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The Iran Deal – Ultimately a Matter of Hit and Hope

June 30, 2015

Iran Talks

Events in Tunisia and Kuwait seem to have demoted one very important event from the headlines in the western media. Though you don’t see much coverage right now about the negotiations between Iran and the 5+1 negotiators – the US, Russia, Germany, France, China and the United Kingdom – very soon we will know the outcome. If a deal is struck, there will be much trumpeting on both sides of the game-changing implications.

Implications, yes, but not necessarily outcomes. Through no fault of Iran and its negotiating partners, constructing a deal that’s worth the paper it’s written on depends on much more than the clauses, sub-clauses, schedules and attachments that will be presented with much ceremony for signature.

I’m not privy to the issues they’re currently haggling about, but common sense suggests that if they’re following the classic strategy of focusing on mutual interests, the negotiators will have started by addressing the driving interests of all parties that lead ultimately to the small print – the needs rather than the wants. Not so simple when you bring future interests into the equation.

If you’re sitting on the P5+1 side of the table, first you will have calculated what are the interests of the current power elite. That is, if you can work out who holds the power – Khamenei and his religious establishment or the Revolutionary Guard. Are their interests aligned? To what extent?

Then you will need to work out what those interests might be with or without a treaty. What happens if Iran continues to be economically isolated from most of the world’s economic power bases, and how the balance of interests might change if the financial taps start flowing again.

Once you’ve done that you will need to think about the variables that might change strategies and attitudes over the next decade. Khamenei will most likely not be around. Each of the negotiating parties with the possible exception of Russia and China is likely to have a new set of politicians in the driving seat.

Will the entity on Iran’s borders with the current state of Iraq be subservient, friendly or hostile? Will the Islamic State be defeated? If so, will its full-on aggression be replaced by a low-level Sunni insurgency? Who will be in control of Saudi Arabia? How will Egypt’s present instability pan out? Will the Taliban be in control of Afghanistan, on Iran’s eastern border?

If those questions aren’t enough to be getting on with, what of Israel? Will Netanyahu still be in power? If not, will he be replaced with another paranoid, hardline leader determined to hold the line on settlements and willing to press whatever buttons are needed to assure the country’s future as the region’s only nuclear power?

Further afield, what will a post-Grexit EU look like, its borders under increasing pressure from the have-nots on the other side of the Mediterranean and its integrity threatened by malcontents among its members? Will Russia continue to pursue its desire for influence and possible territory in Eastern Europe?

It is all these questions and more that will have a bearing on whether an Iranian deal will deliver what the negotiators intend and desire. And of course few of them are remotely predictable unless you’re prepared to construct and update a huge number of scenarios, which no doubt teams of game theory nerds at the foreign ministries of many of the players are doing all the time. One hopes.

Which goes to show that the detailed negotiations currently taking place about the mechanisms of the treaty are the tip of a very large iceberg of calculation. Many of those mechanisms will be designed to satisfy the needs – and probably the obsessions as well – of the political elites and the neighbouring stakeholders. But maintaining face and being able to sell the deal to interested parties is one thing. Making it work over the long term is quite another.

The parties clearly hope that the treaty itself will help to re-shape the dynamic of the region, and thus put the optimum scenarios into play. This was certainly the case initially with the arms limitation treaties between the US and the Soviet Union. Yet Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev didn’t foresee how rapidly things would change after the collapse of the USSR, and not to the benefit of either countries. Did the US maintain scenarios that predicted that outcome? Quite possibly. The Soviets almost certainly did not.

The reality is that while politics is indeed the art of the possible, it also conforms to an old golfing term: hit and hope.

So if Iran and the 5+1 do manage to concoct a deal, it will be, as the US State Department claims, an event of consequence. But let’s not kid ourselves that any deal will be guaranteed to deliver the intended results. For that you need goodwill as well as satisfied interests. Plus a large dose of luck.

And unfortunately there’s not much goodwill flowing around the Middle East at the present time. That said, would a successful deal make the world a safer place? There’s only one way to find out. For sure there will be millions of Iranians – a hospitable, charming, inventive and smart people – who will be on the streets cheering. Whether they will still be cheering in ten years time is an unanswerable question.

But for their sake, I hope the negotiators can work it out.

From → Middle East, Politics, USA

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