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The Iran Deal – If It Happens, It Should Only Be the Beginning of a Long Road

July 10, 2015


As I keep tabs on the painful crawl towards an Iranian nuclear deal, I can’t help thinking back to the relative simplicity of the bipolar geopolitics of my youth compared with the Gordian complexity of allegiances, competing interests, ideologies and covert agendas currently in play, most of them centred on the Middle East.

Consider the state of the Soviet Union and China 40 years ago. The only area in which the USSR technically matched the West was in weapons. Nobody wanted to buy Ladas, leaking washing machines or ill-fitting suits. China was mainly an agrarian society. Its state-owned industries were antiquated – rusting and inefficient. Nobody wanted to buy Chinese goods. But they had nukes and the ability to deliver them. Both societies operated more or less in isolation from the West. Their GDPs were a small fraction of the world economy, which was dominated by the US, Japan and the major West European states.

Today Russia is fully integrated into the world economy. The reluctance of countries like Germany to impose sanctions as punishment for Russia’s adventure in Ukraine was a reflection of the reality that to re-impose isolation on Russia would hurt the Germans almost as much as it would hurt Russia.

China too is fully integrated. It is the world’s second largest economy – or possibly the largest, depending whose opinion you listen to. Many of the world’s iconic consumer electronics brands are reliant on China to produce components or in some cases the whole product.

Because both countries have much to lose from a return to isolation – as do we in the West – globalisation serves as much as a brake on open aggression as does the ultimate deterrent – nuclear weapons.

It’s no coincidence that the two must isolated countries in the today’s world – North Korea and Iran, are considered the most dangerous. Why? Because cornered regimes, like animals, do desperate and sometimes unpredictable things. The sanctions formula includes the calculation that if you deliberately impoverish a nation, its people will eventually rise up and get rid of the government whose policies led to the measures in the first place.

That hasn’t worked in Iran, and nor has it in North Korea. Nor did it in Iraq. Nor did it in Rhodesia. Not much has changed in that respect since 1806, when Napoleon Bonaparte and his continental allies tried and failed to impose a blockade on Britain.

But sanctions can and do force regimes to the negotiating table. In the case of the current negotiations between the P5+1 (China, Russia, the US, France Britain and Germany) and Iran the main issue on the table is Iran’s capability of developing nuclear weapons. For Iran it’s the lifting of the sanctions that are crippling its economy and impoverishing its people.

The stated objective of the P5+1 – a grouping that 100 years ago would have been referred to as the Great Powers – is non-proliferation. From the point of view of the Western contingent within the P5+1, it’s bad enough that one dangerously unpredictable nation, North Korea, has the bomb, and that Pakistan, a country that has at various times over the past decade teetered on the edge of becoming a failed state, has many bombs. Iran is more predictable than both. Ayatollah Khamenei is not Kim Jong Un, and Iran has a far greater handle on its state apparatus than Pakistan.

But Iran’s activities in its back yard – Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen – which it sees as defensive, but which its local rivals consider part of a bid to achieve regional supremacy, are the reason why the P5+1 are anxious to do a deal. The alternative, they fear, would be countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt acquiring their own nuclear weapons capabilities.

Ultimately even that scenario might be tolerable were it not for the presence of virulent non-state actors in the region. Actors who would be only too happy to turn the nightmare scenario enacted in so many Hollywood movies into reality. One only has to look back at the chaos caused when the planes flew into New York on 9/11 and destroyed a few buildings to imagine the consequences of a nuclear detonation in the same city. Or in London, Frankfurt, Washington, Riyadh or Tel Aviv.

Those movies usually end with the plot being foiled at the last moment, or with the victim nation vowing to rebuild. If an American city was wiped out, it’s conceivable that the resulting wave of paranoia would trigger a set of measures that would make the Patriot Act seem like the work of Amnesty International. Finger-pointing at new axes of evil, enhanced surveillance beyond that seen today in China, trade barriers, the demand for self-sufficiency, immigration clampdowns, the marginalisation of minorities seen as un-American – all scenarios more likely than the redemption narrative in which weepy world leaders vow to work together to ensure that such an event never happens again.

Would ISIS, or some other organisation as yet unknown but with similar aims, be prepared to wipe out a city if the ensuing chaos weakened the globalised economy and created a power vacuum that brought its dreams of a sustainable caliphate dramatically closer? I suspect we all know the answer to that one.

Where would they obtain such a device? A.Q. Khan could probably answer that one. Pakistan’s peddler-in-chief of his country’s nuclear technology was not fussed who he dealt with. Even an impoverished pariah like North Korea had the wherewithal to buy what he was selling. ISIS are probably wealthier than Kim Jong Un’s cabal, so money would not be a problem. They would not even have to own or see the weapon. All they would have to do would be to contract out the job.

A Middle East with nukes in half a dozen national arsenals would be a dangerous place indeed. If a bunch of hard-core jihadists hiding out in camps and caves in the mountains of Afghanistan were destructive enough to embroil the US in a decade of draining conflict in Kabul, Kandahar, Baghdad and Fallujah, how much more threatening would be a nuclear-enabled Islamic State? It would be one more waypoint on a road to disaster.

This is not to say that Kerry, Zarif, Lavrov and the other negotiators in Vienna would be able to erect permanent barriers on that road whose ending lies just out of sight, but not far away. Even if an agreement makes it more difficult for Iran to weaponise its enriched uranium, or prolongs the amount of time it needs to do so, it will take many more agreements to neutralise the underlying cold war – and yes, it is a cold war, but it’s getting warmer all the time – that led to the sanctions in the first place.

Without a rapprochement between the players in the Middle East’s cold war – Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and its local allies – there will always be forces that will seek to exploit the divisions, whether or not the current bogeyman, ISIS, is defeated. And without that rapprochement those who feel most threatened will do what they believe is necessary to protect themselves in the long run. To reach a comprehensive settlement that sticks would seem to be an impossible ambition, at least without a road map that all parties could sign up to. But in a following wind created by a nuclear deal, their might never be a better opportunity to try.

So the discussions in Vienna should be the beginning, not the end, of a long road. And if the negotiating parties are unable even to take the first steps down that path, there’s another road with a mushroom cloud just beyond the brow that will keep getting shorter.

So yes, things are more complicated today. Probably more complicated than Nixon, Kissinger, Brezhnev and Mao Tse Tung could possibly have imagined all those years ago. More complicated and more dangerous. Which is why we should all hope that the initiative in Vienna ends in smiles and handshakes.

Otherwise, sooner or later, we might all be joining the Greeks as they face the prospect of surviving on vegetables and goats in their back yards.

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