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Facing the future

However symbolic,the Geneva agreement fosters a climate for conciliation.

Written by T P Sreenivasan |
Updated: January 10, 2014 12:17:32 am

However symbolic,the Geneva agreement fosters a climate for conciliation.

The anticipatory Nobel peace prize given to US President Barack Obama is finally being justified. The telephone call that he made to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last autumn came at the right time. It was the possibility of such initiatives — promised by him — that had prompted the Nobel committee to reward him even when he was heading an army that was waging two wars. His stance on Syria and handshake with Cuba’s Raul Castro reinforce that conviction.

Those who expected Obama to take Air Force One to Tehran and Havana to signal the promised change had no appreciation of the limitations he has to deal with. With multiple points of policymaking in Washington,no president can swing foreign policy in any particular direction. Congress,the think tanks,the press and the universities play their

own roles in policymaking. Even the most inventive president has to bide his time before making dramatic changes. In this case,the shifting sands of local politics created the right moment to strike for peace.

Many factors contributed to the auspicious moment when Obama picked up the phone to call Rouhani. Such a call could not have been made to the mercurial former president,Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,who had pledged to erase Israel from the world map. Rouhani’s arrival on the scene has made a big difference. He has made no secret of the fact that Iran could not have moved on economically with the sanctions in place. It takes time for sanctions to bite,particularly for a proud nation like Iran. Normally,the victims of sanctions put up a brave face,as we ourselves did in 1998,but on several issues,our hand was forced by the threat of continuing sanctions. For Iran,the lifting of sanctions became more important than sticking to its position,that it would continue to enrich uranium without restraint.

The shifting fortunes of nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster may have been another factor that influenced Iran. The renunciation of nuclear power by several countries has brought about a renaissance in alternate sources of energy. Iran,with its plentiful fossil fuel resources,may have thought it prudent to scale down nuclear activities and gain goodwill from the West.

The content of the Geneva agreement is more symbolic than real. Iran has agreed to give greater access to the International Atomic Energy Agency,promised not to enrich uranium beyond 5 per cent and decided to close down the plutonium facility. These are not irreversible. The West has agreed to a limited withdrawal of sanctions. Multilateral and bilateral sanctions are still in place.

In actual fact,the Geneva agreement marks only a ceasefire on both sides. Fundamental positions remain unchanged. Iran will continue to enrich uranium,if only up to 5 per cent,and there is no mention of the stock of highly enriched uranium in Iran. It is believed that Tehran was within six weeks of acquiring enough highly enriched uranium to make the first nuclear weapon. No one is sure whether the agreement will alter the situation. The US claim that the agreement has frozen the amount of enriched uranium in Iran has been questioned by experts. The US also believes that Iran’s right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is not implicit in the agreement.

The Israeli objection to the deal as a “historic mistake” may help keep options open if Iran reneges on the present commitment. The direct threat that Israel perceives in Iranian nuclear capability cannot be brushed aside by a temporary,and reversible,agreement. The immense influence that Israel enjoys in Washington will emerge in various ways in the Congress and elsewhere. The “non-proliferation ayatollahs” in the US have already declared the agreement a disappointment. “The prospects for pushing Iran six to twelve months farther away from a bomb option are hardly bright. The only way to dim these prospects even more is to kid ourselves about what has been accomplished. That must stop”,say Greg Jones and Henry Sokolski.

The US’s compulsions to seek a peaceful solution to the Iranian nuclear adventure go beyond a love for peace. As in the case of Syria,the US is no longer capable of unilateral action on matters of global consequence. The end of the unipolar world is already visible,with other powers beginning to flex their muscles. A war-weary people still facing an economic crisis will not allow their government to risk lives and property in another war.

Whether the nuclear ceasefire turns into a viable agreement or not,it has already created the atmospherics to end the impasse. India,for instance,is largely relieved of the pressure of having to demonstrate its attachment to the sanctions,while maintaining friendly ties with Iran. The earnestness that the two sides,particularly Iran,have shown in the negotiations and the reaction on both sides point to forward,rather than backward,movement. President Obama’s finest moment may be yet to come.

The writer,a former ambassador and governor for India of the IAEA,is executive vice-chairman,Kerala State Higher Education Council

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