The Iran Question – What Next?

by | Nov 16, 2013

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It is only natural if there is a sense of deja vu over the inconclusive end to the P5+1 and Iran talks in Geneva over the weekend – and of course its photo finish dripping with high drama. The United States-Iran standoff has edged tantalizingly close to resolution many a time in the past in its three decades of history but only to remain on track. 

This time around, however, there could be a qualitative difference, although the templates of an adversarial relationship hardened through decades cannot be made to shift easily, even with the best of intentions. 

The first thing, of course, is to comprehend what really happened in Geneva to dash the high hopes that were aroused. Different interpretations are available, but most accounts agree that France was at its epicenter. The French motives in apparently throwing the wrench at the wheel need to be understood. The French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius publically implied that Israel’s concerns were not adequately reflected in the interim agreement that the US, EU and the Iranian diplomats worked out. But beyond that, an impression has also gained ground that France was actually bidding to please Saudi Arabia and the other petrodollar-rich Gulf Arab regimes while ingratiating itself with Israel…

The latter interpretation cannot be easily brushed aside because France does have huge commercial interests in the Persian Gulf region be it in the field of energy, water desalination and electrical infrastructure, construction or weapon sales – and France is locked in fierce competition with the US and Britain in the Gulf Arab market for trade and investment. Right at this moment, for example, France is hoping to sell Rafale fighter aircraft jets worth billions of dollars, Areva hopes to build and operate nuclear energy plants in the United Arab Emirates, and French President Francois Hollande is embarking on a visit to Qatar next week. Qatar has invested an estimated $15 billion in France with shares in flagship French companies such as Total, Vinci, Legardere and Veolia. The French stance on Syria reflects the Saudi and Qatari concerns and priorities. 

However, what happened at Geneva was not entirely a solo act by France, either. It emerges that the US secretary of state John Kerry’s late-night meeting on Saturday in his hotel room with Fabius was a turning point. Simply put, Kerry fell in line with Fabius’s endeavor to reopen the text of an interim agreement that the Iranians had essentially agreed. The two key points that Fabius insisted on in the drafting of the interim government appear to have been the cessation of work on the Arak reactor, capable of producing plutonium, and, secondly, an end-state enrichment assurance. 

Iran, unsurprisingly, balked at the last-minute reopening of the draft and the protagonists parted ways in Geneva agreeing they will reconvene on November 20. Now, there is scope to speculate why Kerry didn’t show Fabius the door, pointing out that reopening the draft could turn out to be a deal-spoiler. One reason could be that Kerry indeed saw merit in what Fabius flagged, which had until then eluded the attention of American diplomats. But a second and more intriguing explanation could also be that Israel had by then raised so much dust over concluding any interim agreement with Iran at the present juncture that the Obama administration sought respite to circle the wagons in Washington first before revisiting the deal. 

Meanwhile, a real danger arises that the opponents of the deal could also build up momentum on Capitol Hill by exploiting the ten-day recess in the talks. The recess puts the Obama administration on an awkward spot of having to publicly defend the individual parts of a deal while it is still at a highly sensitive stage of negotiations, in order to rein in the US senate which is threatening to vote on new sanctions against Tehran (on the specious plea that there has been no deal yet and it is worthwhile to step up pressure on Tehran.) Clearly, this time around, Israel and Saudi Arabia are pulling all the stops to halt the momentum toward reaching any pact with Iran. 

The US senators are going to demand that they should be kept in the loop of the negotiations, whereas, such deals by their very nature require to be negotiated in private, especially when they involve seven world capitals as in the present case (Washington, London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Beijing and Tehran). From today onward, things will hot up in Washington as the House Foreign Affairs Committee has scheduled a hearing to assess the Iran talks. There is bound to be criticism that the Obama administration is trying to steamroll through a deal with Iran before the lawmakers and the public could weigh in. 

What lies next? The bad thing is that in diplomacy there is no agreement until one is actually signed and the US-Iranian intercourse is highly accident-prone. Second, the US’s key allies in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Israel, do not want a deal other than one with Iran capitulating in sackcloth and ashes – and these redoubtable allies are veterans in “filibustering” the US administration’s policies. Third, French diplomacy is notoriously selfish. Interestingly, President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron talked over things on phone yesterday and the White House readout said the two leaders “discussed their expectations for the next round of talks [in Geneva].” 

But on the other hand, the fact is that unlike at anytime in the past there is today a groundswell of opinion within the US establishment itself – including on Capitol Hill, the media and think tankers – that the Obama administration’s diplomatic effort to resolve the Iran question must continue. Therefore, even the congressional opposition may morph into an insistence on transparency. Interestingly, the Obama administration has so far been unusually forthcoming on its secretive rapprochement with Tehran. 

The point is, there is no more a “standoff” as such between Iran and the West. The striking shift in the tone of the Iranian foreign policy since President Hassan Rouhani’s landslide victory in June has registered in the western capitals and there is manifest desire to reach an accord with Iran. Iran is the last frontier in energy politics and the integration of its big market with the global economy looms large as an enticing proposition. Iran’s help is needed in calming the “hotspots” in the Middle East. Over and above, there is no more a “military option” as such against Iran while the plain truth is that the centrifuges at Natanz are continuing to turn. 

Equally, Tehran is determined not to let the momentum slip. It has broken through the “sound barrier” in Washington and is successfully getting its viewpoint heard and understood in the US for the very first time, perhaps, in a real sense since the Islamic revolution in 1979, and the American opinion is no more a captive audience for the Israeli and Saudi lobbying. Arguably, part of the reason behind the anger in Riyadh and Tel Aviv is also the frustration at the sound of Persian laughter in the Washington corridors and the angst that their capacity to influence the US policies could be steadily, inexorably draining. 

The Iranian diplomacy is highly sophisticated and is striving to sound rational and reasonable. Whereas, the maximalist Israeli line that Iran cannot have a nuclear program at all despite being a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty sounds obdurate and a path to nowhere. The Iranians are taunting the international community and making the Israelis to sound hysterical by their demonstrative flexibility and reasonableness. 

The latest evidence is the decision disclosed by Tehran on Tuesday that the United Nations inspectors can visit the Arak heavy water nuclear reactor even before the new round of talks with the IAEA on December 11. Tehran is virtually posing, ‘If Arak is your problem, we’re throwing it open.’ Fabius needs to come up with something better now.

Reprinted with permission from the Strategic Culture Foundation.


  • Melkulangara Bhadrakumar

    Former career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. Devoted much of his 3-decade long career to the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran desks in the Ministry of External Affairs and in assignments on the territory of the former Soviet Union. After leaving the diplomatic service, took to writing and contribute to The Asia Times, The Hindu and Deccan Herald. Lives in New Delhi.

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