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geneva talks

Meeting di Ginevra, Ottobre-Novembre 2013

The deal over the Iranian nuclear program sealed in Geneva on October 24, 2013 is valid only on a temporary basis and has to be completed in six months. It was preceded by a series of undercover encounters between American and Iranian representatives dating back as early as March. The U.S. negotiators were deputy Secretary of State, William Burns, the former director of policy planning at the Department of State, Jake Sullivan, several experts and Vice President, Joe Biden. The secret meetings were held in different Gulf countries (and especially in Oman thanks to the good offices of sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said) and possibly even in Switzerland. Only at a later stage, when the negotiations became official, did the United States involve the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany.

The do ut des

A positive acceleration in the development of the negotiations came from the election of Hassan Rouhani at the presidency of Iran in August 2013. Rouhani, deemed to be a moderate in the Iranian political landscape, had a greater inclination to mediation on Iran's nuclear program compared to his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The talks also had the blessing of Supreme Guide Khamenei, without whom no deal could have ever been reached.

The negotiations were played over two contrasting, yet overlapping elements: the Iranian commitment to renounce to nuclear weapons and Tehran's right to obtain nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. A narrow path between two adjoining activities, whose only element making them compatible are international inspections (that should not affect sovereignty). Negotiators will have to resolve these issues over the next six months.

As it stands today, the deal is still more of a show of intentions and reciprocal promises, rather than facts. In the give and take required in any compromise, U.S. President Barack Obama has personally played his role in blocking a request for new sanctions against Iran in the Senate (the suspension will last for the six months needed to close off the deal) and in obtaining the authorization to loosen them up a bit. The economic effect of the U.S. intervention is estimated in 4.2 billion dollars of oil sales for Tehran. The agreement authorizes the exportation of one million oil barrels per day, while Iranian daily production is 2.5 million barrels. If financial and banking sanctions are unaffected, several trade restrictions have been removed for cars, jewels, maintenance and spare parts of civilian airplanes. A portion of an estimated 100 billion dollars of Iranian frozen funds abroad have also been released to pay for student tuitions and humanitarian transactions. Overall, the loosening up of U.S. sanctions will allow the Iranian State to cash in 7 billion dollars.

On the other hand, the Iranian counterpart has given up on a series of requests pertaining their nuclear production: the blocking of the enrichment of uranium above 5% and the dismantlement of the sites where this was possible, the disposal of the enriched uranium stocks, the blocking of the production and installation of new centrifuges (and the reduction to 50% of their activity in Natanz and to 75% in the Fordow nuclear facilities), the halt to the building of new enrichment sites, the blocking of the production of plutonium at the Arak reactor and, above all, the unrestricted access to the nuclear sites by the IAEA, the international atomic energy agency, inspectors.

Besides from the negotiations' technical details, the deal over the Iranian nuclear program takes into account a series of concerns and, at the same time, leaves room for hope while keeping an eye on realpolitik.

benjamin netanyahu

Benjamin Netanyahu

The concerns

The first concern was from those countries wanting to eliminate the menace deriving from the Iranian nuclear program and that, at the same time, hoped to quell Tehran's aspirations with a military intervention that could have also, regardless of the nuclear issue, impacted Iran's strength.

This was Israel's expectation, the only country in the region in possession of atomic weapons, a military deterrent capable of preserving and emphasizing its security. It is for this reason that the first negative reaction to the Geneva deal came from Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel fears that the agreement between Tehran and the 5+1 Group (the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany) is more about diplomacy, rather then on effective means to verify whether the Iranians will actually put their nuclear activities to a halt. The Israeli diffidence and suspicion derives from their concern over the Shiites' typical art of dissimulation. The so-called "taqiya" allows the Shiites to conceal their religion and to show faithfulness to other creeds. Tel Aviv basically fears that short term political interests and goals have not taken into adequate account the possibility of an Iranian subterfuge.

It is evident Israel is also concerned about Iran's, whether nuclear or not, military power. It is not by coincidence that PM Netanyahu has recently often met the heads of security, intelligence and armed forces. The fact that Israel was not informed over the progress of the talks is a worrisome signal of a deteriorating bilateral relationship with the United States. It is no news that the Israeli Prime Minister and President Obama don't get along. This leads the Israelis to fear they could lose their status of irreplaceable pillar of U.S. foreign policy in the region. Benjamin Netanyahu has still managed to obtain something from the United States: his experts will be hidden in the delegations that will carry out the inspections.

As concerned is Saudi Arabia, and not only because of Iran's military might. The two countries are in the middle of a religious struggle for the supremacy over Islam. The Saudis host the sites and symbols of Sunnism, they are the country of Wahabism whose radicalism supports the Saud dynasty. On the other side, Iran is the cradle of Shiism. The fight for primacy between the two main currents of Islam goes well beyond disputes over doctrine or religious principles. The struggle is fought on the ground, in the balance of power and in the open or hidden threats both parties exchange. Tehran deters its foe by supporting the Shiite minorities living under Sunni monarchs in Saudi Arabia, Bahrein and in several other counties in the Arabian Gulf.

Also other international actors are concerned, especially the United States. As opposed to his warmongering predecessor, Barack Obama has always pursued a negotiated foreign policy approach during times of crisis. As is the case with Iran, his tools have been lengthy talks, wide use of diplomacy and sanctions. A necessary approach withstanding Obama's electoral promises that included a withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan and that could have not justified a direct conflict with Iran or a proxy war in Syria.

Along such a narrow and perilous path, Barack Obama has faced several hurdles in trying to play down Israeli aspirations. The U.S. President prized the lesson learnt from Libya, where the military intervention to oust Muammar Khadafi has done more harm (in terms of terrorism and social instability) than good. The fear of repeating, on a greater scale, the mistakes occurred in Libya is probably the main reason behind the Administration's support for the Arab Springs, even though - as in Egypt - it found itself on the wrong side of the barricade, and it's determined effort to avoid intervening in Syria (whose Geneva 2 talks will start off on January 22 2014). To wrap this up, Washington is interested in playing a role in the Middle East with more diplomacy and less weapons. Probably, as the Israelis fear, the U.S. are also turning a blind eye on the potential consequences of a deal that is far too wide and that does not guarantee an adequate control over Iran.

The Iranians are also concerned over a war that could see them on the losing side against the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia. The regime is currently at the mercy of internal power struggles and of a growing social discontent. The risks associated with an involvement in the region's several crisis have also increased (take for instance the recent attack on the Iranian embassy in Beirut on November 20 2013).

Another concerned actor is Turkey, whose main energetic supplier is, together with Russia, Iran. The Turkish need the resources to support their rapidly expanding economy. Ankara fears the effects that a conflict with Tehran could determine in the region. And there are already too many crisis along the Turkish borders, from Syria to Iraq, from the Kurds to Islamic terrorists' expansionism. Ankara also has no interest in Tehran becoming a nuclear power.


The realpolitik

Whether one likes it or not, Iran is a regional force to be accounted for. Its military is to be respected, it possess long range missiles, has money to spend (even to fuel Islamic terrorism), instils fear in the Arab world where it has gained a strong leverage and plays a key role in several of the Middle East's hot spots.

Iran is present in Syria, with whom it is bonded by a military pact, and no solution to the Syrian civil war will be obtained without the Iranians' approval. The deal over the nuclear program could pave the way to the Iranian participation in the negotiations between Bashar al Assad's regime and the opposition. If this were to happen, the chances of a success of the talks would rise exponentially. The downside would be the recognition of Tehran's preeminent role in the region (resulting in Ryad's and Tel Aviv's discontent).

The Iranians are also linked to the Hezbollah. The Lebanese faction is fighting alongside Assad's troops, they are at the warfront against Israel and are the main menace to the Jewish State's security, besides from playing a leading role in Lebanese affairs. For the transitive property, the stability of Lebanon, an escalation in the war on Israel and the fate of the conflict in Syria are all in the hands of Hezbollah, whose orders come from Tehran. Iran supplies the Lebanese Shiite movement with funds, weapons and anything else allowing them to prosper and strengthen themselves.

The same scenario renews itself with regard to the ties between Hamas and the Iranian leadership. Their common goals have lead to a supply of Iranian rockets and missiles, currently hampered by the reinstatement of a military rule in Egypt. The Iranians' long hand in the Palestinian issue postulates that a resolution to the conflict will not be possible without Iran's active participation.

Iran is also deeply involved in Iraq, where a new Shiite leadership has taken over in Baghdad following Saddam Hussein's defenestration. After ten years from the end of the war, the country is still ravaged by sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites. As an example, in October 2013 964 people were killed in attacks. A never ending bloodbath. Iraq is now a destabilized country, where social chaos reigns, at the mercy of feuds and terrorism. Also in this case, it will be difficult to find any solution without Iran's involvement. We should also keep in mind that the United States have decided to withdraw before social peace has been restored in Iraq. And this is yet another blatant example of a war waged for the wrong reasons and that has caused more harm than good. And yet another element in support of Barack Obama's negotiating choice.

With regard to Afghanistan, this is yet another country from where the United States will withdraw without having restored peace, installed an authority with real power and defeated terrorism. The U.S. will leave and they are in a hurry to do so. At least on the surface, Iran is not apparently involved in Afghanistan, even though it shares a 936 km common boundary, hosts on its territory 2.5 million Afghan refugees (800 thousand are officially registered) and looks upon the Shiite Hazara, who represent 20% of the entire Afghani population, with favor. Even though the Hazara have never played a preeminent part in Afghan politics regardless of their demographics, Iran has a potential role in Kabul's internal affairs if it decides to pull its weight.

Iran is also active with the Kurds, with a minority living on its national soil. The Kurdish galaxy is currently in great turmoil, with the Syrians pushing for autonomy, the Iraqis managing a State within the State and the Turkish split among those wishing to negotiate a deal with Ankara and those wanting a return to the armed struggle. The Kurdish issue still seeks a solution and could also become a source of increasing tensions.

Even though Iran has often been accused of fomenting a certain type of terrorism in the Middle East, an armed branch for wider political goals, we should also keep in mind Tehran is one of Al Qaeda's favorite targets and an archenemy in the feud between Sunnis and Shiites. A synergy with the West in the fight on terrorism could help defeat this menace.

Overall, having Iran on one's side and being able to exploit its influence over several crisis zones in the Middle East would today pay off far more than having them on opposite sides of the barricade. If we take this realpolitik approach, we can see how the nuclear program shifts from being a key issue, to being a mere collateral problem. This doesn't mean the United States and the rest of the world are not concerned about the possibility of Tehran obtaining nuclear weapons. On the contrary. But the opportunities offered by Iran's power and role are definitely important.