The End of the Beginning

by Robert E. Hunter

The talks between Iran and the “P5+1” countries last week bring to mind Winston Churchill’s 1942 description of World War II: “It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

This characterization is even more profound than it first appears. Today we are witnessing a roll of the dice throughout the Middle East. The “negotiations” over Iran’s nuclear program betoken a major shift in psychology and perceptions, notably about power, influence, and national interests. They involve the United States and almost all other countries in the region, which for so long have assumed the immutability of the Iranian-Western confrontation. Of course, that confrontation could now begin to crumble, with wide-ranging geopolitical implications in the region and beyond.

Most immediately, the talks appear to be getting down to brass tacks regarding what Iran is doing with its nuclear program; what it will do to reassure the world that it will not acquire a nuclear weapon or even move toward what is called a “breakout capability;” and what the United States and others will do in exchange. “In exchange” involves the sanctions that have been progressively imposed on Iran since the Islamic Republic’s birth in 1979. But it could also include other steps, some tangible, some intangible, whereby Iran would be readmitted as a legitimate state in international society, free from the shackles on its potential as a highly educated and creative nation with the most American-friendly population in the region.

So much of what will happen now involves the technical details of Iran’s nuclear program, which only a handful of people, both in Iran and the West, really understand.

More important, however, is the politics. Will the Iranian government move far enough to embrace a deal acceptable to the US and the other P5+1 members (the U.S., Britain, France, China, and Russia plus Germany)? Will the P5+1 accept that Iran does have the right to a peaceful nuclear program and some level of uranium enrichment? And, if there is a meeting of the minds, can a potential deal be sold to Iran’s Supreme Leader and the multiple constituencies in the West that claim the right to be heard?

The answer to the first part of this last question may depend on the will of a single individual (and his own complex politics). The answer to the second part will depend not just on President Barack Obama and the other P5+1 leaders — but also on the US Congress and especially Israel. US allies and partners lining the Persian Gulf and outliers like Turkey must also be satisfied.

If a potential deal does take shape, a titanic struggle will take place in this country, pitting President Obama against those who would oppose virtually any deal, however reasonable by objective standards, measured in terms of US national interests. Those parts of Congress responsive to Israel’s perspective will be joined in opposition by the “Friends of Saudi Arabia” and other regional oil countries. Silently in the corner will be the Western companies that pour advanced weaponry into the Arab States of the Persian Gulf — although, if the US does take pressure off Iran, arms sales to still-anxious countries could even increase.

But far more is at stake in the Middle East than Iran’s nuclear program and creating barriers against its ability to build a bomb. We are seeing the first break in the solid containment wall that was erected at the end of the 1970s due to fears that an Islamic revolution would spread its contagion. Except in a few places, that did not happen. Indeed, the greater threat both to Western interests and to regional countries now comes from al-Qaeda and its ilk (which, unlike Shia Iran, are Sunni).

In recent years, concerns have focused on Tehran’s nuclear program. But even before that, there was a policy of containing Iran, in many ways reflecting a general regional contest for power and influence. This contest reflected worries that Tehran and Washington might one day be reconciled. It is perhaps the best explanation for the (opaque) reasoning behind Saudi Arabia’s first campaigning for a seat on the UN Security Council (UNSC) and then, when successful, abruptly declining it. Indeed, with a break in the diplomatic barrier to Iran, Saudi Arabia is less sure that it will continue to stand higher in US regard than an Iran that is “behaving itself” — thus its recent antics. Ironically, the Saudi’s initial pursuit of the UNSC seat had always seemed strange: Security Council members are expected to set and follow standards that are alien to Riyadh.

For its part, Israel is competing for regional influence and to preserve, unchallenged, all the primacy it has in the US. It has effectively used the legitimate fears of an Iranian bomb to oppose any reconciliation between Washington and Tehran while positioning itself as America’s only friend there. This gambit was always risky; should the US and Iran come to terms on the nuclear issue and unfreeze other aspects of their relations, Iran could again become a “player” for influence, at least in the Middle East, with Israel and the oil-producing Arab states.

What happened in Geneva last week, therefore, is only “Act Two” of a lengthy play with elements of a psychological drama (“Act One“ was the Obama-Rouhani phone call). But if Iran plays its part (by no means certain); and if — assuming that a reasonable nuclear deal can be struck — President Obama shows the mettle with domestic naysayers that he showed on debt and default, then major, positive developments may become possible in the Middle East for the first time in years.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.



  1. The last paragraph, could be the telling of the story. I hope that the rapprochement between Iran & the U.S. is a success, that a solution to the Nuclear issue is also. But that’s not going to solve the problems in the M.E. Until the blinders are taken off re: Israel, which will be the next country/state to demand a solution. As for the hawks in the U.S. Congress and think tanks, the question for them is: “who do you put first, the U.S. or Israel”? With Egypt now seeking Russia’s generosity[?] to provide Military arms, is this the start of another “Cold War”, and if so, then has the U.S. lost its edge? One can’t point to any success stories in this century as far as wars waged by the U.S., unless stalemates are the rule of which it is measured. If “O” doesn’t lead, or falters, the alternative of letting the Congress make choices, after the bumbling performance just witnessed, then all bets are off.


    On 25 October 2013, the Guardian UK published an article written by its Tehran Staff entitled, “Iranian reaction to Rouhani UN speech: ‘I hope it works’ “. The article cited the views of 2 ordinary Iranians who greeted the speech with skepticism but nonetheless with a weary impotent hope that its content would be enough to secure the lifting of sanctions: albeit, that one of the cited sources viewed President Rouhani in the same light as Prime Minister Netanhayu of Israel, as well as blaming Rouhani with being complicit in the isolation of Iran together with the destruction of the ‘last vestige’ of the local economy.

    In a Foreign Policy posting dated 23 October on the Middle East Channel, Professor Joy Gordon of Fordham University USA, in an article first dated 18 October 2013 entitled, “ The human costs of the Iran sanctions “, offered an analysis of the multiple effects of sanctions across the Iranian economy and upon its civil population. The picture that emerged from her work corroborates the view the the Iranian local economy is collapsing under the effects of the present sanctions regime, flowing from which, it follows that an increase of sanctions on Iran is not required for the reason that Iran seems to be already nearing or to be on the verge of economic, social, human and political collapse, even, revolution.

    The negotiation stance of Iran in the first Geneva meeting held earlier this month to discuss ending sanctions in return for full disclosure of the Iranian nuclear programme would seem by its candour and fullness to confirm the accuracy of Professor Gordon’s analysis of the Iranian nation’s present plight being the reason for the regime’s volta face.

    The Professor points out however that the Iran regime has not been hurt by sanctions as much as the civilian population has been hurt by their imposition. Assuming that to be the factual position, the resulting severe effects on the civil population contradicts the aim behind the imposition of sanctions, and, arguably calls for an immediate lifting of those sanctions which will rapidly avoid the human calamity being faced by the Iranian non-regime civil population. The imposers of the sanctions therefore face a crucial decision in the immediate near term. The civilian population of Iran is becoming deprived of food and medicines, proteins and vitamins: in short, Iran stands on the edge of an abyss where the necessities required for life are daily becoming more absent and more unobtainable.

    Although the Iran regime is responsible for the present situation faced by its population, the people of Iran were not the objects of the sanctions and they should not be punished for the mistakes and delay of the present regime. There is therefore a choice to be made between the humanitarian course of immediately partly and selectively lifting sanctions with the aim of reviving Iran’s economy to enable it to feed and supply medicines for its population, or, the hard-nosed approach of ignoring the Iranian population’s plight until an agreement has been obtained satisfactory to the nations of P5+1, regardless of the plight of the country’s population.

    In his 22 October 2013 posting, “The End of the Beginning”, Ambassador Robert Hunter envisages that a ‘lengthy play’ may be required before a reasonable nuclear agreement is struck. If, that is indeed the probability, it sharpens the argument and need for a temporary partial lifting of selected sanctions to revive the Iranian local economy sufficient for the Iranian population to be able feed itself and survive until such an agreement is struck. If, such action is not taken, the risk is that the present regime will avoid blame for the sufferings of the civilian population and the blame will be transferred to the imposers of the sanctions.
    Accordingly, though strength is respected and weakness is despised in the culture of Iran, it could not be regarded as weakness to partially and temporarily lift selected sanctions until a nuclear agreement is struck, which though not intended to do so, are having the effect of harming the civilian population of Iran.
    Andrew Allman-Brown
    23 October 2013

  3. Mr Brown makes excellent points in his comment. I presume that the sanctions come from the U.S.Congress, by way of AIPAC/Netanyahoo, which looking at the Palestinian plight, proves that the intended victims have been the civilian population all along. Such misguided thinking, in the hopes that if/when the economy collapses, then revolution would ensue, bringing about regime change?

    I would bet that the fool[s] who thought the scenario up, didn’t do their homework, nor for that mater, even care. I say this because of the fiascoes already in the history books, compliments of said U.S,Congress. That “O” his been complicit, even expanding upon, isn’t the sign of doing the right thing, but the sign of someone who either is incapable of rational thought, is being led around from the nose, by those “Hell-Bent” on destroying the M.E.

    It’s time for new scripts, playbooks, thinking, that doesn’t penalize the civilian population for the sins of the leaders. That’s humanitarian thinking, not the present course, which has been only to destroy the very foundations of the country[s].

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