has so far transpired, has come from Richard Haas, the President of a leading United States think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, indicating that in his view, “this is an agreement that does limited things for a limited time, no more and no less.”

Middle East opponents of the agreement, like Saudi Arabia, recognize that it comes at a time of much turmoil in the area which the Saudis and the Gulf States see as having a potential to shift the balance of power against them. They have argued that the Iranians have been playing a significant role in Syria on the side of the Hezbollah who are supporting President Assad.

The significance of this is that the Iranians support the Shi’ites who are in turn supporting the Syrians, while the Saudis and the Gulf States’ leaderships, are themselves now under pressure from Shi’ite populations at home. So both themselves and the Israelis have found a somewhat curious alliance, recalling the old saying that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.” And it would appear that the Egyptians, having overthrown President Morsi, are now firmly on their side.

There is some indication that the Saudis had taken on board a sentiment indicated in recent times by the Israelis that, if pushed hard enough, President Obama could be made to change his mind.  France indeed, seemed to have found its initial interest in supporting the positions of the opponents of an accord, as a result of significant arms sales to both the Gulf States and the Saudis. And some critics argue that that fact is behind the pressure which President Hollande sought to put on Obama in the course of the first round of the recent negotiations.

So the situation is, as expected, complex. Those with long memories will recall an era in which the United States disapproved of an attempt by the British and the French, in 1956, to overthrow President Nasser by way of an invasion of the Suez Canal. President Eisenhower disapproved and brought their foray to an end. The United States remains the central arbiter.




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