Implementation of the interim nuclear deal has made normalisation of Tehran-Washington ties look possible.
January 20 marked a historic turn in the Iranian nuclear dispute. Based on an interim agreement struck between Iran and the P5+1 group last November in Geneva, Tehran suspended 20 per cent enrichment of uranium, a level that would enhance Tehran’s capability in producing fuel for atomic weapons. In return, the world powers would ease sanctions on some trade, which will considerably help Iran’s ailing economy.
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In light of decades of animosity, the latest halt of uranium enrichment is meant to build confidence before moving on to the next stage of negotiations, with the aim of assuring Iran’s intention of solely civilian use of nuclear technology. The agreement spans six months as top negotiators agree on a comprehensive deal that could eventually make sure Iran’s nuclear programme is limited to peaceful activities.
For Iran, the current nuclear deal is good for two basic reasons: first, the threat of military strikes is now diminished and second, some of the crippling international sanctions that have seriously hurt the economy, destabilising the security of the Islamic Republic, are for now halted. This is a major achievement for both Iran and its counterparts, especially the US, which has for the last 10 years failed to reach an agreement with Tehran.
In fact, one of the most significant features of the deal is that an agreement has been made in the first place, especially between two nations that have experienced decades of hostility and mistrust. The deal unleashes a new mood of excitement among Iranians that first became visible in the electoral victory of Hassan Rouhani in June 2013, when millions voted for a pragmatic president promising to solve Iran’s economic problems. Such a mood is mostly evident on social media sites that primarily reflect the views of younger Iranians, who make up the largest segment of the population.
Facebook, where thousands of Iranians communicate with friends and other users despite a government ban on the site, has provided a popular venue to express the new hope that the agreement will improve their situation. One Facebook user writes: “I am happy that the shadow of war hovering over the country because of the previous administration is (at least for now) gone.” Another comments: “A major victory for the Iranian nation and a huge defeat for the forces of irrationality, that is, the Ahmadinejad administration.” Some tend to praise the Islamic Republic’s pragmatism and argue how the government is keen on self-preservation, even if it has to undermine its own ideological rhetoric.
Not all Iranians, though, are happy with the deal. Pro-government hardliners, who oppose any compromise over the country’s nuclear programme, describe the deal as a “defeat”, comparing it to the infamous Treaty of Turkmenchay by which the Qajar dynasty gave up Iranian territories to the Russians in 1828. One hardliner warns the Iranian negotiating team: “Mr Zarif, the wolves sleep facing each other.” The comparison of the latest nuclear deal with wolves’ sleep behaviour is in reference to a poem by Rudyard Kipling, “The Law for the Wolves”, which depicts a code of survival used by the wolves in the jungles of India to protect themselves by not trusting each other. The best thing for Iran is to be alert while facing the other, bigger wolves that prey on its independence for their own survival in the jungle of world politics.
In truth, however, such hardliners are the very people who will embrace military conflict as a way to bolster their own ideological absolutism and secure their position in the jungle of Iran’s factional politics. They resemble hardliners in Israel and Saudi Arabia, who also see the nuclear deal as a threat to their own survival.
The deal is good for the US and other major powers because it holds Iran accountable for its nuclear technology by curtailing its uranium enrichment programme and allowing an enhanced IAEA inspection regime on its nuclear sites, while relaxing billions of dollars in sanctions. A war-weary US is keen on an agreement to leverage relations with the new administration, despite threats from certain conservative members of the US Congress to derail the accord. Secure in the knowledge that the US would not launch a military attack without first engaging in a tough negotiation process, Iran also wants an agreement in order to negotiate for the best possible deal to bolster its economic and political positions both domestically and regionally.
If diplomacy is the art of the possible for future peace, then last November’s deal in Geneva has opened up a new prospect in making sure such a future is realised. This new prospect hints at the possibility of Tehran and Washington normalising ties, severed since the hostage crisis in November 1979. More significant than any potential breakdown in future talks is the apparent tacit agreement between Tehran and Washington about what all parties are expected to achieve with the negotiations: a plan towards a comprehensive resolution of the nuclear dispute. If the political will for diplomacy continues to be maintained by both sides throughout the upcoming negotiation process, the chances of a peaceful future could one day be realised.
The writer is associate professor of communication, culture and religion, University of California, San Diego.