And so it came, after years of protracted negotiations, extended deadlines and a diplomatic dance of unprecedented proportions – a deal that could signal a new era for Iran’s relations with the world. From media to academia, commentary ranges from cautious optimism to hawkish condemnation – but the historic nature of this deal is one thing that most agree on. Beyond the technical details of the agreement lies a triumph of diplomacy and the potential, if not for a realignment of US interests in the Middle East, then certainly a significant adjustment which has concerned its traditional allies in the region.
The deal came after what commentators cited as the longest continuous negotiations since the Camp David Accords were signed in 1979. The required patience and diplomatic nous needed to sustain this level of interaction was eased, in part, by the relationships developed between the chief negotiators during these marathon talks.
One thing that stood out in the negotiations was the seemingly good relationship between the chief protagonists, namely US secretary of state, John Kerry, and Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and also between other members of the negotiating teams. Zarif, a seasoned diplomat, was empowered more than any previous Iranian foreign minister to take charge of the negotiations, while deferring to the wishes of Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and his personal red lines for the negotiations.
Having previously acted as Iran’s ambassador to the UN from 2002-2007, Zarif proved to be a consummate diplomat, presenting a face of moderation and diplomatic maturity far removed from the revolutionary posturing of the Islamic Republic that has historically grabbed the headlines. Kerry also has a long and distinguished pedigree in foreign affairs, and like Zarif played the combination of candour and respect required in such delicate negotiations.
Their joint stroll through Geneva, and the numerous smiling photo-ops that the talks have produced between not just Kerry and Zarif but with the wider P5+1 representatives, show that a respectful relationship has been built up between the sides. This was borne out by Kerry’s very public offering of commiserations to Iranian negotiator Hossein Fereydoun (brother of Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani) on the death of his mother during the talks.
A further personal connection was re-enforced between the “number two” negotiators from the US and Iran, US energy secretary, Ernest Moniz, and head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Akbar Salehi. Both had connections with the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where Moniz had worked as a professor and Salehi had completed his doctoral studies. On hearing the Salehi had recently become a grandfather, Moniz presented Salehi with MIT-embossed baby gifts at the talks.
This is far removed from the mutual distrust and suspicion that has clouded relations in the past, and while the developing relationship was not supported by conservative factions at home on both sides, it provided the critical momentum needed to bring negotiations to a mutually agreeable conclusion. Contrast this personal chemistry with the frostiness that now characterises US relations with Israel, notwithstanding Israeli premier Netanyahu’s warm welcome among Senate Republicans, and one can see how priorities may be changing.
The successful conclusion of the talks has predictably left the other regional powers in the Middle East nervous that their one-time guarantor of security will now begin to work more closely with Iran on wider regional issues. Israel has been vocal in stating its opposition to any agreement, citing Iran as a continued threat, and Netanyahu has managed to alienate the US president in the process through an unprecedented intervention in US domestic affairs in his speech to Congress in March.
It was a seemingly desperate move by Netanyahu, but one that did not harm his election campaign which subsequently saw him return to power. The Saudis also voiced their concerns prior to the deal, with Saudi foreign minister, Prince Turki al-Faisal, stating that “whatever comes out of these talks, we will want the same” (meaning the same nuclear capability) – and also an excuse for taking a more assertive regional presence vis-à-vis Iran.
The skewed lenses of national interest that these two states used to view the talks, and their subsequent actions aimed at disrupting Iran’s coming in from the cold are indicative of two important, but apparently drifting allies of the US, chucking their toys out of the pram.
New posturing, new alignments?
It is no coincidence then that the positive noises that were being made in the build up to the deal were paralleled with moves to counter perceived rising Iranian influence in the region. Iran has benefited from the US-led campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan with increased influence in those countries, and maintains a strong hand in its ties with Hezbollah in Lebanon and the continued survival of the Assad regime in Syria.
The latest perceived threat has come through its alleged influence over the Houthi rebels in Yemen, although there is little evidence of how deep this influence actually runs, and the complexities of that conflict are not easily split into a Shia-Sunni dichotomy. However, Saudi Arabia happily drank the sectarian kool-aid and has been at the forefront of efforts to counter the Houthi advance in Yemen through its bombing campaign there.
Despite Saudi attempts to paint Iran as the real force behind the Houthi movement, it does not have the same strategic interests in Yemen that Saudi Arabia has, and its influence on events there is not critical. What this is partly indicative of is an attempt to counter the thaw between Iran and the US, but it has backfired in that it has a given a disproportionate level of influence to Iran that is not based on any reality.
This, and the recent call for joint Arab League military coordination, evidences the realisation that things could be changing and therefore states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt need to act in light of perceived decreasing US commitment to their interests in the region. Such an explicit adjustment of US-Middle East relations would be met with predictable opprobrium from hawks in US and in Europe – with the usual claims on Iranian human rights and support for terrorism being wheeled out, which when compared to the blind eye turned against the very same actions of their Arab allies smack of all too familiar double standards.
Kowtowing to the Saudi king
Granted, there are far more expansive economic and military networks between the West and their traditional Arab allies, but most well-informed observers of the Middle East will understand that hypocrisy runs through the heart of Western interests in the region. We see western governments kowtowing to the new Saudi king, the flying of the Saudi flag at half mast in the UK following King Abdullah’s death in spite of that country’s appalling human rights record and lack of control over its citizens in the fight against extremism.
We see how the retrograde dousers of the Arab Spring in the form of al-Sisi in Egypt and the Khalifa dynasty in Bahrain continue to be supported, how China’s leader is a welcome guest at the White House. Is it therefore time for western governments to stop pretending that they have any interest in promoting an ethical foreign policy? Of course, Iran’s record on certain areas may be unpalatable, but equally bad records across the region and beyond are routinely brushed under the diplomatic carpet. This is not a call for an unethical foreign policy of course, more a sad indictment of the current state of international affairs and the enduring power of national interests.
Despite attempts to separate the nuclear negotiations from wider regional concerns, the two can be linked. If this is a victory for pragmatism and diplomacy, then a new chapter can be opened in Iran-US ties too. This could lead to more explicit cooperation in the fight against Islamic State, a carrot tentatively dangled by Rouhani at the UN general Assembly in 2014. What it should also demonstrate to the rest of the Middle East is that despite entrenched misgivings, Iran can be a viable international partner.