by Chas Freeman
Negotiators from Iran and the P5+1 are meeting amidst rapidly evolving international and regional circumstances. Whether they succeed or fail, their discussions will have an impact on much more than just nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. They will affect the geopolitics of that region, relations between the world’s greatest powers, and the emerging pluripolar world order.
Ironies of the Current Situation
1) Despite international anxieties about Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the program itself remains a conjecture and allegation rather than an established fact. The world’s most highly regarded intelligence agencies affirm only that some Iranians were doing some work on nuclear weapons until 2003, when the Islamic Republic ended this venture. The official worry is now that Iran’s mastery of the full nuclear fuel cycle and its development of missiles will give it “nuclear latency”—the future capacity to weaponize nuclear materials on short notice. The intelligence agency consensus is that Tehran has not made a decision to do this. Still, the seldom-rebutted popular narrative is that Iran is going all out to build a bomb. Even those who reject this narrative do not trust Iran not to make a decision to acquire nuclear weapons in future. This distrust is deep-rooted. It will not be easy to overcome.
2) Iran’s supreme authorities have proclaimed that nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction are forbidden by Islam. They say that Iran is morally barred from building the bomb. Iran’s history makes it hard to dismiss this declaration out of hand. After all, despite an estimated 100,000 deaths from Iraqi nerve gas attacks, it was on this basis that Tehran declined to develop its own chemical weapons capability during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
The only threats to Iran from countries wielding weapons of mass destruction now come from those most agitated about Iran’s possible acquisition of them—Israel, the United States, and (to a lesser extent) France and neighboring Russia—all of which have nuclear arsenals and a record of assaulting Muslim states. It is logical that Iran should want a nuclear deterrent to bar attack by such nuclear-armed enemies. Powerful interest groups and politicians in Israel, Saudi Arabia, France, and the US assign more weight to this logic than to the findings of their own intelligence agencies. Israelis recall that they ran their own clandestine nuclear weapons program decades ago amidst constant denials that they had such a program. Israel’s government doubts that Iran is any more truthful about its nuclear programs and their objectives than Israel was in the past.
3) Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the other Gulf Arabs don’t want a deal that allows Iran to continue to enrich but, in the absence of a deal, Iran would certainly continue to develop its nuclear sector without effective international constraint.
Current Geo-Political Trends
1) There is a lot at stake in the current negotiations. Recent international trends and developments are both adding to their complexity and magnifying the consequences of their outcome. But the world, the region, and all the parties to the negotiations need a deal.
2) Over the past year, relations among the P5+1 (US, UK, France, Russia, China plus Germany) and the situation in the region have both changed substantially. Tensions between the EU, US, and Russia have become acute and have reduced Russian interest in deferring to Western policies when its own interests in the Middle East and elsewhere suggest a different course. In August, Russia reportedly agreed to buy an initial 500,000 barrels of Iranian oil for resale on world markets, including China, with an option for twice as much. In the absence of UN legitimation of sanctions, China has been importing about 675,000 barrels of Iranian oil a day. India imports almost 300,000. Russia and China are unlikely to cooperate with further sanctions.
The EU has little appetite for more sanctions against Iran. European interest in trade and investment in Iran is all the greater because the EU now needs more than ever to reduce its energy dependence on Russia. Israel’s influence in France, Germany, and the UK has weakened. In this atmosphere, an Israeli effort to block or sabotage agreement would potentially split the P5+1 along yet another axis.
3) The structure of the global economy is changing in ways that reduce American power. US dollar hegemony, the basis for the effectiveness of the current sanctions regime, has begun to visibly erode. New trade settlement mechanisms that avoid the dollar are becoming available. The Indo-Pacific region’s economies are already 1.5 times the size of NAFTA or the EU and are growing more rapidly. The implications of this are clear. The era in which the United States and/or Europe can effectively sanction other countries without the support of the UN Security Council and the great non-Western powers is drawing to a close. Despite Congressional hubris, which is boundless, efforts to tighten sanctions probably won’t work.
Meanwhile, the rise of the group that calls itself the Islamic State and the drawdown of Western forces in Afghanistan have made cooperation with Iran on regional issues more attractive.
The net effect of these changes has been to create new diplomatic options and opportunities for future sanctions avoidance by Iran. Given the strategic situation, Iran is in a seller’s position for the first time.
A breakdown in the negotiations or an agreement that falls apart due to opposition from Israel’s American partisans would see the US Congress seek to ratchet up sanctions against Iran. Israel would be forced to decide whether to mount a unilateral attack on Iran or suffer a loss of credibility as its repeated threats to do so were revealed to be a bluff. Iran would have to choose between its professed aversion to weapons of mass destruction and its need to deter attack by Israel or the United States. Iran might follow North Korea in withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The role of international law in non-proliferation efforts would suffer a debilitating setback. The prospects for the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East would be greatly enhanced. The struggle to craft a strategy to deal with the spreading phenomenon of Islamist extremism, including the so-called “Islamic State” now straddling the Iraq-Syria border, would be further complicated. Another extension of the negotiating deadline would lack credibility and—to one degree or another—entail some of the same negative consequences as a failure to close a deal or to implement one.
An agreement between Iran and the P5+1 that survived Israeli and Gulf Arab second-guessing could (and likely would) stall, if not preclude, further nuclear proliferation in the region. It could also catalyze progress toward Iranian rapprochement with the United States and other Western countries. Its regional impact would depend in part on whether it was judged as likely to prove effective in curbing Iran’s presumed nuclear ambitions. If so, it could facilitate the regional accommodations necessary to restore stability in the Middle East and wider Muslim world.
One way or another, an agreement would produce a chance for all parties to discover common interests in combating and containing extremism, whether Sunni or Shia in origin, and an opportunity for creative diplomacy to replace military contention with peaceful coexistence and competition. These opportunities might not be seized, of course. But they would not exist at all in the absence of a successful outcome to the current negotiations.
Chas Freeman served as US ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the war to liberate Kuwait and as Assistant Secretary of Defense from 1993-94. He was the editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on “diplomacy” and is the author of five books, including “America’s Misadventures in the Middle East” and “Interesting Times: China, America, and the Shifting Balance of Prestige.” Since 1995, he has chaired Projects International, Inc., a Washington-based firm that creates businesses across borders for its American and foreign clients. This essay is based on remarks presented at a Sept. 29 panel at the 2014 Leadership Conference of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).