Sunday, 13 July 2014

A Right Outcome

Norman Lamont writes:
Sometime in the next 10 days, possibly this week, there will be an important announcement about the outcome of the negotiations in Vienna between the west and Iran about its nuclear programme.

If there isn't a deal, that will create great uncertainty. If there is one, some of the west's allies, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, will express alarm.

By all accounts, the atmosphere has been completely different from previous talks. The Iranians have been open and eager to do a deal.

Hopes for a breakthrough in the west's relations with Iran were raised by the unexpected election of the moderate President Rouhani.

He campaigned on a platform of increasing freedom of expression, tolerance and improving both the economy and Iran's relations with the west.

He has faced hardline opposition and accusations of selling out to the west. If there is no successful outcome to the negotiations, he will face fierce criticism and his presidency will possibly be destroyed.

Recently, Rouhani appeared to suggest that Iran might help the US in fighting Isis in Iraq. These remarks were later contradicted by Iran's supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Nonetheless, this episode underlined a common interest between Iran and the west in fighting the extremism of Salafists and Wahhabis, often supported by the west's "moderate" allies in the Gulf.

There is great rivalry between Iran and some Gulf states.

Iran has been accused of stirring up the Shia minority in other countries. This has probably been true in the past but, interestingly, President Obama's former secretary of defence, Robert Gates, told the Bahrainis to stop blaming Iran for its problems with the Shia and to start addressing their legitimate grievances.

There have been several other occasions since the Iranian revolution when it looked as though there could be a breakthrough in Iranian-western relations.

A predecessor of Rouhani, President Khatami, also saw shared interests with the west, helping the US with the invasion of Afghanistan.

He proposed "a grand bargain", full diplomatic relations with the US and the reining in of Hezbollah and Hamas.

For his pains, he was labelled part of "the axis of evil" by President Bush.

The US relationship with Iran is still poisoned by the humiliation of the Tehran hostage crisis. It was indeed a terrible event. But it was 35 years ago, in the middle of a revolution.

On the Iranian side, the list of grievances against the US includes American support of Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, and the shooting down of an Iranian civilian airliner with the loss of almost 300 lives.

In recent weeks, as hopes have risen for a positive outcome to the nuclear negotiations, there has been a strong backlash against any deal. "Don't let Iran into the axis of goodness" was one headline.

Israel has had reason to worry about Iran and is opposed to any deal, though some Israelis, such as Ehud Barak, have emphasised that Tehran is not an existential threat to Israel.

Without doubt, a soft deal or a bogus deal with Iran would be a huge error, but a hard-headed deal on the right terms would be in the interests of everyone in the region, including Israel.

A Middle East without the threat of Iran armed with a nuclear weapon will be a safer place.

Even if a nuclear deal did not lead to any further improvements in Iran's relations with the west and its neighbours, a nuclear deal would still be worth having just for its own sake.

The absence of a nuclear deal would leave the west with a real dilemma about what to do about Iran's nuclear programme.

Military action would plunge the region into even more violence and a wider confrontation.

Further sanctions will lead to a dead end. Iran has survived much worse in the past.

There is nothing hardliners in Tehran would like more than the opportunity to rekindle the spirit of the Iran-Iraq war with calls for "the resistance economy".

The existing sanctions have hurt Iran but driven many private sector businesses into the arms of the revolutionary guards and massively increased the latter's power in the economy.

Iran has a bad record on human rights and Rouhani has had little impact on that. He is unlikely to make progress without a nuclear deal.

But Iran's human rights record should not be allowed to prevent a nuclear deal. The west did not hesitate to pursue detente with China despite China's equally bad human rights record.

Some say that Iran cannot be trusted and that whatever deal might be struck would not be observed.

Iran has in the past fully complied with the chemical weapons convention despite itself being the victim of chemical weapons used by Saddam Hussein.

The key to any nuclear deal must be the freedom of the international inspectors not just to monitor round the clock existing nuclear sites but also to make unannounced inspections of any suspected undeclared nuclear facilities.

Any deal must be structured so that an attempt by the Iranians to renege on their commitments and to "break out" to develop a nuclear weapon gives the international community time to take action.

At the moment, a big obstacle to a positive outcome to the negotiations seems to be the absence of agreement on what should constitute an acceptable scale for the Iranian nuclear programme.

Iran seems ready to mothball or disable some of its almost 20,000 centrifuges, which are necessary for enriching uranium.

But it is not prepared, as some demand it should, to irreversibly destroy what it has painfully and expensively built over many years.

There will have to be a compromise; the nuclear programme has popular support in Iran and is a source of patriotic pride.

In Iran today, as in China, the revolutionaries have grown old.

They now have a country to run. Their children look to the west and use social media.

Iran has a talented, educated population; more than half of university students are women. The country has changed and has the capacity to change further.

Given the upheavals of its recent past, gradual peaceful evolution is probably what most Iranians want.

A nuclear deal might help that change, but it would also certainly be a right outcome for the wider Middle East.

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