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United by IS

If a nuclear deal remains uncertain, future military cooperation between Iran and the US is even harder to expect.

Written by Ramin Jahanbegloo |
Updated: December 15, 2014 8:25:38 am
Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant. (Source: Photo by Reuters) Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant. (Source: Photo by Reuters)

Negotiations on Iran’s nuclear programme failed for the second time this year to meet a deadline for a deal. After a full year of negotiations, the two sides are still unable to bridge the gap on two principal issues — the future size of Iran’s nuclear-fuel production capacity and the pace at which sanctions will be lifted. As a result, the new failure of the nuclear talks with Iran leaves the process vulnerable to greater divides and suspicion between the two sides.

Not surprisingly, the US and its allies continue to suspect Iran’s nuclear work to be aimed towards producing a weapon, something Tehran has repeatedly denied. As for the Iranian conservatives, represented by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, they continue to be opposed to concessions necessary for a nuclear deal, and are wary of diplomatic and economic relations with the West once the sanctions are lifted. However, President Hassan Rouhani and his cabinet continue to see the bright side of negotiations and maintain their optimistic tone. In an address to the nation, Rouhani affirmed that the seven-month extension of the negotiations was a victory for Iran. Iran has agreed under the terms of this extension to stop all forms of enrichment, including laser enrichment.

The Iranian government has also promised to provide expanded access to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to existing centrifuge production facilities and to not install the IR-8 at the Natanz Pilot Plant.

This prevents Iran from developing another potential pathway to material for a weapon. In return for these steps, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) have agreed to continue providing Iran $700 million in its oil sale proceeds per month.

Meanwhile, the Iranian regime is emerging in the eyes of global public opinion as a stable regional power in the Middle East and a strong force for combating the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda and for restoring stability to the region and the broader Muslim world. As such, a last-minute nuclear deal could provide an opportunity for constructive diplomacy to replace the embarrassing chaos in the Middle East. In such an eventuality, the US will gain a new strategic breadth in the Middle East after disastrous outcomes in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Pragmatically speaking, Iran is the strongest military force in the Persian Gulf region to conduct a war against the IS. On another front, the Obama administration and the EU face questions over their ability to overcome Iranian-Russian business projects. Although Moscow showed its willingness to take part in a united front with the Europeans and Americans in the nuclear talks with Iran, there is no shadow of doubt in the minds of the negotiators that Vladimir Putin’s interest in defying Western policies in the Middle East is growing. A few months ago, Russia signed a $20 billion trade deal with Iran that will help Iran organise oil sales as well as “cooperate in the oil-gas industry, construction of power plants, grids, supply of machinery, consumer goods and agriculture products”. The Russian move is also a victory for Iran, which has been looking to boost its oil production in recent months, setting a new output target of 5.7million barrels per day of crude by 2018. This said, the Europeans are looking towards Iran as a potential gas supplier and an alternative source to Russia. Therefore, the chances of further international consensus on sanctions against Iran are slim.

However, what needs to be added to this picture is the larger domestic opposition to the nuclear deal in both Iran and the US. The Obama administration is now challenged by a Republican-controlled Congress that has the opportunity to weigh and veto any final agreement with Iran and also impose new economic sanctions. A future breakdown in negotiations with Iran could increase Congressional pressure on the US administration to bomb Tehran’s nuclear sites and cause a backlash by leading Iran to attack American interests in the region.

Any failure in future talks with Iran will also be considered by the Israeli government as a great relief, since Binyamin Netanyahu has often dismissed Iran’s argument that it has a natural right to enrich uranium. For the Israeli government, the absence of an agreement with Iran simply means the international pressure on Tehran would continue. While the leading Israeli lobbying groups in Washington push for new sanctions against Iran, those in favour of a diplomatic solution believe any new sanctions will not only sabotage the talks but also strengthen hardliners in Tehran, who oppose diplomacy and prefer accelerating the nuclear programme.

Such an outcome would ruin completely any hope of ending the destructive enmity of the last 35 years between the US and Iran. It would also destroy a historic opportunity for closer cooperation on the future of peace in the Middle East. With a nuclear deal, Iran will certainly be more prepared to join the US-led coalition against the IS and encourage its proxies in the region to turn their guns on the caliphate instead of provoking Israel. However, if a nuclear deal remains uncertain, future military cooperation between Iran and the US is even harder to expect.

The writer is Noor-York Chair in Islamic Studies, York University, Toronto

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