Mar 7, 2014
Iran Breakthrough a Triumph for Pragmatists and a Defeat for the Warmongers
Posted on Jan 22, 2014
By Juan Cole
Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial and idiosyncratic pronouncements made him easy to vilify on the world stage. Journalists frequently used a mistranslation of his quote from Khomeini that “the occupation regime over Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time,” incorrectly rendering it as “Israel must be wiped off the face of the map.” The latter makes it sound as though Ahmadinejad were on the cusp of rolling tanks against Tel Aviv, whereas he was predicting that the Zionist regime would go the way of the Soviet Union and collapse internally. Thereafter, Ahmadinejad’s repeated assurances that Iran has a no-first-strike policy, rejects aggressive warfare and does not want to kill any Jews (it has several thousand of its own, who have a representative in parliament) fell on deaf ears in the West.
By 2011, the U.S. Congress and the Department of the Treasury had imposed what amounted to a financial blockade on Iran. The U.S. strong-armed other countries not to buy Iranian petroleum, cutting exports by a million barrels a day. It severed Iranian banks from the international banking system, making it difficult for Iran to get paid for its oil by countries like India or South Korea. The financial sanctions caused the Iranian rial to collapse against the hard currencies, inflicting real pain on the Iranian middle classes. European concerns, such as the French automaker Renault, had to pull out of their Iran partnerships, suffering large losses. Blockades are acts of war and often lead to war, and the U.S.-led financial blockade on Iran was a standing provocation that, if maintained, could easily eventually lead to hostilities (which would suit hawks on both sides).
Many Iranian politicians were contemptuous of Ahmadinejad’s buffoonish pronouncements and populist exuberance, and blamed him for the sanctions regime. He was limited to two terms, however, and this past summer he was succeeded by Rouhani, a cleric who had conducted nuclear negotiations with Europe in the early 2000s. Rouhani had been a hard-liner but moved somewhat to the left over the years, seeking slightly more personal freedoms and wanting to break out of Iran’s pariah status.
Rouhani and his team are convinced that their original plan for nuclear latency and nuclear power can succeed and sanctions can be lifted, if only Europe and the Obama administration can be assured that Iran really does not want a nuclear warhead and is not an aggressive power in the region. They are confident, in short, that Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric and lack of transparency were the problems, not the program. Rouhani thus moved aggressively on coming to power to reach out to Obama and the UNSC. In the end, the negotiations succeeded not because Iran was crushed by sanctions and suddenly was willing to change policy. Rather, unlike the prickly Ahmadinejad, Rouhani understood that the sanctions regime was unpopular in Europe and could be undermined by simply being completely transparent about Iran’s real intentions, which were never to construct a weapon.
Even the tepid success of the negotiations so far has probably doomed the severe international sanctions regime. A hundred French companies are lined up to get into Iran, a country of 76 million with a gross domestic product similar to Poland’s. An attempt to undermine the negotiations by slapping more sanctions on Iran in the U.S. Senate may well have faltered, and the breakthrough Monday may anyway reduce its salience. The Arab Gulf consensus is also collapsing, with Dubai welcoming the end of sanctions on Iran, which will mean billions for its finance companies.
In the end, the negotiations were about how much lead time Iran will have to construct a weapon if its leaders abruptly decide the nation is existentially threatened. Remember that from the time George W. Bush announced at the U.N. in September 2002 that he was gunning for Iraq until the actual invasion was almost nine months. Iran can afford to have a relatively long lead time and still have the deterrence that comes with the Japan option. Rouhani knows this and is willing to see the lead time increased. By ceasing its enrichment to 19.25 percent and casting its stockpiles of uranium enriched to that level in a form that cannot be further enriched, Rouhani has sufficiently reassured the P5 + 1, including the Obama administration, such that they are willing slightly to reduce sanctions. The economic gains for Rouhani are minor, but the boosts in prestige and political momentum are huge. By his pragmatism, Rouhani is demonstrating to the hard-liners that he can achieve what they cannot—nuclear-generated electricity for the Iranian grid, a credible breakout capacity and an end to rigid international isolation. President Obama’s own pragmatic streak is also on display in these negotiations, and his goal of avoiding yet another Middle Eastern war is a step closer this week.
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